Monday, August 30, 2010

Summer 2010 Reading Spectacular #7

Reading right up until the last minute, I finished another book today. Not bad, since I started it yesterday.

It was the debut novel from George D. Shuman, 18 Seconds. The title refer to the approximate amount of time that something is held in short-term memory and, as a result, the duration of the final moments of a victim's life seen by blind psychic Sherry Moore upon physical contact with the deceased. Though the novel is ostensibly Sherry's (and three have since followed in the Sherry Moore series), the interwoven characters of the story are given their share of page space. (The book arguably belongs more to Lieutenant Kelly Shaughnessy -- a recently promoted New Jersey officer coping with office politics, a troubled marriage, and a pair of violent abductions on her caseload -- than to Sherry based on narrative focus alone.) The result is a satisfyingly well-developed story where police work gets as much attention as the psychic element. While certain revelations are less-than-revelatory, they don't particularly detract from the reading in any notable way. I good first outing for Shuman, and one for which he was apparently nominated for a Best First Novel award from the International Thrillers Association (didn't know such a specific organization existed) and for a Shamus Award (had to look that one up, too).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Summer 2010 Reading Spectacular #6

With this entry, I will be completely up-to-date with the summer reading spectacular, and with not too much time to lose as there's only a week to Labour Day!

I picked up The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, and subsequently discovered it was the first in a trilogy, so now I'm playing the waiting game until the second book comes out, and then it'll be all about whether or not to get it in hardcover or to wait until it's in paperback to match the one I've got. But, I'll happily deal with those dilemmas, because I really enjoyed the book! Sort of a revisionist vampire thriller, I found it slick, smart, and entertaining, and I could certainly sense del Toro's visual influence in the writing, and wouldn't be surprised to find this is adapted into a film at some point. I'm always intrigued with co-authored works, and would love to know how that collaboration operates on a practical level.

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen (can anyone confirm for me exactly how his surname is properly pronounced?) was the first adult fiction I've read by him, having read Hoot a few years back. After her husband throws her overboard from a cruise ship on their anniversary, Joey Perrone doesn't die as expected and rather than going to the police, decides to seek her own revenge -- and get a few answers to her questions along the way. The book is witty, filled with quirky characters (the bulky and shockingly hirsute bodyguard, Tool, is such fun to read), and a well-paced plot. Enjoyable.

Finally, thanks to Sarah, I have received some very useful (?) advice thanks to The Recently Deflowered Girl, illustrated by the incomparable Edward Gorey. Ladies, have you ever been deflowered by a marimba player and been at a loss for the correct thing to say? Then you should have had this book on hand! Hilarious fun.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Summer 2010 Reading Spectacular #5

Nearly caught up!

Starting off with some young people's literature, I picked up The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls by Elise Primavera because the inside flap read well, describing quirkily amusing characters and an odd little adventure involving The Wizard of Oz.

How disappointing, then, to get into the book and find it remarkably unremarkable. What showed promise in the opening chapters quickly degrades into one of those, "The author threw in a bunch of supposedly fun ideas and hoped to create a story out of them." The Oz connection is strangely corrupted, only marginally leading anywhere, since the girls end up in some un-imaginative alternative-to-Oz lands called "Spoz" and "Spudz" that lack any of the wit and charm of the Oz stories to which the author is ostensibly paying homage. The witches (with names like Cha Cha and Bling Bling -- seriously) are concerned with fashion, makeup, and cell phones (yack) and all-in-all, the book is just a mess. I was shocked to discover that it was a (reasonably) established author (which explained why a big, reputable publisher such as Harper Collins was putting this piece of garbage out there), but it made more sense when I realized that this was her first novel, having been known for picture books. Shock and dismay returned, however, when I heard that she was working on a sequel. Avoid this book, as I had to force myself to finish it just for the sake of finishing it.

