Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #15: Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

After that godawful Hercule Poirot novel, I had to put down the Christie for a while. I couldn't quite forgive her for that monstrosity. Then Murder is Easy appeared on my Amazon "recommended" list, and I figured I'd give her another go.

Murder is Easy is the story of Luke Fitzwilliam, a British MP retiring from service and returning to England. During his trip home, he is told a story of serial murder disguised as accidental deaths in an idyllic village. He doesn't believe it, but when the elderly lady who told him the tale turns up dead, he can't resist investigating. He travels to the village, only to be met by a puzzling mystery, eccentric villagers, and a beautiful but contrary young woman. He has to interview everyone, trying to decide whom he suspects--is it the humble country doctor? The occult-obsessed shopkeeper? The shady lawyer? The blustery bull-dog enthusiast? Someone else entirely?--and keep himself from becoming the next victim.

The story moved along quickly and was quite twisty and interesting. The mystery itself wasn't easy to solve--I got almost to the end before I figured out who'd done it--which was great, although the romantic subplot was a little forced. On the whole, it was a quick and engaging read.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #14: Hearts In Atlantis by Stephen King

Hearts in Atlantis is a collection of five stories, interconnected by characters and events. The first story, "Low Men in Yellow Coats" is the most "King-like" of the group--is is simultaneously nostalgic and creepy, a combination of the wonder of childhood and the darkness that comes with the loss of innocence. King's descriptions are as whimsical and interesting as ever, although the plot would lose something for anyone who hasn't read the "Gunslinger" novels.

The other four stories continue forward from 1960, watching a cast of characters weave in and out of the action, peripheral perhaps in one story, main characters in the next. The events span the course of 40 years, and the structure sometimes reminds me of IT, in that the characters are still being effected by barely-remembered events that happened in their childhoods.

On the whole I enjoyed the book, though it was not exactly what I expected. I would say it most closely resembles Different Seasons, in that the stories contained within run the gamut from extremely good to somewhat clunky and dull. I think in some places King was overreaching in order to fit the stories together. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to someone who prefers his or her books very plot driven, but it might be good for a person who enjoys reading for its own sake.

Cannonball Read 2 #11 - 13: Sookie Stackhouse 2 - 4 by Charlaine Harris

These darned Sookie Stackhouse book are worse than I first thought--they are NOT like pork rinds, they are like CRACK. I gobbled down three of them during the holidays and found myself raving and drooling until I broke down and ordered #5 - 7.

Sookie's life continues to get weirder--she discovers there are many more supernatural creatures besides vampires in the world, including werewolves, shape-shifters, maenads, fairies, and some she can't even identify. She travels around the south meeting the vampire king of Louisiana, a suicidal vampire, a werewolf biker gang, some religious fanatics, a coven of brutal witches, and even another telepath. She finds dead bodies, gets beaten up, dodges killers, has relationship problems, makes new friends, kicks some ass, and gets more entangled with her boyfriend Vampire Bill's sexy boss Eric than she'd like to be.

Each book is a fun, trashy, roller-coaster ride. The character of Sookie is well-defined, and as you continue through the series, the residents of the small town of Bon Temps--as well as the members of the local vampire community--start to become familiar friends. On the whole, these are fun, entertaining books. If it were summer I'd say they're beach reads, but as it is they are a great way to liven up a long bus ride or spend a few hours on the sofa wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #10: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

When I got this book, knowing it was written by Mel Brooks's son Max, I expected it to be funny. I started reading, and by the time I realized it was not going to be funny, I was already hooked.

The story of World War Z is written 10 years after "The Zombie War," and the character of the author (separate from the actual author) is travelling around the world gathering first-hand experiences from the war's survivors. He interviews people from all walks of life--doctors, politicians, artists, soldiers, members of the media, and ordinary citizens--about what happened to them and how they survived having the dead rise up to devour the living. He begins with a doctor who sees what may have been "patient zero" in China, then continues around the world, tracking the rising plague and the reactions of the world leaders, the "Great Panic" which occurred once the problem became to large to ignore, suppress, or cover up, through the first battles of the "war," and ending with the reconstruction phase as well as predictions for the future.

Max Brooks has done a stellar job with this book--it reads exactly like a non-fiction work, right down to the footnotes regarding films, books, political actions, and technology...despite the fact that none of those things really existed. His characters seem very real, and the actions of both regular people and governments all seem disturbingly plausible. Not all of his characters are great people--one is a doctor who performed black-market organ transplants, one is a businessman who made his fortune on a false "vaccine," one is a cold-blooded mercenary--but each has his or her own viewpoint and opinion to share. The book is incredibly detailed and realistic--after reading alone in the house one afternoon, I strongly expected to walk outside and see the after-effects of the zombie war.

This book is fantastic, but when I heard it had been optioned for a film, I was very disappointed. Hollywood is bound to screw it up because I doubt they actually understand it. Their first inclination will likely be to hand it to someone like Michael Bay and make a 2.5 hour action film out of it. Unfortunately, the Romero treatment--although fantastic in its place--will be exactly the wrong way to go about this. What it really needs to to be given to Ken Burns and made into a mini series (perhaps by Syfy...who despite their stupid name have done several things recently--namely Tinman and Alice--which have been very well done) along the lines of his "Civil War" series. The book is written not as a film but as a documentary, and that's how it would be better presented. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, I highly recommend this book to everyone. It may be a bit gory for those with delicate constitutions, but it's so worth it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #9: In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon by Joan Druett

In the Wake of Madness is another entry into my beloved maritime disasters series, though this one isn't necessarily a disaster so much as it is the tale of cruelty, mutiny, and murder on a New England whaling ship.

In 1841, the whaleship Sharon left Fairhaven Massachusetts under the control of Captain Howes Norris. A year later, he was murdered by three Pacific Islanders (who had joined the crew after unprecedented desertions throughout the trip) while the rest of the crew were out whaling. The third mate launched a heroic rescue to re-take the ship from the Islanders, and although that dramatic experience was widely publicized, little was said a the time regarding the reasons behind the murder. Racism at the time, as well as the traditional code of silence among sailors, made the easiest answer--the Pacific Islanders just went crazy because that's what "those people" do--the accepted answer. The author attempts to explain the murder by researching journals written by the crew, as well as combining other evidence to build a picture of a power-crazed, violent man who was frustrated by his failure to capture enough whales and haunted by difficulties on previous voyages. She posits that Captain Norris was killed because he terrorized his crew--going so far as to beat a young black steward to death--and because of their race, the Pacific Islanders had feared for their lives during some still unexplained confrontation with Norris. Although the full truth will never be known, since the only men who knew all died without ever confessing, Joan Druett does a very good job at presenting her case along with evidence that supports her theories.

On the whole, a good, well-written, well-researched book, but with nothing particularly spectacular to add to the genre. There is quite a bit of extra information regarding the whaling industry of the mid-nineteenth century, which is fascinating. I'd recommend it only to someone who is already interested in the subject.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #8: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Dead Until Dark is the first of the Sookie Stackhouse series, better known as the basis for HBO's show True Blood. I started watching the show earlier this year and became absolutely hooked on it. Dead Until Dark introduces the characters and the world (and is the basis for season 1 of the show.)

Sookie is a waitress in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. She is a pretty girl who lives with her grandmother, and is mostly normal except for the fact that she is telepathic. Being able to read the minds of others has made her life especially complicated, keeping her from being able to date or have any real close friends. In Sookie's world, vampires are real, have just come "out of the coffin" and are trying to join mainstream society. Most of them either drink synthetic blood or feed from willing hosts, however many "normal" people are still fearful or distrusting. One day, a vampire named Bill walks into Merlotte's, the bar where Sookie works, and sets in motion a series of events that will change her life forever.

To me, this book is the literary equivalent of pork rinds: They contain absolutely no nutritional value, are mostly air and fat, are embarrassing to be seen eating, but ohhh mmmm delicious...where did that whole bag go? This is a trashy mystery/romance novel with vampires--I'd guess it's like Twilight except there is a bunch of steamy sex and Sookie isn't a wishy-washy dishrag of a human. I enjoyed the characters and the settings, and I found Sookie's voice engaging (benefit over the show: you don't have to hear Anna Paquin trill "Biiiiiiiiiiill" over and over in a tone strangely similar to having a dental drill applied directly to your eardrum.) I am extremely anxious to get hold of the next books in the series and can't wait to read the further adventures of Sookie: Psychic Waitress.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #7: Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

This book (obviously) tells the story of the giant wave of molasses that swept through Boston's North End in 1919, destroying everything in its path and killing 21 people. Imagine 2.3 million gallons of molasses suddenly being set free in a bustling urban area...the wave was approximately 25 feet high and completely flattened several nearby buildings as well as taking down a section of the elevated train tracks.

