I know next to nothing about hotel management, but it's not hard to imagine hotel chains sprawling across the country, always growing and large chains swallowing up smaller ones. Acquire is a classic game (this latest version is from Avalon Hill Games) for 3-6 players where players manage and plan hotel chains to get the most money from stock, sales, and takeovers.

Acquire plays out on a simple rectangluar board, 12 spaces across and 9 spaces down; tiles are labeled with letters and numbers, such as 2A, 9I, etc. At the start each player gets $6000 and places a tile on the board; whoever's tile is closest to the top left (1A) spot goes first. Each player then gets six tiles.

On a player's turn they place one of their tiles on the board. If the piece stands alone, nothing happens. If they connect with another single piece, they've founded a hotel chain! The player chooses one of the available hotel chains (there are seven at the start: two worth less, two worth more, and three even ones), puts that hotel chain marker on the pieces, and gets a free share of stock in the new hotel chain. If the piece connects with an existing hotel chain, that chain gets bigger. And if a player's piece brings two existing hotel chains together, a merger happens (unless a chain is 11 or more tiles long, in which case it's "safe" and can't be merged).

Mergers are the key to Acquire, giving players money and stock. When two chains merge, all players count their stock in the smaller, acquired chain. (If the chains are the same size, the player who put down the piece decides which chain is acquired.) Whoever has the most stock in the acquired chain gets the Majority shareholder bonus (based on the hotel chain and its size), while whoever has the next-highest amount of stock in the acquired chain gets the Minority shareholder bonus. After that, players can sell their shares of the minority hotel chain (often the only way to get money), trade in 2 shares of minority chain stock for 1 share of majority chain stock (which can be quite valuable if the majority chain is large), or keep the shares of the minority chain (which are worthless if the chain doesn't return -- but potentially lucrative if the chain comes back). The minority chain is then gone (its marker goes back on the board) and can be founded later.

After a tile is placed, the player whose turn it is can buy up to 3 stocks of any hotel chain on the board (the larger the chain, the more the stock costs), unless all the stock in a hotel chain has been purchased. If a player declares that a hotel chain is 41 or more tiles long, or that all chains on the board are safe, they can declare the game over. At that point, players get Majority and Minority bonuses for every hotel chain on the board, they sell off all their stock in those hotel chains, and whoever has the most money wins! If the game continues, the player gets a random tile to replace the one they played, and the player on the left then goes.

Acquire is a fun and intriguing game. While the biggest money at the end comes from having majorities in the biggest hotel chains, during the game you'll need to try and have the most shares in the smaller chains to earn bonuses. (It's easy to run out of money buying stock, and if you don't get the Majority or Minority bonus from a merger, you'll have to sell just to be able to buy later.) There's no one strategy for winning, and what may seem like a good plan may backfire (like when I had the most shares in the valuable Continental chain -- which didn't grow or get acquired until the very end of the game). And while knowing what stocks opponents have helps, one big acquisition can turn things around quickly! I was a little disappointed the tile holders were cardboard that warped and didn't hold the tiles well, but Acquire's board is effectively simple (if a little plain), and the reference charts each player gets provides all the pricing for stock andMajority/Minority values a player will need. Acquire won't help you navigate the hotel chain market in the real world -- but it's a blast to play!

Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Kylie Minogue, KYLIE HITS (DVD Edition)

Kylie Minogue is a singer far more popular internationally than in the U.S. Overseas, her albums do incredibly well and she puts on elaborate concerts. Here, she's best known for two songs from 1988 (a cover of "The Loco-motion" and her "I Should Be So Lucky"), plus the brief success of "Can't Get You Out of My Head" in 2001. So it's no surprise that Kylie Hits: DVD Edition, which collects songs and videos from her four most recent albums, was made in Taiwan (and found by me on eBay).

