Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book Review: Personal Effects: Dark Art
Brinkvale Psychiatric Hospital ("The Brink") serves as the final home to many patients for whom any chance of recovery is slim to none at best. But that hasn't stopped resident art therapist Zach Taylor from discovering breakthroughs through his art techniques, such as finding clues to murdered victims in the stitches of Grace "Spindle" Spindler's quilts. When Martin Grace, a new patient, arrives at The Brink, Zach accepts the charge of trying to get through to him.

Trouble is, the new patient is blind. And, he's accused in the savage murders of 12 people, one of which happened to be his last doctor. Zach, however, believes the blindness to be psychosomatic. After all, Grace was nowhere near the victims when they died so how could he be guilty? Grace will have none of it, using his verbal attacks against Zach like a sword, trying to scare him off with talk of a Dark Man.

With the help of his adrenaline-junkie brother Luke and his goth geek girlfriend Rachel, Zach sets out to uncover something in Grace's past that could help break through Grace's hard exterior, in the process discovering a government cover up and something even darker, memories he tried to hide about a Dark Man in his own family history which potentially threatens those he loves.

Personal Effects: Dark Art takes the reader on a fantastic, roller coaster ride of terror, but with a twist. Included with the novel are "personal effects" from Martin Grace, such as his driver license, photographs, birth and death certificates, business cards and other items discovered through the course of reading the novel. At one point, Zach, Luke and Rachel examine an envelope found in a safe at Grace's apartment, but in addition to describing the photos found in the envelope, the reader has the envelope and can examine the pictures along with them.

Those aren't the only things: peppered throughout the book and the included papers are websites to visit with background on the characters and on The Brink, phone numbers and voicemail codes (some of which require a bit of gameplay on the part of the reader to uncover). All these enhance the total experience, and I found myself more invested in how the novel played out. Being someone who enjoys puzzles, searching the Websites or finding codes to type while reading added an extra thrill.

As for the story itself, J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman have crafted a fine horror/thriller that can stand on its own, without the "out of book" experience. Incredibly well-drawn characters -- Martin Grace's biting personality made me hate him instantly and kept that up throughout; I empathized along with Zach, wanting to help his patients while at the same time trying to keep his sanity; a devilish new monster that would make anyone afraid of the dark -- and an involving story made this a novel that I didn't want to put down. I had to know what happened next to the characters and some nights begrudgingly set aside the book so I could get some sleep.

Personal Effects: Dark Art represents an evolution in the novel, making the reader an active participant in the experience. For fans of the horror novel, this is definitely one you'll want to experience.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Book Review: Web Design for ROI

Last night, I purchased tickets online for a theatrical event. Yeah, I know, very exciting, but why I'm bringing this up is because of the checkout process. Thanks to the email from the theater troupe, I found the show listing with relative ease. But after selecting two tickets and clicking checkout, I was asked to create an account (or login if I already had one, which I didn't). Click the link to create an account, and an exasperating five separate pages later, I was finally able to order the tickets.

Lucky for the troupe, I really wanted to see this particular show, or else I would have given up the process long ago.
It's a glaring design flaw such as this that authors Lance Loveday and Sandra Niehaus hope to combat with their book Web Design for ROI. (ROI stands for "return on investment", or this according to Investopedia.) True, the theater probably does need all that information to process the ticket order, but a simpler process, something that takes into account the user and his/her reactions, would probably decrease frustration and increase online ticket sales.

Your company may have hundreds of fantastic products for which the public is hungering, but if the home page is too cluttered with information and images, or searching for a specific item turns into a hunt for Dr. Livingstone, or the potential buyer can't tell the "Add to Cart" button from the "Exit" button, then your site may not be doing its job. However, instead of spending thousands of dollars to re-design your entire site, Loveday and Niehaus suggest perhaps a little tweaking to the design, how pages are laid out, will show a quicker and better response.