Stephen Puleo clearly researched his work extensively--he takes the reader through the building of the tank (substandard materials, lack of supervision), the historical context of the time (labor unions, World War I, Italian immigrants, anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti), the tank's collapse and the effect on the mid-lower class Italian neighborhood, and finishes with the trial to determine responsibility and damages, which lasted for three years.

There are many interesting facts here (the historical context areas in particular) and it's obvious that Puleo was careful about checking primary sources and tirelessly documenting where his information came from. However, I think the book loses something from the human standpoint. Although at some points he attempts to add a more human viewpoint, the author's work often seems more like a well-written textbook rather than a book designed to be read. Having read quite a few of these disaster books, they tend to work better and be more enjoyable when the author focuses on the people involved in the events, rather than on legal wrangling.

On the whole, it's a decent read, particularly if you're from the area and are interested to separate the fact from the fiction of the incident.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #6: Under The Dome by Stephen King

Under the Dome tells the story of a small town that one afternoon is suddenly covered by a clear, near impermeable dome. The citizens of Chester's Mill are forced to cope with this situation, which is complicated by drug deals, rape, murder, and political struggle. The main character is Dale Barbara (called Barbie) a former military man who has become a drifter/short-order cook. He has to figure out what to do about the dome while trying to avoid the clutches of a power-hungry local politician.

The scope of this book is pretty large--aside from Barbie there are probably at least another 50 or so distinct characters, including members from both sides of the dome's conflict as well as "extras." It's a lot to keep a handle on, but King does a pretty good job for the most part. I'd say he did a better job with this same task while writing The Stand, but on the whole I wouldn't say it's bad. The main characters are fairly well-drawn, though the villain can be a bit cartoony. The plot rolls along pretty well, and I plowed through the (admittedly giant) book as fast as I could. I enjoyed it until the last 75 pages or so, where King just fumbles all the strings of the story. The admirable build he managed to keep up throughout the whole book just goes "Ppphhbbt" at the end. In fact, the genesis of the dome (and the way the characters deal with it) is downright stupid. Unfortunately, as much as I love Stephen King, I have to admit that he is shite with endings. Nearly all his books--from IT to The Stand to Christine--have somewhat stupid endings. He builds to a fever pitch, and then there's some stupid mega-alien-spider or a nuclear explosion and things end. Booo!

Despite my disappointment with the ending, I would say that this book is still worth reading. I found it entertaining to read, though it's not going to win any prizes. His style is still fun for me, and I thought the theme of "the politics of fear" (although he mentions that he started this story in 1976, it's clear the majority of it was written with a keen eye observing the Bush era) was interesting. On the whole, it's a decent read, and worth the $9 I paid for it, but it's not the novel of the century or anything.

(As a sidenote, I read someplace that Showtime or somebody is exploring a full-scale mini-series of the book produced by Spielberg, and I think THAT could be great, depending on who they get to write and star.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #5: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I was a little daunted by this book at first. The Hitchhiker's Guide is so well known and loved that I was a bit put off--I tend to avoid things that are very popular (that's why it took me 4 years to pick up a Harry Potter book and why it's likely I will NEVER read anything from the Twilight saga...well, the popularity and the fact that they sound fucking stupid...another discussion for another time.) Also, I enjoyed the movie a lot (I think I was one of the few people that did) and thought maybe that would ruin the book for me.

For those who don't know, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the story of Arthur Dent, an ordinary British man who discovers not only is his house being bull-dozed to make way for an expressway, but the entire EARTH is being destroyed (for an interstellar expressway, of course.) He is, at the very last moment, saved by his friend Ford Prefect, who turns out to be from another planet--sent to Earth to do research for the Guide. Arthur and Ford have a series of adventures, meeting up Trillian (a lovely girl) and Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the galaxy and idiot extraordinaire. They fly off in a stolen spaceship, trying to discover the secret to life itself.

The book is highly entertaining, in particular the "explanatory asides" were side-splitting. My problems with it are mostly the same problems I have with the Dark Tower series: The book can't really stand on its own. Nothing is resolved, there is no real ending--it is quite obviously part of a series, and until I get my hands on the next book, it's like reading half a book. There are also some points where the quirkiness borders on annoying, but Adams manages to reign it in just in time.

On the whole, I liked this a lot, and would recommend it. The copy I have was put out in conjunction with the movie, and has some very interesting interviews with the writer, producers, and actors in the film, giving a new perspective on the process of making the movie and how they each saw their individual roles. Quite interesting.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Open Letter (#6)

Dear Drew Barrymore and Jodie Foster,

Hi! How are you! Both of you ladies have been looking well lately, and your careers seem to be on track. Congrats Drew on your directing debut--I don't intend to see it, but I'm sure it's going to be great.

I'd really like to ask the two of you a small favor--could you please please take Lindsey Lohan under your collective wing and perhaps rescue her from her ever-twirling downward spiral of drugs and terrible leggings? I know it's a lot to ask, but I feel like of anyone in Hollywood, the two of you are uniquely positioned to get La Lohan back on solid footing. After all, you both have experience in dealing with families who are fucked up in a way only found in show business, and Drew could certainly explain why drinking and doing drugs at a young age will only result in poor decisions like showing your boobs to David Letterman. Both of you seem to have come through the hurricane of childhood stardom into relatively stable, productive lives and decent careers (although Jodie, let's face it, you are just doing it for the paycheck these days but that's okay--we all understand you prefer to have a more private life.) Frankly, I'm starting to get very worried about Lindsey--it's uncomfortable making fun of someone who appears ready to drop dead at any moment. Not to mention that I am very tired of seeing her parents everyplace (maybe you should try to recruit Angelina to your rescue squad; she seems to have experience dealing with a father whose idea of parenting is being a media whore.)

Thank you for considering this--I feel like Lindsey Lohan had some genuine talent, and watching her destroy herself for no apparent reason is extremely unpleasant.

Best wishes to you both!
The Caustic Critic

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #4: Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower 4) by Stephen King

Wizard and Glass continues the story of Roland the Gunslinger and his ka-tet as they travel across Mid-World toward the Dark Tower. After their troubles with Blaine the monorail in the previous book, they are stranded in a version of Kansas where nearly everyone has perished from a plague (King fans will recognize this as the world of The Stand, and will recognize Randall Flagg when he arrives to give our brave wanderers a hard time). While the ka-tet walk across the barren landscape, trying to find their way back to the beam, Roland tells them the story of his past--how he came to be a gunslinger, about the woman he loved, and most importantly, about when the world started "moving on."

This book is more of a classic fantasy story, and has more in common with George R.R. Martin than with Carrie. However, it is still full of King's lush descriptions and lively characters. I was somewhat disappointed to have to leave Eddie, Susannah, and Jake's part of the story, but at the same time it was fascinating to find out why Roland has become the way he has. And the group did leave the past for a time in order to meet with the Walking' Dude/Crimson King, which was pretty spooky.

Once again, I recommend this book to anyone has enjoyed the first three, but it's absolutely incapable of standing alone.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #3: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

So it only took me a week to fall apart on NaBloPoMo--I guess spending 8 hours a day sitting at a computer during the week makes me rather disinclined to do it during the weekend. Humpf.

Life of Pi is the story of Pi Patel, a young Indian boy whose father owns a zoo in India. His parents decide to emigrate to Canada, and set off on a ship with several animals they are selling to zoos in North America. One night during the crossing, the ship sinks, and Pi is dismayed to find himself stranded on a 26-foot lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a full-sized Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The story sets up Pi's upbringing in India and his experiences with the various world religions, but the majority of the book concerns his 227 day ordeal on the open sea.

I read this on the recommendation of a friend of ours--this is The Bartender's favorite book, and after he'd be raving about it for weeks, the opportunity came up for me to borrow a copy. First of all, the story starts out VERY slowly. It was a struggle for me to get through the first 70 pages, really. I am not big on philosophy or theology, so I had to force myself to keep reading. Once the shipwreck happened, however, and Pi was left to try and survive while handling Richard Parker the tale picked up speed. Unfortunately, the story comes to a rather abrupt and disappointing end.