Kylie Hits: DVD Edition is both a 14-song album and 13-music-video dvd, both establishing Kylie Minogue as a pop princess. Heavily influenced by disco, Kylie is focused on making feel-good, bouncy music about love and dancing. To that end, she's content with very simple lyrics, from the repetitive ("la la la/la-la la la la"; "You're wow wow wow wow!") to basic self-empowerment ("And did I forget to mention/that I found a new direction/and it leads back to me"). I doubt there'll be a book published of Kylie's lyrics anytime soon -- or in my lifetime -- but her songs are about fun, not thought. And whether falling in love ("Love at First Sight," 2 Hearts"), dumping a boyfriend ("Get Outta My Way"), or just dancing ("Spinning Around"), she's perky and supported by lots of synthesizers. Most of the songs are both catchy and forgettable, enjoyable when playing but lacking any great distinctiveness. And bonus tracks include live versions of the two aforementioned songs from 1988, as well as a remix of "Get Outta My Way" that is both more acoustic and more techno than the original.

As for the music videos, they all feature Kylie showing off both her dancing and her body (along with enough buff males to make her gay fanbase very happy). What's odd is that only about half the music videos here are of the songs on the album. In fairness, many of the different videos are weaker musically (though I would have liked to have the song "Chocolate" on the music portion as well), and given that you'll find amazingly few music videos on the so-called music television networks (damn you, reality tv shows!) Kylie Hits: DVD Edition is probably the only place you'll get to see these videos (except for YouTube).

Kylie Hits: DVD Edition is a good representation of the disco-style pop Kylie Minogue has been releasing over the past decade. While it shows a contentment with simple music about love, sex, and dancing, it's enjoyable enough. As for the music videos, there are far worse ways to spend time that seeing Kylie dance!

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop, 2011)

When their self-titled debut CD came out in 2008, Fleet Foxes immediately became a sensation among critics and fans of indie music. Despite a heavy sixties influence, their rustic, heavily reverbed sound had a pleasantly unique element to it, and came across as a breath of fresh air. Of course, plenty of performers and bands have made a big splash initially, only to disappear with subsequent efforts. It took a couple of years and a few false starts, but the band's sophomore effort Helplessness Blues came out in May 2011. Happily, the new album takes what what was good about its predecessor and improves on it.

As before, Fleet Foxes revolve around the singing and songwriting of Robin Pecknold. Pecknold's lyrics remain alluringly cryptic, drawing the listeners in to the scenes he creates; he doesn't always provide an unambiguous meaning, but what he lacks in explicitness he makes up for with poetry. His most direct song on this album is the title song, in which he resolves to find a purpose to his life and not just accept things as they are. Pecknold also contributes on guitar, along with Skyler Skjelset. The two blend together very nicely with an approach that is understated but very effective, particularly on the songs "Sim Sala Bim" and "The Cascades." The biggest difference in the overall sound on Helplessness Blues is the increased emphasis on vocal harmonies, on which Pecknold is assisted by keyboardist Casey Wescott and new bassist Christian Wargo. The harmonies definitely owe something to Crosby, Stills & Nash, but the old-school approach to group vocals worked then and still sounds fresh now. A number of the songs are broken into several parts, giving the new album a bit more of a prog feel than the first album had. This generally works well, but the "argument" part of "The Shrine/An Argument" has a painfully dissonant sax part that is totally out of place on this record.

Still, that's the one real blemish on an otherwise excellent album. Robin Pecknold is one of the best of the current generation of singer-songwriters, and the rest of Fleet Foxes provide solid vocal and instrumental support. Helplessness Blues is a definite best-of-year candidate, and I'm really looking forward to this band's continued development.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

"Grown Ocean"



So, what would be the ultimate summer action movie? How about a superhero who beats up Nazis? Captain America: The First Avenger may continue the Marvel movieverse (with connections to Thor and Iron Man) and lay the final groundwork for next summer's Avengers movie, but it's as patriotic and feel-good as the WW2 propoganda films in the movie.

After the modern-day discovery of a craft in the Arctic, Captain America: The First Avenger jumps back to the days of World War Two. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, who played the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies) is a scrawny 90-pound weakling with a host of health problems -- who also never backs down from a fight and keeps trying to enlist with the army. He gets the attention of a military group that includes German scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and the tough Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). Erskine gives Rogers the Super Soldier formula, transforming him into a buff, tall fightin' machine: Captain America! And after a brief, comical stint on a public relations tour, Captain America hits the battlefield to fight Nazis -- or Hydra.