Take into account your users. Most people quickly skim a homepage, looking for information important to them. Long paragraphs probably won't hold their interest so why not try headlines in a bolder type, stronger color and have the headline link to another page with that information or story. People also tend to read from left to right, top to bottom, so creating your pages with that flow in mind will make the experience a more pleasant one. Or, as a rebuttal to my ticket purchase example, give the user the option of creating an account or not. REI's checkout process does exactly that, and I can say from my own experience, I liked not having to create a password and enter account information just to by a one-time gift (for my brother since I'm the farthest thing from outdoorsy you could imagine). Design a good user experience, and the user is likely to return or to even recommend your site to their friends.

Web Design for ROI offers other simple, common sense techniques to re-work the design of a site to make it more productive and effective. For anyone who designs sites or has a say in their creation, this book would be an incredibly useful tool.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Long Beach Moment: Knobs

I hurried up the steps, unlocked the back door and rushed to the bathroom, sending a very quick hello to Caesar as I jammed down the hall. Inside the bathroom, Ipushed the door closed and the thick, crystal knob clanked onto the linoleum. I picked it up, started attempting to fit the knob onto the rod as the rod disappeared into the wood of the door. Shit! Caesar's two rooms away, but since I needed to go urgently, I did my thing, washed my hands, and retrieved the cell phone from my pocket.

Caesar laughed when I told him over the phone what happened.

Luckily, he didn't leave me in there all night.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: Conversations with my Elders
In 1986, writer Boze Hadleigh published a collection of interviews conducted with six major players in the movie industry. Well, not exactly interviews in the normal sense. Hadleigh didn't sit down to chat about the latest gossip or next movie project with his subjects, instead having something like conversations, as the title of the book implies. Very easygoing, relaxed, setting the subjects at ease. And he needed to keep them at ease for these six gentlemen shared something in common: actor Sal Mineo, director Luchino Visconti, photographer Sir Cecil Beaton, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director George Cukor and actor Rock Hudson were all gay and were forced to keep their sexual identities hidden during their successful careers. Thanks to their frankness with Hadleigh, each gives remarkable insight into the Hollywood system and how it affected their lives and their sexuality, whether it was contractual marriages (such as Rock Hudson's to secretary Phyllis Gates) or being removed from a picture (George Cukor's removal due to a rumored homophobic Clark Gable) or even having the freedom to openly tackle homosexual themes in films. I also found it interesting to see the split between nationalities -- 3 Americans and 3 Europeans -- and how the differing film industries treated the subject of homosexuality: the American/Hollywood system wanting to keep things quietly under wraps whereas the European system accepting it as a normal part of society.

Conversations with my Elders is a remarkable book that both film buffs and followers of gay/lesbian history will find beneficial and intriguing.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Image of Self

I've always held a bad image of myself. Since elementary school, when I never really fit in with my classmates: the chubby kid who liked music and reading, adequate in the advanced classes but never up to par with others in the class, trying hard to fit in but always failing. I still feel like that even now in my late thirties.

Today at my parents' house, my Dad cornered Caesar and myself, demanding a picture of the two of us together. "Isn't the one with the two of us and Minnie Mouse good enough?" Caesar reminded me it was from a little over a year ago. So we stood in their backyard, the view of the valley as a backdrop, and my Dad snapped a picture. There we were, two men with arms about each others waist, and all I could see was how fat I looked, like a bullfrog ready to sound a deafening croak. Without my goatee, no one would have been able to distinguish my chin from my cheeks or neck.

Later at the Irvine Spectrum, walking along all the high fashion shops with mannequins in far better shape than I can ever hope to achieve, wearing clothes that I will never be able to fit into, we stopped in Old Navy. I tried on a few pairs of jeans and thought about the shirts, until while looking at them, a pair of skinny queens walked into the area. I could almost feel the one next to me giving me the once-over before turning to the other queen and snickering as they moved to another section of the store. And hiking back to the car, I imagined the eyes of everyone deriding me because I wasn't thin or in shape like them.