On the whole, it was not a bad book--I'd probably give it a 3 out of 5. Many of Martel's descriptions are beautiful, and some of the writing is lovely. However, I was not nearly as impressed as I expected to be.

Friday, November 6, 2009

This American Life

Okay, I do not listen to NPR. I know I should--I know that it's probably full of really important things that would boost my hipster cred, solidify my proud liberal stance, and make me a significantly better person--but I just can't seem to do it. I have tried, I swear, but...I get so bored. When I listen to the radio, I don't really want to be edified. I want to dance around my kitchen and sing "Don't stop believin'!" at the top of my lungs or do a really embarrassing dance to Britney Spears. I am part of the generation about whom Kurt Cobain sang, "Here we are now--entertain us!" I don't know, I guess I feel the same way about NPR as I do about dark chocolate: there are lots of reasons I should like it, on paper it's perfect, lots of people I admire and respect like it...I just happen to hate it.

However, I thought maybe my problem was that I don't like listening to things. I can't listen to books on tape for the same reason: I can't focus. Perhaps if I watched the show it would be better. So the other night I sat down and checked out the first three episodes of "This American Life" via Netflix OnDemand (I have to say, as a side note--that service is pretty cool. Even though not EVERY movie and show Netflix has is available OnDemand, there are enough shows to keep you busy when you are sick of watching frigging sports). I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

The idea of the show is that each episode has some kind of theme. Ira Glass sits at his desk in some random location and explains to us in nasal tones what the theme is going to be and what the stories of the day are. It appears there is usually a short intro story, and then two longer acts to follow. They're like human interest stories wrapped up in philosophical musings and broader contexts. The story of the family with the cloned bull is not just about this one family and this one bull--it's about the ethics of cloning, about the expectations involved, and about how long you should wait before you admit that something you dreamed of is not going to come true the way you thought it would. The story of the elderly assisted-living home residents who wrote and produced a movie is not just about that group, but about the question of when is it too late to start life over? When do you have to give up on your dreams and resign yourself to the downward spiral of age?

On the whole, the show was interesting (if somewhat more depressing than I would have liked). I am not sure I'd say I exactly enjoyed it, but if the conversations I had with The Boyfriend later are indication, it's certainly an informative and socially conscious show. Like peas vs. potato chips, while "This American Life" is never going to beat out "Survivor" on my DVR rankings, I definitely think it'd be good for me to watch again.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #2: The Wastelands (Dark Tower 3) by Stephen King

The third book in Stephen King's Dark Tower saga continues the story of Roland the Gunslinger, Eddie, and Susannah as they work their way through Mid-World, trying to reach the Dark Tower. In this story, they add two more members to their ka-tet (group drawn together by fate). One is Jake Chambers--the young boy that Roland came across and then was forced to sacrifice in book one. They manage to pull Jake through the door again and into Mid-World alive. Also, they are joined by Oy, a "bumbler" (sort of a combination of a puppy, a woodchuck, and a raccoon) who becomes Jake's pet. The group sets off again in the path of the beam. Along the way, they run across a very nasty mechanical bear, come in contact with some of the very unpleasant remains of society, and spend some very very stressful hours on a monorail that has gone insane.

This is much better than the first two books because the finally starts humming along. It seems that the group is together for better or for worse and now they have begun their quest in earnest. I really enjoy the main characters, and some of the side characters were quite entertaining, including Blaine the monorail, the Tick-Tock Man, and "the Walking Dude" whom any King fan will recognize from his role in The Stand. It is in this book where it begins to become clear that all the Stephen King universe is tied together somehow, and the events in The Stand and some of the other books have threads that run through Mid-World, too.

I definitely enjoyed this and would recommend it, though it is absolutely NOT a book that can be read on its own. I'm really enjoying this series and can't wait to get to the next book.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Things I Love on TV

Warning: I watch a lot of TV. Probably significantly more than is healthy. Here are three things that I currently enjoy watching in no particular order.

1. PTI (Pardon The Interruption): This is a sports show that is on ESPN five days a week. The hosts, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (sports columnists) discuss the sports topics of the day in a timed format. They usually have headlines, a 5-minute interview with a guest, and some "games" (for example "Role Play" where they ask either other questions, and have to answer in the persona of a sports star or celebrity) or viewer mail. Both men are quite knowledgeable and also humorous. It's a great way to catch up on the important sports stories of the day while still being entertained. This is also one of the few shows that The Boyfriend and I both enjoy.

2. America's Next Top Model: Starbucks Queen and I are both obsessed with this terrible reality show brought to us by the largest ego on the planet, Tyra Banks. It has absolutely no redeeming social value, but every season is still hilarious in its formulaic stupidity. Besides, as I say every time this comes up, who doesn't like to see pretty girls cry?

3. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The Boyfriend dragged me to this show kicking and screaming, but I've come to find it increasingly hilarious. The characters (some 30-somethings and Danny DeVito) are some of the most despicable human beings--they are all really terrible people--but watching them do stupid things and be mean to each other and those around them is unbelievably funny. Danny DeVito is the most disgusting person on TV right now, and he's fabulous. It took me a few episodes to really warm to the show, but now I love it. The episode "The Nightman Cometh" (which the cast actually took on tour around the country during the summer) is quite possibly one of the most entertaining things I've seen on TV in ages.

In other news, I am very conflicted, as I do not want the Yankees to win the World Series (YANKEES SUCK!) but I am also very sick of baseball and want the damn thing to be over already. Boo.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cannonball Read 2 #1: Diary by Chuck Palahniuk

Diary is the tale of Misty Wilmot, a middle-aged woman living on a Nantucket-esque island called Waytansea with her pre-teen daughter and strange mother-in-law. Her husband Peter attempted suicide, and lies in a vegetative state. Diary is Misty's way of communicating with Peter, explaining what has happened since he became comatose in case he ever wakes up. As the story goes on, Misty makes several unpleasant discoveries; she finds that before his coma, Peter had developed a very disturbing habit of making rooms in houses he was remodeling disappear, her mother-in-law has some plans for her she may not be able to resist, and the history of Waytansea Island and its native inhabitants is considerably more upsetting than poor Misty would have guessed.

I love Chuck Palahniuk's work, though I understand it's not for everyone. His short, choppy, repetitive style strikes a chord with me--there's something very visceral about it. I like his odd little gimmicks--in Fight Club it was the Jack thing--"I am Jack's smirking revenge" while in Diary it's weather updates: "Just for the record, the weather today is bitter with occasional fits of jealous rage" for example. Some people think that's cheap or lazy. I think it's awfully tough to come up with so many of those. I guess the thing is that I think Palahniuk--though dark, grotesque, and disturbing--is utterly hilarious. Yes, it's like having to dig through one of those ball pits--ball, ball, eegh! Brightly painted dead rat! Ball, ball, twenty-dollar bill! Dead rat! Ball! Pan of lasagna? Dead hooker! 14 carat diamond! You think you know what you're getting, but the further you go, the less sensible things are outside of their context. Inside the context, though, they come together and make a weird kind of sense.

On the whole, I'd recommend this book, but only to people who already like his style. It's not probably not going to change any minds, but for those who know they'll enjoy the ride, it's a pretty great one.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Movies Movies Movies!

It was kind of a big movie weekend, because after the party Friday night, I was sort of blah for the whole weekend. I watched a couple movies, and figured I'd talk about them here for my post of the day.

Kung Fu Panda: I'm a sucker for movies like this, but the darn thing really WAS hilarious. The Boyfriend and I laughed until the tears ran down our faces, then laughed more. The animation was amazing, and Jack Black was really perfect for the role of hapless panda Po. Sometimes Black can overshadow the character he's playing, but here he was just awesome. I was also happy to spot the ever-delicioso Ian McShane as the voice of the villain. (I kind of wish I could get Ian McShane's voice as hold music--I am on hold a lot, and I'd happily sit patiently if I could listen to him talk about whatever. He could read the phonebook and I'd be delighted.) The story of a fat panda becoming a mighty warrior worked well, and the humor was good for kids, but adults will have no problem enjoying it either. Two thumbs up.