It turns out that Erskine was forced to use an early version of his formula on the Nazi Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), turning him into the Red Skull. The Red Skull has found and harnessed an energy source from Asgard (and the movie Thor) and is using it to power weapons designed by mousy scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). But the Red Skull has his own plans, turning on both the Allies and Axis powers to lead his own evil organization called Hydra. ("Hail Hydra!") Can Captain America and his team of soldiers defeat Hydra before America is destroyed? Will the flirtation betwene Steve and Peggy lead to anything more? And how many 3-D shots of Captain America's shield flying at the audience will be get? (The answer to the last question: quite a lot.)

Captain America: The First Avenger is big, simplistic fun. Chris Evans clearly has fun playing the ultimate do-gooder, someone so ready to stand up for what's right (both before and after being turned into a Super Soldier) he'd be a saint if he wasn't beating people up all the time. Hugo Weaving spends much of the movie under horrific red makeup, but he brings a certain style to an otherwise typical megalomaniac intent on world domination. Hayley Atwell's spunkiness manages to elevate Peggy from a token love interest to an independent woman who can kick butt. And the other characters are all either good guys to root for, or bad guys to hate (and cheer when they're beaten or killed). The action is generally handled well (though one montage looked more like a video game than a live-action movie), and the ending does a good job setting the scene for The Avengers next year. Captain America: The First Avenger may be simplistic in many ways, but it's still fun.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


They Might Be Giants, JOIN US

The Johns are back! After several kids' albums, They Might Be Giants return to quirky alternative rock with Join Us. This return is familiar, both for good and ill.

If you know They Might Be Giants, you know singers John Linnell and John Flansburgh combine fairly nasal vocals with quirky, bizarre lyrics. When it works, it's terrific fun; when it fails, it feels like strangeness for its own sake. And both are present on Join Us. There are catchy tracks, like the opening "Can't Keep Johnny Down" (with the winner of the fan video contest below), the fictional land "Canajoharie," or the happily evil "When Will You Die." Songs like these remind me why I keep listening to TMBG as they enter their third decade of making music.

Then there are the clever-for-its-own-sake songs. "Cloisonne" mentions Sleestaks just to ask what they are; "Protagonist" combines a fairly normal song with script directions, with no real payoff; the song "Three Might Be Dundee" exsists just so its title can sound like the band name; and "The Lady and the Tiger" takes the choices from the story and adds, well, laser-beam eyes. Songs like these feel like the band is trying too hard to be clever and experimental.

Join Us isn't a consistent album all the way through, but the gems outweigh the duds. The album ends with the Johns singing, "You Don't Like Me." Despite the weak spots on Join Us, yes, I still like you.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Lúnasa, Lá Nua (Lúnasa Records, 2010)

Lúnasa were one of my favorite Irish bands of the late 90s and early 00s. They have kept a relatively low profile recently, but in 2010 they released their first studio album in four years and seventh overall, called Lá Nua (New Day). Like their previous work, Lá Nua contains a number of decent sets of tunes and a couple of very good ones.

The core of Lúnasa remains intact for the new album. Séan Smyth (fiddle and whistles), Kevin Crawford (flutes and whistles), Trevor Hutchinson (upright bass, still best known in rock circles for his work with The Waterboys) and Cillian Vallely (pipes and whistles) have now been playing together for well over a decade. The newest member is guitarist Paul Meehan, who replaced Donogh Hennessy. The basic sound of Lúnasa hasn't really changed over the years. They play a standard mixture of traditional and self-composed jigs, reels, airs, waltzes and hornpipes. The primary twist in their music comes from Hutchinson's jazz-infuenced bass lines. Admittedly, the formula can sometimes come across as redundant. Like the other good Irish bands, however, Lúnasa make it work with strong musicianship and chemistry, along with the ability to occasionally put a particularly good arrangement to a particularly good tune. Examples of this on Lá Nua include a really nice traditional waltz called "Ridées Six Temps" at the end of a set called "Tro Breizh." "Unapproved Road" is a fine set of reels on the subtler side, and "The Shore House" is a good lively set to close the album.