I've tried diets and exercise. I've stopped drinking sodas, eating fried foods, cutting out candy and cookies. And occasionally the pounds take a vacation. But nothing lasts forever, and I find myself back in the self-loathing when I glance at the latest Frontiers with the hard-bodied model smirking at me from the cover.

I'm wondering if this constant struggle with weight is worth it when the results never seem to appear. Am I fighting a losing battle?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A New Book to Preview!!
After receiving Patient Zero and Hater from St. Martin's Press, I thought that was it for the advanced readers stuff. Maybe they didn't like that second review. But lo and behold, Caesar walked back from the mail box about an hour ago with a large brown envelope addressed to me. I saw "St. Martin's" and tore through the packing to reveal a new book to tantalize my taste for terror.

Personal Effects: Dark Art, from J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman, is an interactive, multimedia novel/experience, complete with phone numbers to call, websites to browse, personal effects like a driver license and hospital card, photographs, sketches, and a patient folder. Caesar gave the items the once over and immediately said the book was right up my alley. I'm such a sucker for this kind of thing. And I can't wait to get started!!!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Two Quickie Movie Reviews

Once again, I need to play catch-up. The week flew by after everything that happened Monday so I will attempt condensed reviews of the movies we saw over the weekend just passed.

Saturday's Movie:
After spending the morning hunting for Handy Manny birthday gifts at Toys R' Us, a trip to the comic book store and a birthday bash for Caesar's sister-in-law, we made the last matinée showing of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If you haven't seen it already, Wolverine provides a bit of background on James Howlett (a.k.a. Logan), beginning with his sickly childhood in the 1840s when he learns of his mutant abilities and throughout many wars including the U.S. Civil War, WWI and Vietnam, fighting alongside his brother Victor who is also a mutant. After being shot by a firing squad, Logan and his brother are offered jobs with a special agency of the U.S. government, and during one of these mission, Logan realizes the big mistake he made and leaves the unit, much to the anger of his brother and the others. The rest of the movie jumps forward a few years, where Logan learns that someone is killing the members of that unit one by one, and the government needs his help to stop whoever the murderer is. But to do so, Logan needs to have his body chemistry manipulated with a new metal called adamantium.

After all that story, the movie turns into a pretty good action flick. Both Hugh Jackman and Liev Shreiber are pumped and buffed to play the warring brothers, playing off each other very well and very naturally, and with the help of some decent CGI effects, their battles really come alive on screen. Plus, the addition of an actual subplot within all the action does make this more than just an average superhero picture. The film isn't without its problems -- like predictability with the character of Colonel Stryker and a few bad special effects scenes (Charles Xavier, for example). But we both enjoyed it for what it was and weren't expecting much depth.

And yes, we stuck around for the tag ending after the credits. I've heard rumors that two tag ending were created, but I won't divulge which one we saw.

Sunday's Movie
We spent Sunday morning sitting curbside to watch the Long Beach Pride Parade then lounged around the apartment until time to head for a special sneak preview of the upcoming Forever Plaid: The Movie. The screening doubled as a fundraiser for Musical Theatre West, which brought with it a Q&A session and a few songs with the film's cast. Speaking of which, three of the original Plaids revived their roles for the screen version -- Stan Chandler, David Engel and Larry Raben -- with the newest Plaid played by Daniel Reichard (who originated the role of Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys). Together, they told the story of the Plaids who, while driving to their first big show, were run off a cliff by a busload of parochial school virgins. Some time in the future, they were being given the opportunity to perform that final show for a live audience with the hope of earning their Plaid tuxedo jackets and passage from limbo into whatever lies beyond.

The version of the movie we saw was unfinished, still requiring some editing and special effects and sound mixing, but what fun it was! People laughed heartily and clapped after every number and even during the earthquake no one wanted to leave their seats. (We eventually did, but only because one of the large, heavy acoustic tiles attached to the wall had shaken loose.) And after the film, the four actors treated the audience to a few songs with distinctly Plaid touches: Lavabo, a swinging comic take on The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, and a surprisingly hysterical take on Memory from Cats.