This Filthy World: John Waters's one-man show was also hilarious. He talks a lot about the making of his movies, his opinions on the state of the world, and general observations on life. It's probably not for the right-wing crowd (discussions of gay life, drugs, and rampant, deliberate moral corruption would probably give those people immediate aneurysms) but I thought it was funny all the way through.

An Evening With Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder: I have not seen the first Evening With Kevin Smith, though I have heard a lot of good things. I think he probably used his best material there, but this was still very funny if you're a fan. (If you're not a fan, you might as well just skip it.) This nearly two-hour show in Toronto gives Smith a chance to answer more audience questions and generally digress into various funny tangents. Although there were moments where it dragged a bit, or got a little uncomfortable, I mostly enjoyed it. His rambling explanation of watching Dora the Explorer made me laugh until I snorted. Jay Mewes also makes a cameo appearance, which made me squee. I wouldn't pay to watch it, but if it's free OnDemand or Netflix InstantWatch it's a good way to waste some time and have a few laughs.

Constantine: First of all, I have to point out that while The Boyfriend has a VIOLENT dislike of Keanu Reeves and all of his performances, I don't mind the guy. I think Keanu is very pretty, and while he isn't the best actor out there, it's not like he's casting himself in these movies, a la Kevin Costner. If he's miscast, it is NOT his fault. Also, the guy has had a kind of tough life (best friend ODs right in front of him, baby dies, fiance is killed shortly after in a car wreck) and I figure the fact that he mostly keeps to himself and behaves instead of being a giant Hollywood douchebag says a lot for him. That said, while this performance was not the best ever committed to film, and while there are probably several actors who could have done a better job, it was not awful. I liked the premise, and the climactic ending was pretty awesome. Peter Stormare is fantastic as the devil, and any time THE SWINTON appears I am always intrigued. Rachel Weisz was all right (though I am biased because I LOVED her in the Mummy movies) though when I saw Gavin Rossdale I was like "Really? There were no REAL actors available that day? Not a single lowly SAG member could be found to play the part?" On the whole, it's kind of a stupid movie, but no stupider than Max Payne, and at least Keanu Reeves doesn't come off as a tremendous asshole.

Smoke Signals: This is a movie about two young Native American men in the Pacific Northwest who go on a journey together when the father of one of them dies. It's a quiet little story. The acting isn't perfect, although the guy who plays Thomas Builds-the-Fire--the oddball of the pairing-- was excellent. Adam Beach, who played the more socially normal of the two, displayed considerably more range and talent than he did during his brief stint on SVU...which isn't a whole lot, to be honest. (At least he's pretty...) The story and dialogue are interesting, funny, and touching in places. It's the first film I've seen about modern day Native Americans, teenagers in particular. It's apparently based on a story by famed Native American author Sherman Alexie called "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven." Although it's not entertaining as much as thought provoking, and the indie-ness of the movie is more obvious than I'd prefer, I'd definitely recommend this one.

Also, the new show on USA--White Collar--is pretty good. I don't know who is running USA, but they seem to have figured out the perfect formula for light, fun, entertaining television. I mean, I love crime shows, but lately SVU seems to be gunning for some kind of "most miserable and depression show on television" award (along with giving Richard Belzer and Ice-T a criminally teensy amount of screen time), CSI is kind of a scattered mess, Bones is constantly being bumped for stupid baseball (it is ridiculous to me that ALL FOUR major sports are in season at the same time), and NCIS (which is a GOOD SHOW, PAJIBA OVERLORDS! HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO DEFEND IT! Well, not the new one with LL Cool J--that one sucks sweaty monkey balls) can't do it all alone. In the same vein as Psych and Burn Notice, USA has managed to make White Collar a pleasant, serviceable, and entertaining hour of TV.

For anyone who was wondering, I ended up going with Miss Piggy for Halloween. Although I wasn't entirely sure when I put it on, the photos are fantastic, and judging from the reactions of others at the party, I think it was a very good choice. :)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

NaBloPoMo and Milk

So it is November 1, first day of both NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month) and the first day of Cannonball Read 2. Unfortunately, I wasn't chosen to participate in the official CR2, but I'm going to do the unofficial version instead. There's a list of the unofficial participants (The Kids Who Stink and Suck at Kickball). I'm also going to try and manage NaBloPoMo, but I can't make any promises.

Friday night, I watched Milk, which I had been meaning to see for quite some time. I'd kind of been putting it off, since it's not really something The Boyfriend or Starbucks Queen would be interested in seeing. However, it was late at night, I was still too drunk from partying to go to bed, and it was on OnDemand. I'm glad I finally got to it.

The story of Harvey Milk and his rise to power in San Francisco in the 70s is an inspiring story. The man was determined to make a difference in his own way to try and help those who at the time didn't have a voice. I don't know as much about him as I feel like I should, but I'm glad I know what I do. The unfortunate thing is that people are STILL fighting for the rights he was trying to win 40 years ago. The gay rights movement today is very important to me, and it's disappointing that no leader has emerged with the kind of charisma and fighting spirit Harvey embodied. Although this week has been a good one for the movement (signing of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes act and the repeal of the travel ban for those living with HIV) the Anita Bryants of the world still seem to have more power than they should.

The film itself was well done, and the director made some strong choices. The use of actual news footage at a lot of points (Anita Bryant, for example) added to the realism for me. I also thought there were a lot of very good performances, including Sean Penn, James Franco, and Josh Brolin. I did feel like some of Harvey's personal character flaws were a little glossed over--his relationships with those around him often felt forced because we didn't really see why these people cared so much for him, nor were his romantic relationships fleshed out (despite the amount of kissing involved, which almost seemed more like a ploy than character development.) Also, the point where the movie started left a lot of questions unanswered and seemed to gloss over Harvey's closeted past. Visually, I was very impressed, but sometimes felt we were getting style over substance. However, I understand that generally a biopic--like a portrait--is going to make the hero look as good as possible.

On the whole, I think it was a great movie that people ought to see, if only for the (admittedly blatant) political message.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Halloween Interlude

So I am taking a short break from the Cannonball Read--this year's contest is over, the new round starting November 1st. I managed to get 55 books in since last December, which is pretty impressive. The new Cannonball Read goal is 52 books in a year, which I am quite sure I can manage. I've really enjoyed all the reading I've done this year, and I think the blogging has been beneficial as well. In the "things to look forward to for the next round" column, I am pleased that there will be new participants, including a much-appreciated fan of this blog, Doc Spender. I'm always interested to know what others are reading.

Right now, I am focused on the search for a Halloween costume. The Boyfriend and I have been invited to a party by one of our friends, and I am desperately trying to figure out what to be. It's a lot harder than it used to be, to say the least. Back in the day (when I was thinner and single) all I had to do was stick the adjective "sexy" in front of something and there we go. "Sexy vampire" or "sexy hooker" or even "sexy secretary." Now it's a little more complicated and I am a little pickier.

Optimum Halloween Costume is:

1. Comfortable. No hopping around with my feet bound together, or in a corset where I can't breathe or a skirt so short I can't sit. Also, considering the New England weather, layers would be nice. Last year's zombie soldier idea was great--cargo pants, cammo t-shirt, military sweater, and boots kept me snug and warm for all trips out-of-doors.

2. Interesting. I hate lame cop-out costumes along the Wednesday Addams "Homicidal maniacs look just like everyone else" vein. Also, I'm not a fan of punny costumes. Not to mention that this party is going to be full of creative artsy types, and I have to keep up.

3. Funny, Scary, or Witty. Ideally, I'd love to be some pop culture figure from movies, TV, or books. Something that maybe not everyone will get right off, but that the kind of people I like will either recognize or be delighted by.

4. Not ridiculously expensive or difficult to create. I am neither rich nor particularly craft-inclined. I can throw some things together, I'm all right with improvisation, and I'm decent at doing costume make-up.

The Boyfriend is going as Walter Sobcek from The Big Lebowski (an eerily accurate costume for him, looks-wise) and I think The Roommate is going as Robin Sparkles (HIMYM reference). I have been thinking over this problem for weeks, and have discarded several ideas for various reasons.

1. Bea Arthur: The costume would probably qualify for comfortable, but it's not easy buying a pastel caftan-type outfit these days. Plus, I doubt anyone would get it.