I've had a tendency to go through stretches where I listen to a lot of Irish music over a couple of months, and then put it away for a while. So sometimes a standard set of jigs and reels can leave me with a "been there, done that" feel, and other times the same recording can hit me like a breath of fresh air. I think my overall impression of Lá Nua benefits from the fact that I hadn't touched base with Lúnasa in a while. But I had good reasons to like them in the first place, and if you're looking for an Irish fix this album will do nicely.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

"The Raven's Rock"


Shadows Fall - Simon R. Green (1994)

Writing fiction is no easy task. Writing science-fiction or fantasy can be even more difficult since you don't have the real world to work from. This may seem counter-intuitive at first. Without the real world holding you down, your imagination can soar freely! The downside is that you must create the world from scratch, at least to some extent, and it must work. You have great freedom in setting up the rules, but if the rules are bad, the work fails. If you fail to follow them, the same thing happens - the narrative falters and falls. Sometimes, when the ground rules change in the middle of a book, the reader feels betrayed. Sadly, this last is the case with Shadows Fall.

The book starts out promisingly enough, with the town of Shadows Fall, where old legend go to, well, not "die" exactly, but hang around until they are ready for oblivion. It's populated by mostly forgotten pulp heroes, cartoon characters and rock stars; the dead, the not-quite-real and the completely imaginary. And, of course, bad things are happening. Murders. Betrayal from inside. Invasion from the real world, which is supposed to be impossible. And it all sort of works.

Until page 440-or-so out of 500-and-some. Then it all goes to hell. The Romans had a term for it - deus ex machina. When there was no other way out, one of the gods came out of the machine on stage and fixed it all up. It was a crappy way to end a play several thousand years ago, and it hasn't gotten any better with time. The book is tripping along, things are happening, characters are developing, plots are thickening, sacrifices are being made by good to stop evil, and then ...

And then, with a few casual strokes of his pen, the author simply negates all that went before. It's worse than those stupid "only a dream or imaginary story" issues that plagued comics in the seventies and eighties. Four-hundred-fifty pages of setting up the rules - the world - simply cast aside. The contract between reader and author broken. We agree to accept the premises, and in exchange, the author should also accept the premises, and, ideally, not insult our intelligence. Which, in this case, he doesn't and then does.

Which is not to say the book is all bad. The writing style is pleasant enough. It is laden with cultural and pop-cultural references and trying to recognize them all is fun. (Bonus points are awarded for referencing the band "The Deep Fix.") But ultimately, a promising narrative was brutally murdered, much like the body which kickstarted the plot some four-hundred pages earlier.

And that, my friends, is a shame.

Overall Grade: D+ (if you ignore the last 100 pages, a solid B)


Selena Gomez & the Scene, WHEN THE SUN GOES DOWN (Target version)

Kids grow up so fast -- or do they? Selena Gomez may be nearing the end of her ties with the Disney Channel as she approaches the "old age" of 19, but her new album When the Sun Goes Down is very kid-friendly and fairly cliche.

When the Sun Goes Down
is mostly about boys, from the opening tribute to one ("Love You Like a Love Song") to being abandoned by one ("Middle of Nowhere"). There are also songs about staying out late (the title track, plus "We Own the Night") empowerment ("Who Says," the first single off the album), and taking chances in life ("Hit the Lights"). It's fairly standard stuff for a pop album. But how is it executed?

The songs here vary, from average to poor. Gomez does have a nice voice that is quite servicable for pop music. The same can't be said for her bad the Scene, which could easily be replaced by one person who owns a synthesizer. The lyrics are often cliched, trite, and overly repetitive, whether it's a safe version of the bad boy ("You're an outlaw/you're an outlaw/you're an outlaw running from love") or the girl controlling her boyfriend ("That's more like it/Yeah, that's more like it/Make my dinner and bring it to me/ that's more like it... that's more like it"). Gomez may still be young, but with two albums before this one (not to mention various songs on Disney albums) someone should have taught her something about songwriting. Some of the tunes here are a little catchy, but even they aren't that memorable.