During the Q&A, the actors told us that the film was originally headed directly to DVD, but Fathom Events swooped in for a special, one-night-only screening on July 9 before it heads to DVD. Go Plaids!!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Consultation
I met with the cardiologist yesterday for an initial consultation. We went over the reports from the E/R: chest x-ray clear; blood tests clear (during a heart attack, the muscle releases an enzyme called creatine phosphokinase and a protein called troponin; low levels may signify no heart attack); the EKG clear. For all intents and purposes, I didn't have a heart attack; however, heart attacks, high blood pressure and high cholesterol run in my family so we scheduled the stress test for two weeks. Not only will I be put on a treadmill but will also undergo an ultrasound and a CT scan of my heart to look for any damage, plaque or clogged arteries. The entire series of tests should last roughly 2-1/2 hours.

Beforehand, I am not to do any strenuous exercise, I am to fast for at least 6 hours prior to the treadmill test, I must avoid caffeine for 24 hours prior. That means....no chocolate. Drat!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: Orlando Furioso

Yet another catch-up book review post. I seem to be finishing more and more books, but am falling behind somehow!!
The brave and handsome Orlando leaves Charlemagne's campaign in France to find his true love, the beautiful Angelica, who was being held by the Duke of Bavaria at the behest of Charlemagne who doesn't approve of the love between Orlando and Angelica. While Orlando is en route to find her, his cousin Rinaldo discovers that she has escaped from the Duke and comes across her in a woods. He tries to pursue the fleeing maiden, with whom he has fallen in love at first sight, but his horse takes another path, and he follows trying to catch the beast. Meanwhile, the maiden Bradamante disguises herself as a knight in order to find her true love Ruggiero, an African knight trapped by an evil sorceress in a magic castle.

And that's just for starters.

The tale follows each of these characters, switching back and forth, weaving in more and more characters (including Merlin), confounding and confusing the story more and more with each new twist in the tale. By the time I thought I'd finally caught onto a bit of the story, the narrator tells the reader that he is going to leave those characters and describe the events of another, and by the end, I finally didn't care much what was happening to whom. Don't get me wrong; I usually enjoy these types of multiple-stories-in-one, but I couldn't keep track of who was who and more than once mixed up which character was where. Orlando Furioso read like a Renaissance soap opera, with all the men being incredibly, ruggedly handsome and chivalrous, and all the women miraculously fair of face, so much so that men fall hopelessly in love with a single glance. The good are physically beautiful, and the bad are physically ugly, almost to the point of there not being any kind of leeway between the two.

I have a feeling, though, that back in the 16th Century, this would have been incredibly popular, and I can picture ladies of the court marveling over the heroic deeds and daring do. In fact, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, first published in 1516, is actually a sequel to Orlando Innamorato written by Count Matteo Maria Boiardo in the late 1400s. An incredibly popular sequel, I might add.

But for me, it was a bit too busy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Best Laid Plans

I intended to write a nice post, reviewing both movies that Caesar and I saw this weekend, along with bits of our visit to his brother's home in Pico Rivera for a birthday party and even a bit more about the Pride Parade on Sunday. But that turned out to be somewhat difficult as I was strapped into a gurney speeding toward the hospital around 2:30 this afternoon. I experienced a very mild chest pain during lunch which quickly disappeared so I didn't think anything of it until about an hour later when the pain returned and decided to stay without an invitation. A co-worker convinced me to call 911, and soon, I was in the back of the ambulance, my chest being shaved in order to place those ultra sticky EKG pads, an IV drip in my left arm as we headed toward the hospital.


Don't I look pretty? Believe me, this picture is much better than the quadruple-chinned one I took of myself (and quickly deleted).