2. Character from True Blood: I love the show, but first of all, there will probably be a TON of True Blood vamps out there this year. Secondly, the female characters on the show are really not that distinctive. Sookie, when you get right down to it, is a blond in a sundress. I am not really built for sundresses, even if they WERE weather-appropriate. (I do look forward to seeing how many guys think they can pull off the Eric Northman. The results will likely either be hot or totally hilariously inaccurate.)

3. Generic 80s girl: This was a good idea until The Roommate decided on Robin Sparkles. We can't BOTH be 80s girls.

4. Maude Lebowski: The major pro for this would be that The Boyfriend and I would be thematically linked. Unfortunately, Maude's two major looks are either the dream-sequence bowling viking warrior (costume is much too complicated for someone with as little crafting talent as I have I think) or the naked-with-bathrobe, which is obviously unacceptable.

5. Super Villainess: Turns out there don't seem to be any super villianesses who don't wear spandex (which I am uniquely unqualified to wear). Someone suggested Dr. Girlfriend from Venture Brothers, but aside from the difficulty of finding a pink knit set and pillbox hat, it's likely everyone will think I'm some kind of weird butch Jackie O.

6. Daria: This would be comparatively easy, the only problem being that I'm pretty sure this has passed cultural relevancy, much like being Angela Chase or TLC.

So anyone who comes up with a good, clever, interesting, fun costume for a girl who is not interested in attracting new boys, not afraid to look a bit silly or scary, likes to be comfy, and is built like a Sherman tank with feet will get a prize.

Things I like: crime shows, Stephen King books, True Blood, Futurama, most pop music from the 80s and 90s, John Hughes movies, Jhonen Vasquez comics, Deadwood, Shakespeare, the Titanic (history of the ship, not that stupid movie), Muppets, Anthony Bourdain, the Civil War, Boston sports teams, the Sex Pistols, and cartoons.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cannonball Read #55: The Sinking of the Lancastria: The Twentieth Century's Deadliest Naval Disaster and Churchill's Plot to Make It Disappear

Written by: Jonathan Fenby


In 1940, the British troops were forced to flee from France upon the surrender of the French government. Many of the fighting troops had already been famously evacuated at Dunkirk, however there were thousands still left throughout France--communications officers, mechanics, engineers, supply depot managers, and other support troops--who needed to be moved back to England as quickly as possible. The British used whatever ships were available, including commandeered luxury liners like the Lancastria. On June 17th, 1940 thousands of soldiers, sailors, medical personnel, and civilians aboard the Lancastria were killed when the German airforce attacked and sank the ship. Although the official death toll was listed as approximately 3500, unofficial totals put the number killed at up to 6000, making the sinking of the Lancastria one of the worst naval disasters in history. However, it is virtually unknown because at the time, Winston Churchill decided not to release the news (he felt that public morale was bad enough, and another disaster would be extremely detrimental to the war effort) and then claimed that forgot to ever lift the reporting ban. There is a lot of historical context regarding the fall of France as well as the efforts made by the British to change the course of events in France.

The book is particularly interesting, since the author was able to interview many survivors and get many personal details about the events that occurred. The story is well-told, and it is clear that the author researched carefully. The memories of those who were there really personalize the story and make it accessible--as well as both tragic and funny.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this one and would recommend it.

Cannonball Read #54: The Wreck of the William Brown: A True Tale of Overcrowded Lifeboats and Murder at Sea by Tom Koch

In 1841, the packet ship William Brown, carrying a load of immigrants to the new world, hit an iceberg and sank--mere miles from where the Titanic would sink 71 years later--drowning hundreds and leaving the rest in a death-struggle on the lifeboats. The shocking part is that not a single member of the William Brown's crew perished, and in fact they tossed 14 passengers out of the lifeboats to their deaths for fear of "overcrowding," only to be rescued a day later. The book details both the history of the packet trade, the circumstances that led to the wreck, the wreck itself, and more interestingly, the scramble afterwards by the British and American governments to find a scapegoat to blame who would keep focus off the mutually profitable Irish emigration trade.

The machinations of both governments are nearly as appalling as the actions of the crew members who, in darkness, heaved defenseless passengers out of the lifeboats into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. It's a fascinating book, though it is not nearly as detailed as some other maritime disaster books due to the time period and the fact that the members of the crew and most passengers did not keep diaries or written records. However, Koch has been able to track down many of the legal papers and do an excellent job of covering the trial itself.

On the whole, a decent and interesting book, though nothing particularly spectacular in the genre.

Cannonball Read #53: A Furnace Afloat: The Wreck of the Hornet and the Harrowing 4,300-mile Voyage of Its Survivors by Joe Jackson.

Three shipwrecks for the price of one today! (I have some free time and am trying to catch up again on my blogging.)

A Furnace Afloat is the story of the clipper ship Hornet, which caught fire at sea, leaving its crew and several upper-class passengers adrift at sea in an open lifeboat for 43 days. The tensions between the crew and the passengers that nearly led to mutiny, the desperate fight for survival which included eating shoe leather and contemplating cannibalism, and their miraculous arrival in Hawaii to the delight of then-unknown journalist Samuel Clemens (later known the world over as Mark Twain) are all covered in the book. Jackson does an excellent job with research, aided by the fact that the captain, two passengers, and one member of the crew kept extensive diaries through the experience, and nearly all gave interviews to Twain, who documented the events in a career-making piece of journalism. Jackson also makes a point to explain the historical context of the ship's journey, the science behind the weather phenomenons the lifeboat encountered, and medical facts of the sufferings of the crew. It is a fact-packed and well written book.

Cannonball Read #52: The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower 2) by Stephen King

This second book in Stephen King's Dark Tower series suffers very seriously from clearly being a book in a series. The book feels very unfinished, which rankled me--much as it did with the Green Mile series, which I had to give up on and wait until the finished product was released as one book.

The plot continues the story of Roland the Gunslinger, fighting through a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to reach "The Dark Tower". In this part, he slips through doorways into other worlds, where he recruits (willingly or not) three compatriots to share his journey. I really liked Eddie Dean, a heroin addict from 1980s New York City. His character is interesting and entertaining, as well as providing an excellent contrast to Roland. The other two new characters are not as successful, though they definitely add something new to the story.

Stephen King's writing style is--as always--very enjoyable to me, though I know there are people who find him overly verbose. If you don't like his style in other books, you probably won't like him here, either.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading the book, though was extremely frustrated that I have to wait until I can get the third book to find out what happens next.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"You wanted a monster? Well, you've got one.": Death Race

Warning: Death Race is NOT a good movie.

If you are looking for quality cinema rife with complex cinematography, a gripping plot, extensive character development, or any sort of "overall message," just pick up your copy of Citizen Kane or something and get the hell out of here.

Then again, if you are looking for a balls-to-the-wall, totally nonsensical, loud, flashy, explody, poorly scripted way to entertain yourself on a long, dull, afternoon while stuffing yourself with cheezy poofs...you may want to check this out.

Jason Statham plays Jensen Ames, a former race car driver who finds himself at Terminal Island penitentiary. In the film, Terminal Island is famous for the "Death Race," a web-broadcast competition where prisoners compete in a vehicular battle to the death in order to win the chance for freedom. Jensen has to navigate life in the prison, preparing for the race with his new friends (including Coach, his mentor, played by Ian McShane) while avoiding both his dangerous competition and the prison warden (Joan Allen) who has plans of her own.

As I said, the plot is fairly stupid, and often sacrifices character and plot for explosions and gun battles. However, Jason Statham takes off his shirt quite a bit and snarls pithy witticisms in his sexy sexy accent, Ian McShane growls his own pithy witticisms in his own sexy accent, and there is a hot chick who doesn't really say much. Some of the car scenes are cool, though the film could probably have easily been stretched out for another half an hour in order to provide a little more context. On the whole, while I probably wouldn't watch this again, I sure as hell enjoyed it.

(I can't say how this compares to the original film, Death Race 2000 with Sylvester Stallone because Netflix has been unable to send it to me yet.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #49 - 51: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

I am not typically a big fan of fantasy books. I mean, I enjoy them when they happen across my path, but I don't tend to seek them out. This particular set of books I bought on a whim--the three books were being sold in a box set used for about $3. I figured I might as well read them--I greatly enjoyed two of the three movies, and these are my father's favorite books as well. It turned out I was surprised how much I enjoyed these.