More positively, I read The Boy in the Dress, by David Walliams, one half of the duo responsible for Little Britain. Walliams (of "I am a LAY-dee!" fame) even includes an author photo of himself as a young boy, complete with wig and gown, with his sister, proving that he, also, was a boy in a dress from time to time. This breezy little humourous tale took an afternoon to read and, despite the occasional comment for the adult reader, keeps the tale simple and clear. Dennis enjoys fashion secretly, the most beautiful girl in school finds out, and becomes his confidante and accomplice in discovering that he enjoys, on occasion, putting on a dress. Naturally, social disaster occurs. One of the enjoyable elements, I find, is that Walliams bucks the obvious explanation. Dennis just enjoys dressing up now and then. That's all it is. Deal with it. Ha!

Finally, for this entry, a friend of mine recommended Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle (a Canadian author, no less). An engrossing story of a burn victim's personal struggle to define himself with the assistance of a (possibly) schizophrenic artist, The Gargoyle kept me turning the pages, wondering how all of the stories within the story would be resolved and connected. The title refers to: (a) sculptures made obsessively by the talented young artist; (b) the disfigured protagonist; (c) the true character of the once-beautiful protagonist before his disfiguring accident; and (d) probably even more, to be noted on a second reading some day. While the "once he was made ugly, his inside had an opportunity to become more beautiful" theme isn't a surprising one, the journey of the two characters over the course of several or several hundred years (depending on what you make of it all) was certainly worth the read. Thanks for the suggestion, Rob!

That's it for now. The next time I update, I should be completely up-to-date, and just in time for Labour Day!

The 2010 Summer Screen Review (Part III)

Sonya very helpfully reminded me that we finished watching Season One of True Blood. What I am about to write may not make me popular (well, it might not if anyone actually read this), but I haven't exactly boarded the True Blood Fan Train and hugged the engineer. While the main story thread is intriguing and nicely developed, and the actors' performances are great, the show itself hasn't grabbed hold of me. I find that it suffers from the trap of several cable dramas in hitting the audience over the head with, "Look what we can do because we're on cable!" Sure, it makes the shows immensely popular with teenaged boys, but it's so deliberate that I find it distracting. In watching a commentary for an episode of Six Feet Under (see below), the show's creator makes mention of HBO saying, "Can you make this more f***ed up?" If that's not an indication of where they're coming from, I don't know what is. In theory, these cable shows are supposedly able to make the shows without the networks interfering and censoring so much, but obviously it's just a different sort of pressure at work. Just tell a story worth telling and I'll be happy. I don't particularly care if I see any other True Blood seasons.

I also finished watching Six Feet Under, season one, after the show was recommended by lots of people. Much more enjoyable than the aforementioned show, if you ask me, and even though I periodically find myself asking, "Seriously? Who does that?" the characters with all of their flaws are quite engaging and the storytelling's good. (And those fake dead bodies are top-notch! Ha!) Frances Conroy as Ruth (the mother) is fascinating. What a great actor!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Summer 2010 Reading Spectacular #4

Wow. I took a moment to actually see how much I need to catch up on and ... it's a fair amount. Let see how far I get now. In no particular order (because I can't remember in what order I read these), here are the latest titles from my summer reading.

Book sales are ... um ... dangerous. I love them -- don't get me wrong -- but for someone who already has a lot of books on the "waiting to be read" shelves, it's ridiculous how I allow those shelves to grow and grow and grow.

At one such recent sale, I picked up The Keeper by Sarah Langan just because it seemed to have potential and I'm happy to say it was a nice find. I've always found the idea of "horror" genre books odd, because I don't find them scary. Interesting, page-turning reads? Yes. But do I get scared reading them? No. And I didn't get scared reading this, either, though it falls into the horror genre, I suppose. A supernatural thriller, it focuses on a pair of sisters: one an elective mute with a reputation as the town crazy and her younger sister. When Susan starts appearing in the dreams of the citizens of the village, it's surely an ill omen, right? Right...

Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief (first in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) found its way onto my reading list primarily because it's popular with the kids I teach. So, dutifully, I cracked it and read it. Well ... while I didn't hate it, it didn't do what I hoped it would, which is convince me that it's not just a reactionary Harry Potter knock-off. Yes, there are obvious differences to the Rowling books, and yes, even the formula that she uses (a young protagonist discovers his/her place in a much bigger and supernatural world) has been around for a long time (see Susan Cooper's amazing The Dark is Rising sequence), so it's not like it began with Harry Potter, but in the end, The Lightning Thief just wasn't well-written enough to cut the mustard with me. There's so much telegraphing from chapter to chapter, from scene to scene that only children will be surprised by what happens. The writing itself isn't terribly sophisticated, so it doesn't elevate itself above its pulpy nature. It's fine. I understand why kids like it. It's just nothing special. For similarly themed books done better, see those mentioned above.

Another in the "Meh. I could take or leave it" pile is James Lecesne's Absolute Brightness. When Phoebe's flamboyant cousin Leonard comes to town to live with them, he starts affecting those around him in various ways, not all of them to Phoebe's liking. When he goes missing, he somehow manages to become an even bigger part of her life. The inside flap reads, "This is the story of a luminous force of nature: a boy who encounters evil and whose magic isn't truly felt until he disappears," and ... well ... that about sums it up. What's my problem, then, you ask? Well, it's such a book written to make a point (namely that point so succinctly expressed on the book flap) and it's all there to make the point. It's not a point that comes out of a story needing told, but a story told to make a point. It was no wonder when I got to the "about the author" and saw that the term activist was applied to him. Again, it's not crap, and lots of teenagers will like it because it puts a version of themselves on page, but it just doesn't come off as authentically as I would like.

Let's step away from novels for a moment, shall we?

The sensation which is Bone is a bit fascinating. The black-and-white alternative comics by Jeff Smith were not originally intended for young readers when they were published in the 90s, but with Scholastic's new, fully-colourized books, they've found a new life and an enormous new audience. Since the original series' story has been completely re-issued in these new editions (and were big hits), several companion books have been released. The lates is Bone: Tall Tales by Jeff Smith and collaborator Thomas Sniegoski are a collection of sort-of prequel short stories linked with a campfire story arc. As good as the original series? Of course not. Fine for what they are? Absolutely. It'll certainly be a welcome fix for kids I know who have read the cycle and hope for more from the world of Bone.

Probably my favourite magazine/periodical right now is The Believer, published by McSweeney's. This summer's issue (Number 73) is their annual music issue complete with a CD. What I like about The Believer is that it's essentially an eclectic mixture of non-fiction articles about topics that I (a) don't know much about, often, and (b) that I wouldn't otherwise read about (or think to read about). Where else would I read about MIA, the history of the drum machine, and the "slackness" of Lady Saw?

Okay. That's enough for today. I'll try and fully catch up by the end of the week!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The 2010 Summer Screen Review (Part II)

Having fallen way behind on this list as well as that of my reading, I figured I'd take a few minutes to quickly bring it closer to up-to-date.

In late July, Sonya sat me down to watch my first ever (as far as I can recall) Woody Allen movie. I went in with a little bit of trepidation (suspecting that Woody would bug me) and some hopes for enjoyment (since the movie of choice was Annie Hall, the one Woody Allen movie that I've wanted to see). Well ... I'm glad I saw it. While it was true that Woody himself did annoy me -- quite a lot, actually -- I did enjoy Dianne Keaton's performance and understand why it's such an iconic role in her career. So, I'm glad I saw it ... I'm probably done with Woody Allen movies for now, at least the ones that he's actually in. I could probably enjoy some of the ones where he's behind the scenes.

We also watched The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which I enjoyed thoroughly. While it's not likely to be everyone's proverbial cup of tea, it certainly had a nice blend of surreal comedy and fantastic visual style that appealed to me greatly. Their way of handling the untimely death of Heath Ledger was ingenious and worked well in the context of the story. There were a few points in the movie where I thought the pacing lagged a bit, but in light of the whole, the consequence is negligible. Very enjoyable.

On the home front, Sonya came my way and together we watched Whip It!, the delightful (if unsurprising) roller derby movie starring Juno's Ellen Page along with Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore (who made her directorial debut as well), Juliette Lewis, and other familiar faces. Again, it's not a revolutionary film, but it's good fun.