Six hours, a chest x-ray and two sets of blood tests later: no heart attack. Lungs reportedly clear, too. Thank goodness!!! So tomorrow morning, I am to call a cardiologist to schedule a stress test for later this week. Just to ensure that nothing happened to my heart.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cruisin'

As part of a joint Mothers/Fathers Day gift, I spent much of last night organizing my Parents' photos from their cruise through the Panama Canal. They loved what I did with our pictures from Disney World and from our short trip to La Jolla and convinced me to create one for them. Right now, the book's at 45 pages, and Friday night, my Parents will give it the once over before I set it in stone (er, paper). The pictures are here: Cruise Pics until after the finished book arrives.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Leaving (for) Las Vegas

Caesar and I spend a wonderful weekend with a Friend visiting from Las Vegas so I've not kept up the blogging for a while. The Friend left this morning, and it's back to the usual routine. But what a fun time we had the past few days!

Thursday We treated Friend to Hairspray! at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center. Friend had seen it before in Las Vegas, with original cast members Harvey Fierstein and Dick LaTessa. But that version lasted only 90 minutes without intermission so the full, 2h30m extravaganza was a nice surprise for him. The music, acting and dancing were great though many times the actors were forced to sing as loud as possible over the orchestra. Not sure if that was due to the design of the theater or not.

Friday We enjoyed a nice Mexican dinner at Mi Lupita followed by a screening of John Waters' classic Female Trouble. Nice girls don't wear cha-cha heels!!

Saturday The real reason for our Friend's visit: a trip to disneyland. We spent the entire day at the park, riding almost everything that was operational. The excitement started with a ride on the Monorail followed by a quick dash into the line for the Finding Nemo Submarines. By the time we left, we were exhausted, sunburnt and content.

Sunday We all visited our Mom's, then watched the finale to The Amazing Race (very sad that Luke and Margie finished third.) Caesar and Friend decided to end the night with a bit of barhopping while I stayed in, read a bit, then fell asleep.

Friend was still asleep by the time I left for work this morning so I hope he has a safe flight back to Las Vegas!!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

To My Mom...















...Wishing you all the best this Mothers Day. With much love!!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Forbidden Broadway Meets Long Beach
I'm always one to look for a bargain or discount of some kind, especially now with the state of the economy. So when Musical Theatre West offered $10 tickets through their FaceBook page, I jumped at the chance and snagged two tickets for last Saturday's opening night performance of Forbidden Broadway: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1.

The only problem appeared when, a few days later, a friend of Caesar's from Granada Hills called to invite us to her 40th birthday party. The same night. Caesar felt obligated to attend since she drove all the way for his 40th last year.

However, sweetie that he is, he also suggested that I invite my friend CS to see the show in his place.

CS joyfully sadly agreed to take Caesar's ticket so he and I met at the theater around 7:30 Saturday night while my Sweetie ate pupusas and fried yucca root. And probably some cake, too.

What a fantastic show! Forbidden Broadway is a parody revue, a skewering of Broadway past and present. From a 30-year-old Annie smoking a cigarette and singing about not being able to find another job to Daniel Radcliffe performing an Equus striptease to Let Me Entertain You to a trio of rebelling Frenchmen tiptoeing in circles to simulate the turntable effect to having puppets performing sex acts to win Tonys, the fine quartet of actors had the entire audience laughing to the point of tears. Okay, maybe that was just me, but the show rocked!

The two men in the cast -- David Engel and Larry Raben -- actually appeared in the original cast of Forever Plaid and in the upcoming movie of the show. Whitney Allen had us rolling with her impersonations of Patti Lupone and Liza Minelli. But Susanne Blakeslee stood out with her spot on impersonations of Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand. And the lone pianist throughout the show -- Michael Paternostro -- did a fantastic job.

My sides hurt from laughing so much!