The first book, Fellowship of the Ring, starts out very slowly. I was disheartened at first, not sure that I'd be able to slog through the whole thing if it all was as dull as the first few chapters. Luckily, once we got past all the descriptions of Hobbit social structure and Hobbit landscapes, the story began to pick up. Admittedly, nothing of real note actually HAPPENED until nearly 3/4 of the way through, but once the Hobbits got on the road and truly began their adventure, I got sucked in. By the time the Fellowship forms and sets out from the elven palaces at Rivendell, I couldn't put the book down. The second book, The Two Towers, was even better. There was more adventure, more battles, more characters. I loved the Riders of Rohan, and greatly enjoyed the battle of the Ents. There was a lot going on in that book, and it's definitely the best of the three. The third book, Return of the King, was good, but definitely became slightly tiresome as things wound down. Also, the last third of it is "historical footnotes" about the lineage of the kings of Gondor and such (not very thrilling reading.) On the whole, I thought these were great, and will likely read at least the first two again at some point.

Reasons the Books are Better Than the Films:

1. Frodo is significantly less whiny and annoying. Even though I like Elijah Wood and though Sean Astin was perfectly cast as Samwise Gamgee, I tend to fast-forward through the Sam/Frodo parts in The Two Towers movie because I find "fuckin' Frodo" unbearably irritating.

2. Arwen only appears, like, twice. I don't think she even has any lines in the books. She is certainly not having some wild horse chase. Since I hated her character in the film too, I was happy to not run across her much.

3. All of my random and picky questions were answered. I.e. If the 9 rings of power turned the kings of men into Ringwraiths, what happened with the Elves' and Dwarves' rings? (Answer: The Elves were too strong to be corrupted. Half of the Dwarves' rings were taken back by Sauron and the other half were lost.) Or why is Gimli the only Dwarf in the story? Where are all the dwarves? (Answer: Dwarves and Elves don't get along. Also, the dwarves live on the opposite end of Middle-Earth from where all the action takes place.) All those nagging little things that bothered me from the movie were neatly fixed.

4. The poetry is quite beautiful. There are many different poems throughout the stories, usually songs or legends the characters relate, often "translating" from other languages. For obvious reasons, most are left out of the movie.

5. Tom Bombadil. If you don't know, you're just missing out.

Reasons The Film is Better Than the Book:

1. Viggo Mortensen is pretty.

2. Sir Ian McKellan is just too freaking awesome.

3. Some scenes of excitement are added for effect. There are also dialogues that add to the story.

4. Viggo Mortensen is really pretty.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tidbits

It may be a while until I get my next Cannonball Read done, since I have tasked myself with reading Lord of the Rings. I am more than halfway through Fellowship of the Ring right now, which--after starting off fairly slowly--has become a lot more interesting. (I can see why the Tolkien purists got all pissed off about the movie, though. I love the movies, but they're pretty different.) I figure while you wait I'd collect a few thoughts for your amusement.

1. It took me all of five minutes to realize I was going to hate National Treasure: Book of Secrets, which I subjected myself to on Saturday. I'm pretty sure it shouldn't have taken me that long to hate it, but I like to give things the benefit of the doubt. However, once they screwed up the Lincoln assassination, though, nothing they did was going to be right so it didn't matter. Probably didn't help that the plot was one of the stupidest things I've ever seen committed to film. Did they let Jon Voight write that himself or something?

2. I watched the majority of Sydney White and was far more entertained than I feel I should have been.

3. Happened to catch Steel Magnolias on the WE channel. I don't know why I watch that movie--it always makes me bawl--but I can't pass it by if I see that it's on. I think it's just that I love Dolly Parton and Shirley McClaine. I feel as though lunch with those two would be the most hilarious meal of your life.

4. We are all VERY excited that America's Best Dance Crew is back on TV. I have been driving The Boyfriend nuts with my attempts to pop, lock, dip, tut, and New Jack Swing. (In case you hadn't guessed, I am not going to be qualifying for ABDC any time soon.) Starbucks Queen (our roommate) and I watch the episodes at least twice, and pay very close attention to the critiques. Also to what host L'il Mama is wearing, because sometimes her outfits are totally worth the price of admission (i.e. last season when she showed up for one episode in a bejeweled little hat, looking like a villainous stewardess.) The Boyfriend enjoys it because although it's a reality show, it showcases people for having talent, not just for being douchebags. Speaking of having talent-- Project Runway starts this week! Yaaaaaaay! And speaking of being douchebags...the new cycle of America's Next Top Model should be starting soon as well. Wheee!

5. And now for a new feature I like to call "Bork Bork Bork: Cooking with The Caustic Critic". This time, we're going with The Boyfriend's sister's taco salad, which is strangely delicious.

Dorito Chips (I used Nacho)
1 pkg Taco Seasoning
1 pound hamburger
Head of lettuce
Two tomatoes
Shredded Cheese or a block you can cube up! (I a block of sharp cheddar, but you could Monterrey Jack, too.)
Catalina dressing

A. Fry up the hamburger. Mix in the taco seasoning based on the taco seasoning directions. Allow to completely cool.

B. Cut up the lettuce. Quarter the tomatoes and remove all the seeds then dice into small pieces. Add the cheese. Once the hamburger is completely cooled add to the salad. Once you're ready to serve the salad mix in the Catalina dressing to taste. You can add the Dorito chips right into salad or you can serve it the way we do--take a handful of chips out of the bag, crumble slightly, and put on your plate as a bed for the salad. If you don't mix the chips directly into the main salad, you don't have to worry about the leftovers being full of soggy chips.

6. This whole insane heat-wave thing has got to end. I moved to Boston because I thought being several hundred miles north and near the ocean would mean cooler summers. Apparently I was the stupid one. I am now wondering how much a summer home in Svalbard will cost. I really need to make friends with someone who has a pool if this keeps going on...

7. Is anyone else out there watching True Blood? That show is f-ing crazy! There's always something going down, and usually they throw in a hot shirtless guy to sweeten the deal. Okay, yeah, the main character can be a little annoying, but with all that's been going on around her, who's to say I wouldn't be somewhat annoying in the same circumstances?

8. My therapist disappeared. I hadn't seen her since October, admittedly, but when I called the other day I got a "This phone has been disconnected" message. It kind of freaks me out.

9. I really just don't care about Brett Favre, okay? Would everyone please stop shoving him down my throat for five minutes? He should have retired three years ago--he could have gone out totally beloved and been a HERO in Green Bay. Instead he's this whiny, weepy jackass who can't make up his damn mind. Though who cares about my opinion--as far as football players go, if he's not Wes Welker I really don't care. (He's preeeeeeeeetty...)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cannonball Read #48: Fade Away by Harlan Coben

Fade Away is another entry in Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar mystery series. In this episode, sports agent Myron returns to the world of professional basketball in order to locate a missing superstar. Along the way he meets up with bookies, 60s radicals on the run, a semi-pro groupie, and some very unpleasant underworld characters as he tries to solve the mystery of a disappearance and a murder. He also gets serious with his girlfriend Jessica, comes to terms with the end of his basketball career, and finds out a dark secret from his own past.

The book is all right--it's funny and decently plotted. The characters are still very likable. I found the solution to the mystery surprising but not entirely out of left field. The only problem I had was the pacing: I felt that the story moved along almost TOO quickly. It seemed to me that things happened all of a sudden and there were points where things could have been expanded a little. I was somewhat disappointed that we didn't get to spend a little bit more time with particular characters or situation.

On the whole I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Coben's previous works with this set of characters.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cannonball Read #47: Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny by Mike Dash

Batavia's Graveyard is another entry into my "maritime disasters" series. It is exactly the kind of book I love--one that is full of heroics, nefarious deeds, and an overabundance of historical context.

The story is that of a wreck and mutiny aboard a Dutch transport ship in 1629. The Batavia, hauling a load of treasure to the Dutch interests in southeast Asia, ran aground on a series of atolls just off of Australia. While the head Dutch merchant and the ship's skipper left in a longboat to try and reach help in Java, the other 200+ survivors were left to fend for themselves on a desolate atoll without food or water--and as they were soon to discover, governed by a mad man.

