Sunday, April 29, 2012

Parodisiac

I treated myself to a show yesterday afternoon -- the Broadway parody Forbidden Broadway Greatest Hits, Volume 2. I've seen many previous incarnations of the show, including Forbidden Hollywood, and always get a kick out of how well the songs and actors skewer the theater community. The able cast included Susanne Blakeslee, David Engel, Valerie Fagan, and Larry Raben, all FB veterans. (In fact, Blakeslee was one of the original cast members from the show's beginnings in New York almost 27 years ago.) They parodied everything from Wicked and La Cage aux folles to anything by Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber. One of the sketches that kept the audience in stitches was the Act I closer, a lamentation on Les Miserables and its ever-present turntable. But some of the best sequences were the dead-on impersonations: Valerie Fagan as Ethel Merman teaching Michael Crawford how to belt out a song; Susanne Blakeslee's loving portrayals of Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews and Carol Channing; Larry Raben's self-indulgent Mandy Patinkin; and David Engel's interpretation of Robert Goulet. (That last has to be the best impersonation I've ever seen.) Even the pianist, Matthew Smedal, gets his digs in with a song of his own about being forced to play music for auditions. It was so good that I didn't want the show to end after only two hours.

But, I can always buy one of the many cast albums....

Friday, April 27, 2012

Eek!

Yesterday morning, I'm sitting at my desk, engrossed in a conference call when I look up and find myself staring at the many eyes of this little creature sitting atop a stack of information cards. I'm normally not scared of spiders, but I let out a loud Eeek! into the phone and quickly pressed the mute button. I see this type of spider, known as a Daring Jumping Spider all the time around the office. They resemble the tiny black crabs I see crawling along the rocks near the harbor, only furrier. The first one I saw crawling across an office window had turquoise chelicerae, or appendages, near the fangs, and oddly enough, made it seem quite beautiful.

As for the one on my desk, he moved when I moved almost like he had his sights set on a bigger meal than some measly moth. I somehow managed to force him onto a magazine then tossed him outside, onto the branches of a tree.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Quickie Book Review: Frontiers

by Michael Jensen

In the winter of 1797, young John Chapman -- on the run from the military after his affair with a major is discovered -- treks through the harsh wilderness of the Pennsylvania territory, hoping to stake a claim in the new frontier. He stumbles upon the outpost of Warren and it's sole inhabitant Daniel McQuay. After finally convincing Daniel that no one sent him to check on the outpost, John settles in for a long winter made more difficult by his attraction to the muscled mountain man. As the days pass, John learns the fate of the other people who originally kept on at the outpost with Daniel: how they were attacked by the Senecas only to discover that one of their own -- a former preacher named Zach looking for his half-Indian son -- was more of a threat than anything else. But John finds something about Daniel unsettling and soon finds himself running for his life when he uncovers the truth about Daniel's past.

John escapes and makes his way down the Allegheny, where an Indian woman leads him to an abandoned house. He reluctantly settles in and after a day, is surprised when strangers appear at the door, welcoming him to the settlement of Franklin. Their ease with him taking over the abandoned home surprises him, and he happily agrees to stay on and make a go with the land. The Indian woman -- a quiet, intelligent spirit named Gwennie -- helps him to prepare the land, talking him into planting apples. After all, she is known about those parts as the Apple Woman. He also finds himself falling for a young man of the town named Palmer who is somewhat of a misunderstood outcast, thanks in large part to his brother who happens to be the preacher.

John's attempt to settle into his new life in Franklin is soon thrown into disarray when Daniel somehow finds him and begins a reign of terror on John and his friends that threatens to destroy them and the settlement.

Frontiers makes for a good bit of historical fiction, providing a glimpse into the hardships of life in the newly expanding territory of Pennsylvania. The story also introduces the beginning, albeit a fantasy beginning, for a well-known figure in American folklore -- John Chapman, a.k.a., Johnny Appleseed. As the story moves, he progresses from an inexperienced and unsure young woodsman to a man who can hold his own in any fight and who cares about the people and the land around him. Though, I must admit that I was surprised at how sexually charged and explicit the story is, especially given the time period. It's almost like an historical pulp novel, but it never falls into the cheesy Harlequin romance style of writing. It's a good story, and in the end, that's what matters most.

Definitely a good read, and I recommend the sequel, Firelands.