The show's running for the next two weekends so if you're in the Long Beach area, don't miss it!!!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Book Review: Two Quickie Reviews

I'm falling behind on so many things! In the past two weeks, I finished quite a few books -- two of which I'd been reading for a long, long time -- and neglected to post my reviews of them. So here, in just a brief paragraph or two, are my reviews of the last two books read....
One hundred years in the future, humans no longer writes books to read, instead feeding a single word into a "wordmill" which in turn generates pages and pages of mind-numbing pablum for the masses. These machines are still cared for by so-called writers who one day are fed up with not being allowed to write for themselves. They rebel against the machines, destroying them in a massive riot, only to discover they really have no idea how to write. But one publishing company -- Racket House -- has a contingency plan, based upon thirty brains from the greatest minds of a century ago, kept alive in giant silver eggs to allow them time to think and to create. It's up to writer Gaspard de la Nuit and his robot companion/writer Zane Gort to keep the eggs safe while the publishers at Racket House devise a way to get the brains to write novels before the rioters discover their existence.

Believe it or not, The Silver Eggheads is a classic 1960s, sci-fi sex comedy romp that I absolutely loved. Much of it deals with what it means to write, where do the ideas come from, how do they get transferred to paper (or computer). Simply sitting in front of a typewriter doesn't make you a good writer; a good writer draws from experiences, living life, trying new things, and reading books instead of mindless drivel that makes no sense. As for sex, the intricacies of relationships are presented mostly through the robot Zane Gort and the robix (female robot) Miss Blushes. Zane isn't sure how to approach the beautiful Miss Blushes and through talking with the human Nurse Bishop (caretaker of the silver eggheads) learns how humans handle getting to know one another. Definitely a book for both fans of science fiction and for those wanting to know about creativity and writing.

--
Andy Warner recently died then re-animated shortly after his embalming. And he thought his problems couldn't get any worse after his resurrection. His parents reluctantly re-incorporate him into their home, though he must stay in the basement because of his stench. The rest of the world treats Andy and his zombie kind to the basest of existences, not allowing them to work, to be seen in public, to live a normal life -- or un-life. And he can't see his daughter who doesn't know that he's a member of the undead. His therapist doesn't really try to help with his feelings of anxiety and loss of self-worth, but his Undead Anonymous meetings at least allow him the comfort of being with others like himself.

Until one night when he and Rita, a beautiful suicide victim, happen upon the equally undead Ray and the twins Zack and Luke. Ray offers them a jar of venison which he canned while still alive. The venison tastes incredible, and soon, Andy notices changes: slowly being able to walk on a shattered ankle, his normal voice replacing the grunts and squeals from severed vocal chords, and his heart beating again. Rita notices the changes in herself, too, and when they discover what was actually in those jars, their whole zombie world is turned inside out.

I wasn't sure if I was going to like Breathers: A Zombie's Lament, especially after reading the very confusing first chapter. This novel asks readers to cast aside everything they've known about zombies from movies and books -- about mindless, slow-moving creatures with only the goal of eating brains -- and accept that they can think, talk and act like they did while still alive. For me, that was difficult: that's the reason I like zombie novels, the slow-paced terror like in a Max Brooks novel. Not to mention that I didn't find this dark comedy all that funny. The humor felt forced and unnatural, as if I were being told that I needed to laugh here.

The sub-plot of trying to obtain civil rights for the undead also left me flat. As a member of a group trying to obtain equal rights, it just felt forced and heavy-handed. I don't know that I would recommend this book, especially for fans of the zombie genre.

Friday, May 01, 2009

I've Been Remiss

I realize that I haven't posted anything about my Mom, post-hysterectomy.

I visited with my folks on Sunday, just about two weeks since the operation, and my Mom looks good! The paleness of her skin has finally disappeared. She claims to not be in as much pain (but continues to walk slightly hunched over). She ambled about the house, sat at the dinner table to enjoy some KFC (original recipe, not the grilled), and even stayed awake during the golf tourney on TV. All in all, she's definitely improved since the surgery, but I can tell cabin fever's starting to settle in. There are only so many movies to watch On Demand and books to read.

I also helped with a few of their routine chores while at their house: changing a few light bulbs, helping my Dad with the new BBQ cover, making their ginormous bed. I even brought some work home with me: my Dad wanted a photo book of their cruise through the Panama Canal so I volunteered to scan in some pictures, download the ones from their camera, and organize a little something for them.