The book mostly focuses on the escapades of Jeronimus Corneliesz, a lower-level merchant who takes the opportunity to use his charming (and psychopathic) nature to dominate and ultimately destroy the majority of the survivors left under his care. With a group of soldiers and sailors who had originally plotted to mutiny and steal the ship's treasure, Corneliesz begins to systematically murder the remaining survivors not allied with him, ostensibly to remove threats to his leadership and strain on the few available supplies. Soon, however, he and his men lose control, murdering and torturing in cold blood as a way to pass the time. Aside from a small group of men who end up stranded on a neighboring atoll, Corneliesz and his men are in complete dominance over everyone. In all, they manage to kill more than one hundred people, including women, children, and even infants. Eventually, however, the head merchant returns with help, and the mutineers are left to face the consequences of their actions.

Mike Dash's book is impeccably researched (and includes more than 100 pages of notes at the back with references and added information) and weaves into the narrative information about the political climate at the time, the ways of Dutch merchants, life aboard a merchant ship, the religious movements that had an effect on Corneliesz, medical science on board ships in the 17th century, and a general overview of life in the time period.

It is a gripping story filled with useful and fascinating information. I would definitely recommend it to any history buff.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cannonball Read #46: 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina by Chris Rose

Anyone who has been following this blog at all this year (and thanks to the two of you I know are out there--I definitely appreciate both your readership and your comments) knows that I have been fixated on disasters. Shipwrecks, fires, blizzards, floods--I've been reading about it all...but it's all been historical. In all the reading I'd done until this point, the most recent disaster was probably the Andrea Doria sink, which I believe happened in 1958. I like my disasters in the past, thank you; the older they are, the more comfortable they are to read about. Plus there's all that fascinating and previously unknown historical context to discover. However, I'd come to the decision that maybe these historic disasters were just a bit TOO comfortable. Maybe it was time for me to get uncomfortable. I saw Chris Rose on an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations reading snippets from this book, and it seemed like something I wanted to read.

1 Dead in Attic is a compilation of columns that Rose wrote for the Times-Picayune in the sixteen months following hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans. As a long-time resident and a newspaper reporter who chose to stay in the city and document the destruction, it is a heartfelt book. Many of the columns focus on the minutiae of life, and how even those tiny, normal moments have become something rare and precious in a city where nothing is normal. From his coverage of the immediate aftermath--riding around the city on his bicycle, crossing paths with other dazed survivors and trying to decode the spray-painted signs on the local buildings--to his opinions on the rebuilding and rebirth of the city he loves, Rose writes from the heart, trying to explain both to locals and to the outside world just what is going on and how to deal with it all.

I felt a little lost with this book, if only because one of things I love about the disaster books I have been reading is--as I mentioned above--the chance to learn about the historical context of the event. The problem here is that I KNOW the historical context because this was only four years ago. I watched this whole mess unfold on my very own television. It was both fascinating and surreal to read about an event I watched happen. On the upside, it gave me a personal perspective on the whole thing I couldn't get from CNN alone.

The book gets very dark, and this makes much more sense when Rose writes toward the end of the book about how he had slipped into a very serious clinical depression during the year following Katrina. He makes this story both intensely personal and universal, trying to combine the tragedy with humor and hope.

On the whole I thought it was good that I read this book, though I would hesitate to recommend it to those who are particularly sensitive. The writing is good, and I couldn't put it down, but after I finished it, I couldn't bear to anything but eat ice cream and watch cartoons for about four hours.

Friday, August 7, 2009

"Screws fall out all the time. The world's an imperfect place.": RIP John Hughes

I wish I had something profound to say about the passing of John Hughes. I tried writing something about how The Breakfast Club changed my life--about the character of Brian Johnson made me feel like someone out there actually understood what my life was about at the time: the nerdiness, the loneliness, the clubs, and the unbearable parental pressure to succeed and be the best. But it's hard to come up with something that will make sense to anyone but me. I can maybe explain why I loved it, but there's no way for me to make you FEEL the way I FEEL. I loved that movie. I wore out two VHS copies in the span of about five years--there were periods in my life when I watched that movie nearly every day, sometimes twice on weekends. I loved each and every character (it cemented my love for vulnerable bad boys, which also changed my life, though perhaps not for the better on that count.) I could recite nearly every single line of dialogue along with the film. Even though I was 14 and it was 1995, the feelings and situations applied to me and my life despite being written more than a decade before.

Although I also have deep affection for many of Hughes's other works, particularly Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club was my very very favorite movie from age 14 - 19, and is still among my top-ten all-time faves. I can't believe that Hughes is gone and there will never be another entry from Shermer Illinois. (Hopefully--death to anyone who considers remaking any of his legendary films...the last thing the world needs is S1xt66n Candlez starring Hannah Montana and Zac Efron with a Jonas brother playing Farmer Ted)

Thank you, John Hughes.
Thank you for Anthony Michael Hall in every role he played for you.
Thank you for "Danke Shoen" and "Twist and Shout".
Thank you for Robert Downey Jr. with a bra on his head.
Thank you for Long Duk Dong.
Thank you for Jake Ryan.
Thank you for some of John Candy's best and most heartwarming work.
Thank you for understanding teenage girls.
Thank you for Cameron's father's car.
Thank you for the last ten minutes of Home Alone, which Check Spellingmakes my father giggle like a schoolgirl.
Thank you for the flaming marshmallow on Mr. Wilson's forehead.
Thank you for making my family's Christmas seem not so deranged.
Thank you (sort of) for John Bender.
Thank you for the brain, the athlete, the basketcase, the princess, and the criminal.
Thank you for making being a teenager not suck quite so badly, for letting me know I wasn't the only one.

RIP

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cannonball Read #45: Odd Hours by Dean Koontz

I really liked the first book in the "Odd Thomas" series. I thought the second one was all right. The third tried my patience a bit...and this fourth one just sucked.

Odd Hours is the continuation of the story of Odd Thomas, a lowly fry cook who sees dead people. This particular story takes place in a pretty coastal town, where a mysterious pregnant woman gets Odd mixed up in a convoluted plot involving a small town sheriff, coyotes that are not coyotes, nuclear weapons (!), the ghost of Frank Sinatra, and a golden retriever. The plot doesn't really make sense at all, and feels almost totally unfinished...I understand the idea is that this is a series, and we are meant to be left anticipating the next book, but you have to tie off at least a FEW plot points. The side characters--usually the most charming part of the Odd Thomas books--are two dimensional at best, or (in the case of the mysterious pregnant woman) infuriatingly annoying. This wouldn't be so bad if Odd himself were likable, but really isn't; Odd Thomas is supposed to be some kind of quirky but mellow oddball who leads kind of a zen lifestyle, but really he spends far too much time whining about how he only owns one style of pants because--boohoo!--it would be too complicated to have to think about more than one style of pants.

I was extremely disappointed in this book, because as I mentioned before, I got a certain amount of enjoyment out of the previous entries in the series. I do NOT recommend this to anyone.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Cannonball Read #44: Lisey's Story by Stephen King

I have to hang my head and admit that I thought Stephen King might be done. I thought that after his accident his books had headed downhill and might not be coming back. I mean, Dreamcatcher was kind of terrible in my opinion. Then I read The Cell and thought that maybe things were improving. Lisey's Story made me sure.

Lisey's Story is the story of Lisa "Little Lisey" Landon, widow of famous author Scott Landon. Two years after Scott's death, Lisey begins trying to organize his papers. As she goes through his things, her past (and Scott's) begin to catch up with her. It turns out that there are dangers approaching from within and without, and Lisey will need help from her crazy older sister...and possibly from her dead husband.

It's kind of hard to elaborate on the plot much more than that, because it's such an odd book. To say much more would give away some of the surprise, and I would hate to spoil it even the slightest bit for anyone who's thinking of reading this one. I liked the character of Lisey--she had a strong voice, and seemed like a strong, likable female character. The other main character in the story is Scott, and he is also well-drawn. I thought the plot was tolerable. The main thing I loved about this was the literary gymnastics that I so revere King for. His use of words in both dialogue, narration, and description is fantastic. Some of the language can be a bit troublesome at times--sort of in the way that A Clockwork Orange can be troublesome--in that the character is kind of speaking in "couple language," the language a couple develops over many years, with special words and inside jokes. It may take the ready a chapter or so to truly adjust, but it is SO worth it.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this book and will most likely read it again. It's spooky, funny, and as far as I'm concerned extremely well-written.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #43: Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective by Jay Atkinson

This book was supposed to part of my July 5K, but I didn't get around to blogging about it on time, unfortunately.