Frontiers
by Michael Jensen
Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster Inc.
trade paperback, 311 pgs.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Books and Things and Stuff

We hit the freeway early this morning to make it to the LA Times Festival of Books before the crowds. Little did we realize that 4 hours later, we'd drive away with bags filled to overflowing. I carried four new books (including one Diesel Punk title) to the car along with information about The Greater Los Angeles Writers Society and an LGBT publisher called Purple Books Publishing, and Caesar went art-crazy, buying not one but FIVE prints -- all utterly fantastic and signed by the illustrators themselves.

The first piece was from illustrator Stephen Silver, who animated some of the characters for Kim Possible, Danny Phantom and Clerks. It features a series of Russian nesting dolls designed in the likeness of Michael Jackson. (My favorite is the Thriller doll.)

The remaining four illustrations all came from the same artists, Daniel and Dawna Davis of Steam Crow. Dozens of re-imagined book covers and movie posters, done in a neo-deco steampunk style, as well as greeting cards, buttons, pins, and smaller non-movie-related illustrations. Caesar purchased the Nosferatu poster and three smaller foodie prints. (I absolutely love the two featuring bowls of soup -- one smiling with the words "Miso Hungry" surrounding it; the other upset with the words "Miso Angry" around the bowl.)

But the day wasn't all about books. Caesar showed me around his alma mater, the statue of Tommy Trojan, the buildings in which he studied and interned, and even lunched at the campus food court, complete with Panda Express, California Pizza Kitchen, and a Carl's Jr. After all that walking, sightseeing and spending, I'm ready to call it a night so until tomorrow....

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Quickie Book Review: Pay Phone

by Brandon Ford

On a cold winter's day in New York City, Jake does what he always does: watches the pay phone across the street from his third-floor apartment. He scans the passersby, hoping that one of them will answer the ringing phone, that when someone does answer -- and he knows they will -- that he can convince him or her to come up to his apartment to help quell his loneliness. And once the apartment door closes behind them, only then can he let loose his true desire...with the help of a sharp blade.

But on this particular day, after waiting almost too long, a woman answers the phone who reminds him of another special woman in his life. He pours on the charm trying to lure her to his apartment, but she manages to slip away, disappearing into the crowd. But he can't let her get away that easily and will stop at nothing until he finds her....

How many times have you walked by a ringing pay phone and resisted the temptation to pick it up, just to find out who would be calling a pay phone? Brandon Ford's Pay Phone answers that question and twists it into a bloody psychological thriller. I give him much credit for the character of Jake. That is one sick individual, not simply because of his murderous intentions but when you learn of his special relationship with the character Susan, you understand just how far off the deep end he is.

I did have trouble with two of the characters. Chelsea, the woman who got away, seems to fall head over heels for the voice on the other end of the phone, believing that he could be the one after one very brief conversation. I know it fits the purpose of the story, but for me, it didn't feel realistic. The other character is Gladys, Jake's representative at the Unemployment Office. I liked her until, out of the blue, she seemed to think the Jake wanted her. That threw me for a loop and threw off the pacing for a moment.

In spite of that, I still enjoyed the book and found myself staying up until the wee hours of the morning to read one more chapter.

Pay Phone
by Brandon Ford
Arctic Wolf Publishing
trade paperback, 272 pgs.

purchased book

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Opposite Ends of the Spectrum

Last night, I saw jazz trumpeter Chris Botti in concert. And in case you couldn't tell from the picture, that's where my seat was: way up in the fifth story -- or what the concert hall likes to call the "Grand Tier". (I swear I could almost touch the ceiling!) The seat may have been in the nosebleed section, but it provided a great view of the stage, and the music felt as though you were seated in the front row.

The music was good, too. Botti has so much control over the sounds that come from the trumpet, with the high notes never veering toward flat nor blowing too hard to cause the notes to blat rather than sound smooth and effortless. The highlight, though was the vocalist: Lisa Fischer. Everyone in the audience was in awe when she sang, using her voice to copy the musical tricks that Botti played on his trumpet or simply allowing her crystal voice to echo throughout the concert hall.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, this morning, I spent almost two hours at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Beer, greasy food, and the sound of cars zipping along Shoreline Drive were what I experienced, though I saw very little of the cars themselves. Using the covered footbridges to cross the track, I felt the rumbling of the cars as they sped underneath, sending tremors throughout the seemingly flimsy structure. I tired many times to find a place to just sit and watch, but I was constantly bombarded with food and clothing vendors. Somehow, I managed to get into an area where some of the cars were being prepped to take their spots on the course, hence the lone picture I was able to take before bigger cameras pushed their way in for a clear shot.