Later, I re-watched Die Hard with a Vengeance, the only Die Hard movie I've ever seen from start to finish. The only reason I've seen that one is that Sam Phillips, one of my favourite singer-songwriters, has a role as a mute assassin. Mute, and she still manages to be one of the more interesting characters in the movie.

Of course, I also spent a little time watching less pulpy fare, with Carnage, from France, being an international entry in my summer viewing. Essentially a character study in which we see the lives of several people linked by a single bull, killed and divided after it gores a bullfighter in the ring. That's right. Sunshine and lollipops all around.

And while watching foreign-language films from France, I also watched The City of Lost Children, borrowed from ... who else? ... Sonya. Also not to everyone's taste, but certainly to mine, this bizarre film about dream stealers (sort of) was visually delicious and suitably off-kilter for an evening's enjoyment. I'm a fan of Ron Perlman and found it intriguing that the poor fellow managed to perform the entire movie in French ... which he does not speak. Given that he was also surrounded by a French cast and crew, I'd love to sit down and discuss the experience with him sometime. Ha!

On the TV-on-DVD front, I've been very active. (Why not? There's nothing on television these days anyway. Add to that the fact that television episodes come in nice, digestible lengths and BOOM, I'm watching a fair bit of it.)

I watched the entire live action series of The Tick and found it quite delightful. Seriously. Patrick Warburton was pretty much genetically predisposed to this character in every way. It's a shame it didn't last longer, because its writing was witty, focusing mostly on the less heroic aspects of a less-than-heroic group of superheroes' lives.

I also enjoyed a trip back in time, thanks once again to Sonya, with the first season of WKRP in Cincinatti. What a great show that was. My joy was further multiplied when I realized that both the famous Thanksgiving episode ("As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!") and the Fish Story episide (in which Johnny Fever's reaction times miraculously improve as he gets more drunk) were both in the season. Hahaha! So much fun.

Later, it was off to the movies with Jackie and Jeff to see some goofy comedies.

Dinner for Schmucks was your typical frustration comedy, not particularly worthy of recommendation, but I didn't die either.

Grown-Ups featuring ... well ... most of the male cast of SNL from the mid-nineties. I'm happy to report that it wasn't as bad as I expected. Is it revolutionary? No. Is it more than a few fart jokes? Thankfully, yes.

Oh! And I almost forgot my most recent completion! The third season of 30 Rock! That show kills me to no end. Seriously. It's one of the funniest things on television today.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Summer 2010 Reading Spectacular #3

Continuing my catch-up on my summer reading, earlier in the summer I read David Almond's Clay. Like his Michael Printz award-winning Skellig, this book is a mostly-realistic character driven study with a dusting of the supernatural. In this case, an English altar boy becomes the reluctant accomplice of a troubled newcomer to the town, whose intricate clay sculptures may (or perhaps not) come to life.

A couple of quick reads came next. Mrs. Dole is Out of Control is part of a series of early "chapter books" by goof-master Dan Gutman. Essentially a silly little dessert book, I'm sure it's good fun for those just starting their novel-reading careers. I have a few of the series heading into my class this fall for that reason.

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman is a bit more sophisticated as a work of writing, but also taking a mere hour or so to read. Essentially this novella is a folktalesque little adventure featuring Norse gods and a plucky little hero named Odd. While it's nothing to be compared with Coraline or The Graveyard Book, it's a decent little read. Apparently it was written for World Book Day, originally.

Continuing (completely out of the order in which I read these books), I whipped through Thomas Lakeman's Chillwater Cove. Early on, I realized that this was preceeded by a first novel (The Shadow Catchers), but apart from establishing a few relationships which aren't particularly integral to this story, it was clear that this could be read on its own. I'm at a bit of a loss to write my thoughts. It kept my interest and had a lot going on, but perhaps it had a bit too much going on. Ever read something where the plot twists and turns seem a bit forced, as if the author was throwing too many socks into the laundry? I felt quite a bit like that once I reached the two-thirds point in the book. I still wanted to see where it all lead, but I was less interested in the landscape of the story along the way. Decent, but not exemplary.

Thus endeth this episode of Reading Catch-Up. I've still got a few more to chronicle before I'm caught up, but I'm getting there.