It's ironic that the cd booklet has Gomez dressing up in costumes from various times in the past -- 1950s glamour, 1980s new wave, 1960s housewife -- yet the songs are all very typical of pop music today. Time will tell if Selena Gomez follows in the footsteps of former Disney stars (from Britney to Miley) in going beyond the 'tween audience and making music for adults (along with controversy). For now, Selena Gomez may sing about staying out all night, but When the Sun Goes Down is still for kids.

(The Target version (disclaimer: I work for Target; and I'm a Scorpio) has three remixes and a Spanish version of "Ghost of You," none of which are terrible or necessary.)

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch



One universal experience shared by all is the terrible boss. We've all had one: that person who manages to make every day of work a living hell, driving us crazy in different ways. Horrible Bosses takes this concept to its extreme conclusion, as three friends plot to kill each other's terrible bosses.
Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has been at his company for eight years, working hard and taking abuse from the ruthless, uncaring Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey) in the hopes of getting a promotion. Dale Arbus (Charlie Day, best known from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) is a dental assistant who's thrilled to be getting married -- but always fending off the extremely overt sexual advances of his boss, dentist Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), who usually makes the moves on him over a patient who's getting gas. And accountant Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) actually likes his boss and his job -- until the boss dies and the company is run by the boss' son Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell, almost unrecognizable with a bad comb-over and gut) -- who wants to fire people, get rid of dangerous chemicals cheaply, and do a lot of cocaine and bimbos.
Bad as the bosses are, they get worse: Harken gives the promotion to himself and will sabotage Nick if he tries to quit; Pellitt forces Kurt to either fire people or get fired along with them; and Julia tells Dale if he doesn't sleep with her, she'll break up his marriage with compromising photos taken while Dale was under the gas. This leads Nick, Kurt, and Dale to go from hypothetical "wouldn't it be great if our bosses were dead" complaining to actively planning to kill them. After a very misdirected attempt to get a hitman online, they wind up with Dean "Motherfucker" Jones (Jamie Foxx), who acts as their "murder consultant" and urges them to kill each other's bosses, thereby dodging a motive for each one. The three friends are then off to get intel on the bosses so they can do away with them.
For a movie about abusive bosses and murderous revenge (and with a lot of cursing and sexual situations, Horrible Bosses is surprisingly light, like a prime-time sitcom. To keep the main characters sympathetic, the murder plans never feel real or dangerous (especially after Dale saves Harken from an allergy attack). And of course, the bosses are one-dimensional, there to be hated and to have their come-uppances cheered. The situations are silly, the coincidences convenient and unbelievable, and the ending feels rushed and underwritten.
With that in mind, Horrible Bosses can be pretty funny at times. Jason Bateman has done the drym befuddled character plenty of times, so he has the dry humor down pat. Charlie Day is terrific, as the neurotic, slightly whiny guy who comes across as both nice and pathetic all the time. And Jennifer Aniston manages to turn what could be a sexual fantasy into a workplace nightmare, a sexual terminator who never takes "no" for an answer. Despite the R rating, Horrible Bosses is funny fluff that's surprisingly light.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



So, how big a difference does clothing make? The photographs of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders take on this question in a new way in the book XXX 30 Porn-Star Portraits. However, this isn't just dirty pictures -- or even just pictures: The portraits continue with biographies and essays.

The photographic subjects -- 19 women, 11 men -- of this book represent a wide spectrum of adult film professionals. There are the stars from the past (Ron Jeremy, Ginger Lynn, Peter North, Nina Hartley), huge stars of the present (Jenna Jameson (also on the cover), Belladonna, Tera Patrick), and up-and-coming folks in adult films (Reina Leone, Mari Possa, Jesse Jane). Greenfield-Sanders has two photos of each star next to each other: one with the star dressed normally, and next to it the star in the same pose, but completely naked. While the effect may be initially titillating (except for Ron Jeremy -- sorry, Ron), the contrast also makes the viewer aware of how such a "little" thing as clothing can make quite a difference in how a person comes across.