At least now I can finally say that I've been to the Grand Prix -- though I think I prefer listening to buzz of the cars from my apartment.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Diablo Rojo

I recently purchased Area 52 from Rodrigo y Gabriela and C.U.B.A., and played the CD almost nonstop for most of the week. The songs are re-workings of previous tracks from Rodrigo y Gabriela, but they enhanced them with a Cuban orchestra. The songs feel so much fuller and richer now, and I absolutely love the CD.

I wasn't able to find any new videos for the songs so you'll have to make do with an early version of one song they re-recorded: Diablo Rojo.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

9 9 9

Lately, I've been hooked on a game for the Nintendo DS called 9 Hours. 9 Persons. 9 Doors. or 999 for short. The game is touted as a visual novel, which from my experience with it, means a lot of reading as you play. A LOT. But the story turns out to be very good so I don't mind all that reading.

In 999, you play Junpei, a young college student who wakes up in a strange room with two sets of thin, metal bunkbeds, a strange bracelet with the number 5 displayed on its face, a door that's locked tight, and water pouring into the room through a cracked porthole. Next to the door is a device with a blank digital readout, a slot for keycards, and a lever. After pounding on the door and multiple pulls at the lever, you begin searching the room and come across two locked suitcases, two keys, two slips of paper with red and blue symbols on them, a picture of the Titanic, and a screwdriver, and must figure out how you can use them to exit the room.

As the game continues, you -- Junpei -- run into eight others who are also trapped inside what appears to be a ship resembling the Titanic. Each person has a similar numbered bracelet, with a number from one through nine prominently displayed. They soon learn that each is carrying an explosive device that will only deactivate fully once they've escaped so they must work together exploring empty staterooms and hallways, searching for the hidden 9th door that will allow them to exit the ship. Along the way, they must solve some pretty devious puzzles using their wits and a little bit of math.

And I love it!

Not only are the games challenging and the storyline intriguing, but the game provides six possible endings -- only one of which is the "true" ending. I've reached two of them so far, and each time, the word To Be Continued appear, then Junpei wakes up back at the beginning. It may sound offputting to some, but it's given me the opportunity to explore the other rooms and to learn more of the back story of the characters and the ship. Plus, on my third run-through, I think I'm almost at the "true" ending.

The strange part, though, is that the characters are supposed to be in America, yet they all have Japanese names, which fit with the anime look of the game. But in the end, that doesn't really matter. The gameplay is challenging and fun, and for me, it's a nice break from Sudoku and Super Mario Brothers.

Monday, April 09, 2012

A to Z Favorite Book Meme

I borrowed this from A Guy's Moleskine Notebook one, because I love books, and two, because I wanted to see if I could name at least one favorite book that I've read that begins with each letter of the alphabet.

A: Autumn: Aftermath by David Moody
B: Best Actress by John Kane
C: Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King
D: The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
E: e by Matt Beaumont
F: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
G: A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans
H: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
I: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
J: Just an Ordinary Day by Shirley Jackson
K: Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig
L: Like People in History by Felice Picano
M: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
N: No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
O: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
P: The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck
Q: Quatrefoil by James Barre
R: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
S: The Sea of Tranquility by Paul Russell
T: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
U: The Ungodly by Richard Rhodes
V: Virgins and Martyrs by Simon Magnin
W: We by Yevgeny Zemyatin
X: --
Y: The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop
Z: Zombiality edited by Bill Tucker

Definitely not as easy as I thought it would be. I can't think of a book title beginning with an X that I've ever read....

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Quickie Book Review: The Children's Blizzard

by David Laskin

From Sebastien Junger's recounting of the fateful events surrounding the Andrea Gail in October of 1991 to the terrible havoc from the recent tornadoes in Texas, the power and destruction of storms has always been strangely intriguing. Maybe it's because we know next to nothing about how to control them or how to accurately predict them, and that fear of the unpredictable drives us to try to understand them. Nowadays, we have radar and weather balloons and computers that assist with figuring out what makes those powerful storms tick, and even then, we still are faced with a so much uncertainty about them.