The Winter Hill of the title actually encompasses the area where I now live, so the field trip portion of my 5K ambitions was pretty easy for this one. The church Joe McCain got married and got eulogized in is at the end of my block, maybe 60 yards from my apartment. The funeral home where his wake was held is across the rotary from where I wait for the bus every morning. The tiny Irish bar the author hangs out in with Joe Jr. is a place my friends used to hang out before it closed. The whole book is full of landmarks I recognize from my daily life. It's like being inside the story, although things are obviously significantly different than they were 40-odd years ago when Officer Joe McCain was walking the beat.

The loose framework of the book involves author Jay Atkinson spending a year working at a Boston detective agency founded by detective Joe McCain and run by his son. During the course of his work he learns about the criminal element of old Boston (the Winter Hill neighborhood in particular) and about Joe McCain's success as a police officer and detective keeping his streets safe. There are many colorful anecdotes about Officer McCain's experiences dealing with Irish mob kingpins and low-level con men alike, as well as fighting corruption within the police department.

On the whole, it's a good book, although it's extremely episodic and frankly a bit jumbled for my taste--there is no organization to the tales as far as I could tell, which often left me confused about when events had occurred. The character of Big Joe was well drawn, Atkinson letting the people who knew the man best tell us about him in their own words. I think the book could have been tighter and include more real information--it seems as though a lot of times the author relies on secondhand stories without doing any real primary source research. However, on the whole I would recommend it to people who enjoy police stories or are interested in the Winter Hill neighborhood.

Cannonball Read #39 - 42: Dennis Lehane's Kenzie/Gennaro Mysteries

Considering how much I enjoyed Gone, Baby, Gone (downer though it may be) I decided to go ahead and read the rest of Lehane's series featuring Patrick Kenzie and his partner Angela Gennaro. Starting with A Drink Before the War, and continuing through Darkness, Take My Hand and Sacred which all come before Gone, Baby, Gone and concluding with Prayers for Rain, I greatly enjoyed the entire series, though I found them somewhat mentally and emotionally exhausting.

All of the books center on mysteries that occur in and around Kenzie and Gennaro's home neighborhood of Dorchester, MA. Although I didn't find the neighborhood itself playing as much a part in the other books as it did in Gone, Baby, Gone, it did set the scene nicely for the violence and despair that encompassed the books fairly equally. The mysteries themselves were twisty and interesting, and most of the time I didn't know where Lehane was going until we actually arrived, which is nice for someone who reads as many mysteries as I do. I also enjoyed watching the gradually developing relationship between Patrick and Angie through each book, as well as seeing the progress of other repeat characters.

Taken as a set, these books--though often similar in feeling--don't fall into the trap that often occurs with series books...they don't begin to feel formulaic, the world of the novels is not like a sitcom, where everything resets and goes back to normal at the end. You can watch Patrick, Angie, and their friends change with the dark and dismal events in each book.

I don't think there will be any more books in this series--Prayers For Rain seems to finish things up for the main characters and leave them in a relatively good place--but I greatly enjoyed reading them (I chewed through all 4 in the course of one weekend) and would recommend them to anyone who enjoys mysteries and can handle some depressing subject matter.

Cannonball Read #38: Drop Shot by Harlan Coben

Drop Shot is the second in Harlan Coben's "Myron Bolitar" mysteries. To refresh your memories, my review for the first book in the series is Cannonball Read #32. Coben's wise-cracking sports agent Myron Bolitar is back and trying to solve another case that rocks the sports world.

While at a high level tennis tourney to watch his latest young client climb up the rankings, Myron is shocked when a former tennis prodigy who had recently tried to contact him is murdered in the stadium in front of at least a dozen witnesses who seem to see nothing. Not only does Myron want to solve the case because he feels guilty that he never got in touch with the young woman, but he also worries that this case may hit a little too close to home for his Nike commercial-bound client. Myron (along with his sociopathic colleague/best friend Win) have to navigate through the dark alleys of the pro tennis world, handling psychotic mobsters, slimy trainers, hyperactive ad executives, secretive families, suspicious stalkers, and many other odd characters before they can get at the surprising truth.

Although I didn't find this book as suspenseful as the first--the plot was a little more obvious, and I figured out the twist before the final chapter--it was still an enjoyable read. The characters of Myron and Win are still entertaining, and some of the female supporting characters got a little more to do this go-round. On the whole, I liked this book and would recommend it to a mystery fan with a sense of humor as a good beach/travel read.

Cannonball Read #37: Something's Alive on the Titanic by Robert Serling

This could have been an awesome book. It could have been creepy and weird and disturbing and downright scary. Unfortunately, Robert Serling decided not to go in that direction. Instead he decided to focus primarily on showing off all of his scientific knowledge about diving gear and less on making his damn horror book...scary. Or interesting.

Something's Alive on the Titanic is a story in two parts--the first is the story of a crew of divers in 1975 (nearly a decade before the real discovery of Titanic by Bob Ballard) who discover evidence that the ship went down with millions of dollars of gold bullion aboard. They decide to locate the ship and remove the gold. Unfortunately, a great deal of unpleasantness occurs (SPOILER ALERT: Giant shark! Giant squid! Giant primitive dinosaur fish! Inexplicable machine malfunctions! Hurricane!) which dooms their expedition. Twenty years later, the American Navy (along with the sole survivor of the 1975 expedition) set out to steal the bullion, and shockingly they run up against unpleasantness as well! (Oh noes, broken flashlights! How terrifying!)

The whole thing was kind of lame...when I read a horror story, I really don't need 6 pages on the intricacies of deep-sea diving suits. If I wanted to know about deep-sea diving suits or remote controlled submersibles, I'm sure there's a non-fiction book or Jacques Cousteau documentary or something I could watch.

My friends and I have discussed the idea of writing a "zombies on the Titanic" movie--I guess that's sort of what I'd hoped this book would be and was extremely disappointed. I don't recommend this to anybody, really, unless you are really REALLY into the Titanic.

Cannonball Read #36: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

I had been trying to avoid the Dark Tower series, and had managed to do so for...well, let's put it this way: The Gunslinger, the first book in the series, was published in 1982, nearly three years before I learned to read. Why have I been resisting the work of an author I usually unabashedly love? Surprising though it may be to the few of you that follow this blog, but I really do try to put a cap on my nerdiness. I am perfectly happy to admit that I read most of King's novels, but...a fantasy series? Really? I felt as though getting involved in the Dark Tower books would push me over into the world of Trekkies, fanboys, and people who dress up like wookies.

Fortunately for me, my undeserved prejudice was undone by a bus trip. Last weekend, I went to the North Country with The Boyfriend for his cousin's wedding. The bus takes about 4.5 hours each way, and when I was gathering reading material for the journey I discovered I was fresh out of books I hadn't read. Normally, I love re-reading old favorites, but since I started Cannonball Read I've managed to consume nothing but new all year. I discovered The Gunslinger sitting on a shelf amidst my rather formidable King collection--purchased for The Boyfriend who LOVES fantasy novels--and decided I might as well give it a whirl.

I am glad I did.

The story is about Roland, who is a gunslinger (sort of like a knight in his world.) He is on a quest to catch "the Dark Man," and is in the process of chasing him across a wide desert when the story begins. The plot winds a bit, and there are a LOT of unanswered questions throughout--it is clear this is meant to be part of a series and not a stand-alone novel. As the reader quests along with Roland, we slowly begin to pick up pieces of his past and about the events that led to the post-apocalyptic world he now travels. The book definitely achieves what King states in the re-written introduction he'd attempted: a book combining the fantasy and scope of Lord of the Rings with the dusty, dangerous atmosphere of Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy. Roland certainly comes across as an old-school Clint Eastwood character, but the magical, questing feeling of J.R.R. Tolkien's famous works is also well represented.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book more than I thought I was going to. In any case (much to The Boyfriend's delight) I think I will need to go ahead and purchase the rest of the series.

Looks like I am going to have to clear yet another shelf in my bookcase for the master of horror.

CBR11 #4:Pretending to Care - The Pretenders (Cemetery Girl #1) by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden

I wanted to like this, but...I just didn't. I don't know if it was too short, or whether it would have more appeal for a YA audience...