Of course, photos of these people alone would be quite superficial -- so there are life stories as well! At the end of XXX 30 Porn-Star Portraits the stars write an account of their life stories (except for a few entries that are provided by Vivid Entertainment), and their ten (or fewer for new stars) favorite movies in which they appear. These entries are quite illuminating: Some stars have very positive experiences working in porn, some wound up there after a horrible childhood, and Sharon Mitchell's story is quite harrowing and uplifting, as she recounts how she went from rock bottom to creating an organization that checks adult film workers for HIV and other STDs.

And if you want to say you're reading XXX 30 Porn-Star Portraits for the articles, you're more than covered. This book has essays by Gore Vidal, Salman Rushdie, actor John Malkovich, performance artist Karen Finley; there are also two-way interviews between Nancy Friday and Nina Hartley, and directors John Waters and Chi Chi LaRue. These articles are usually insightful and always interesting, covering everything from the influence of the Marquis de Sade to alien abduction sex fantasies to first experiences. (The only disappointment was Lou Reed's entry, which was a string of x-rated spam emails.)

A few things have changed since XXX 30 Porn-Star Portraits came out (Jenna Jameson retired acrimonously from the industry, while Jesse Jane may be its biggest star now), but this book will remain as a fascinating look at the stars with and without their clothes (as Morrissey sang, such a little thing makes a big difference), as well as their lives and the industry they work in. This is a terrific book that explores not just porn stars, but human sexuality and our perceptions. And you can say you're reading it for the articles...

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

The Republic Tigers, Keep Color (Chop Shop, 2008)

The Republic Tigers are an indie band hailing from Kansas City. Their lineup consists of Kenn Jankowski (vocal and guitar), Adam McGill and Ryan Pinkston (guitars and vocals), Marc Pepperman (bass), and Justin Tricomi (drums and vocals). Their 2008 debut CD Keep Color is an intriguing assortment of cerebral pop with lyrics steeped in sci-fi imagery.

While not strictly a concept album, most of Jankowski's lyrics on Keep Color deal with maintaining individuality and finding your hidden potential in a world that subverts your best intentions. The tone is set with the opening verse of the first song and single, "Buildings and Mountains." "We've been waiting all our lives, for things we've always had but had no eyes to see. Something new is going to happen, the most natural thing but nothing we'd expect." The rest of Keep Color maintains that theme, through a series of songs that are all at least decent. Jankowski has a brainy-sounding delivery when he sings, which I suppose adds to the nerd appeal of the record. The music is mostly mid-tempo rock, and while you could argue that it's a little too mid-tempo on the whole, there are a couple of standout tracks. "Buildings and Mountains" and the very danceable "Fight Song" are both worthy singles, but the darkly intense "Golden Sands" is my favorite.

Keep Color is likable debut from a promising band. The Republic Tigers will return with a new album later this year, and I look forward to hearing it.

Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by Scott

"Buildings and Mountains" live on David Letterman


My Darkest Days, MY DARKEST DAYS

Average bands make good songs, while great bands make good albums. Canadian rockers My Darkest Days fall into the former category, as their debut album My Darkest Days peters out pretty quickly.

My Darkest Days begins with such promise. "Move That Body" has crashing drums and catchy metal guitars blasting away over a song abiout getting down. After that comes a track whose title pretty much says it all: "Porn Star Dancing." This is a raunchy, no-holds-barred celebration of really dirty dancing that should be mandatory at every strip club across America. (It also gets a revisit later in the album with additional singing from Ludacris.)

After that, the album veers sharply into Nickleback territory, with much less energy and long, stretched-out guitar chords. (It's quite fitting that the only cover here is Duran Duran's "Come Undone.") Worse, the band abandons their hard-rockin' lyrics for lovelorn songs about former or absent women -- including one about a girlfriend going away to college for the first time! While these songs aren'tterrible, they aren't memorable either; and they fall well short of the album's opening two tracks.