In The Children's Blizzard, author David Laskin goes back farther in American history to discuss an horrific blizzard of January 1888, first providing the back story of the people directly affected by the blizzard. Most were immigrant farmers from the Ukraine or Scandinavia or even from parts of the young United States itself, lured by the prospect of great parcels of land in the Dakotas, Missouri, and other states that make up the great prairie lands. They were accustomed to a hard life of farming, but the unforgiving lands of the great prairie proved harder than they'd hoped. The land didn't take well to growing crops; most families had to make do with sod houses; and the winters could be terribly cold, much like the winter of January 1888. But that particular winter surprised the immigrant farmers with a sudden day of warmth -- January 12, 1888. After days of being holed up in their houses, the farmers took this break in the weather to tend to animals and crops and to send their children to the local schoolhouses.

Laskin also delves into the history of the fledgling Army Signal Corps, which handled weather reporting at the time. Internal and external politics, delays in getting messages out, and many times human error, all played a part in hampering word of the sudden coldfront steamrolling down from Canada to reach the towns and peoples of the prairie. The book excels, however, in its descriptions of the human experiences during the blizzard -- specifically the surprisingly quick way cold and wind act upon the human body, causing frostbite, hallucinations, and much more. And he does it in an almost "real time" manner so that as the reader, I felt and experienced what was going on to the people caught in the blizzard by surprise.

The Children's Blizzard provides a detailed examination of what happened during the surprise blizzard on January 12, 1888, which is both fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time.

The Children's Blizzard
by David Laskin
Harper Perennial
trade paperback, 307 pgs.
purchased book

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

My Name in Black & White

Copies of Before Plan 9: Plans 1 - 8 from Outer Space just arrived. I love the cover art and am still getting used to seeing my name on the cover of a book -- especially next to such venerable authors as Jonathan Maberry, Joe McKinney, David Dunwoody, Craig DiLouie, Patrick D'Orazio, Michael McCarty, Tonia Brown, D.A. Chaney, Rob Silvera, and Tony Schaab. Hopefully, this is a sign of more to come!!

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Hunger Games

We held out for a week once the movie was released before heading to the theater to see The Hunger Games. We wanted to avoid the throngs of moviegoers as much as possible, but a week was all we could manage.

And it was a decent film. Jennifer Lawrence was a good choice as Katniss Everdeens, playing her as strong-willed but wanting to do the right thing at all times. And you can't go wrong with Donald Sutherland as the villain. I even liked the casting of both Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz. Still, I disliked much of the camera work. The herky-jerkiness during the first half of the film almost gave me motion sickness, and I'm not sure why the director chose to use that filming style. I also think the movie was missing something, like back stories to make me care about many of the characters. Caesar's read the first two books (and is 3/4 through the last) and filled me in on quite a bit, so I could understand such things as why Katniss was angry with her mother. And I didn't believe the emotional relationship between Katniss and Gale. They tried to play it as a romantic one, but nothing was ever done to show that (i.e., kissing, etc.). The two acted more like best friends. And the fact that Gale is barely in the movie at all doesn't help.

But the movie picks up when the games actually begin, and the story focuses on Katniss trying to survive in a computer-controlled woods while others fight for their lives, all in the name of TV programming.

I did enjoy the film, but it felt geared moretoward those who had read the books, knew the history and the stories of the characters, rather than the casual moviegoer.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Sporty Gay

In my efforts to find new things to keep me occupied now that I no longer have an annual pass for the Happiest Place on Earth, we ventured outside our comfort zone and attended an MLS game last night. I'd never sat through a professional soccer game, and I thought it would be a fun time. And it was, even though the LA Galaxy lost to the New England Revolution.

I'm not the biggest sports fanatic, but during school, I wasn't the last one picked for teams because I could hit homers, easily catch fly balls, evade most attempts at a tackle, and play many sports acceptably. So I do know my way around them and have no problem watching with family. (My Mom loves all sorts so whenever I visit, some sporting event is always on the TV -- baseball, golf, tennis, basketball.) I don't participate much anymore, mostly due to lack of interest.

But there's something about watching a game live and in person. I get caught up in the emotions of the crowd and find myself yelling at the ref for not carding the opposing team for intentionally tripping on of the Galaxy's players. I pounded my feet against the bleachers in a metallic soundwave of support for the team. I'm one of the loudest in our section when the opposing team scored. I would have waved my new rally flag, too, if it hadn't been raining. We even got to watch Beckham play for the first half of the game.

I had a blast, and am seriously considering going to another game. But for now, I can cross the MLS off my list and make way for an NHL game.