My Darkest Days could have been a terrific rock album, but it peters out very quickly. This is a definite case where the singles are light years ahead of the rest of the songs.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Very Hard Choices - Spider Robinson (2008)

Very Hard Choices is the sequel to Very Bad Deaths, previously reviewed on this site. In Very Bad Deaths, we met Smelly, the telepath who had faked his own death years before, lest he be used for evil purposes by ... well, anyone, really. In Very Hard Choices, Smelly's past comes looking for him, as the result of indiscretions on the part of the only people who know what he is and that he's still alive - the ones who helped him in Deaths.

Once again, Spider Robinson manages the not-inconsiderable trick of finding something new and interesting to do with telepaths. In sci-fi, telepathy is usually either an overwhelming advantage or is countered with ever more telepaths. Robinson, instead, finds a way to harmonize telepathy with the world as we know it. It's conspiracy theory to some extent, but the constraints and explanations he puts on the phenomenon make it more-or-less believable.

Add that to his undeniable gifts as a writer, not just in the realm of plot, character and setting, but also as a stylist and wordsmith, and the result is a damn fine read.

Let me get back to character for a moment. The characters, both good and bad, created by Robinson are compelling. One of the great difficulty in writing good fiction is creating characters with depth, who aren't just plot devices. Robinson truly excels at this aspect of his craft, sketching in the outlines with a master's hand, and then filling in the details with a graceful aside here or an off-hand comment there. And he makes it look easy.

I recommend this book, but I also recommend that you start with the previous one, Very Bad Deaths if at all possible.

Overall Grade: A-



An anti-hero in a movie can be provocative and entertaining, but if the alternatives to that character are equally lamentable the movie can get old very quickly. This is the lamentable world of Bad Teacher, a comedy where just about every character is awful.

At the start of the movie, Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is about to retire from teaching, when her rich fiancee/meal ticket dumps her. Jump ahead a few months, and she's back to being the worst junior high teacher ever: showing movies and sleeping off hangovers during class, skipping mandatory staff meetings, and being rude and dismissive to her fellow teachers. (A friendship with shy, dumpy teacher Lynn Davies (Phyllis Smith) is never explained; I suspect it's there so Elizabeth has someone to talk to.)

Elizabeth sees a way out when the school gets a new sub: Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) is an idealistic, overly sweet, g-rated teacher who just happens to have come from a wealthy family. Elizabeth pegs him as her future meal ticket -- and her goal is to save up enough for breast implants (to look like his ex) while convincing him that she's as devoted to students as he is. Meanwhile goody-two-shoes teacher Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) is also pursuing Scott; and Elizabeth's behavior is even scarier when she wants her students to ace a standardized test -- so she can get the bonus money to use for her boob job. And gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) keeps trading quips with and making passes at Elizabeth, despite her dismissing him as just a gym teacher.

Bad Teacher makes two critical mistakes. The first is mistaking bad behavior for inherently funny. Short of killing or sleeping with a student, Elizabeth does virtually every possible thing wrong -- drinking in class, smoking marijuana in her car in the school parking lot, cursing at kids, pelting underachievers with dodgeballs, stealing, lying, cheating, showing up at a student car wash and writhing around like she was in a heavy metal music video -- yet there are few jokes or humorous situations surrounding the bad behavior. Cameron Diaz can do comedy well -- remember There's Something About Mary, anyone? -- but here all she has is bad character traits piled on more bad traits.

The second critical mistake is that the alternative to Elizabeth's character seems just as bad. Just about every other character is so perky and clean-cut and enthusiastic that you just want to punch them. It's a contrast to Elizabeth's horrible behavior, but it's equally unlikeable to the audience. Only Jason Segel shows that a person doesn't have to be horrible in either direction; but he's in the film so briefly, his character makes almost no impact.

Bad Teacher manages to give us one of cinema's worst teachers, but it doesn't give the laughs that should come with such a character.

Overall grade: D

Reviewed by James Lynch


Ice Pilots NWT, Season One

Ice Pilots NWT (Northwest Territory) is a documentary show look at one quite unique airlines. There is some seriously desolate areas up to the far North, and these hard working folks at Buffalo Airways put forth some serious effort to keep basic passenger air service and supplies moving back and forth to some of these areas.

The show is an import from the Canadian History Channel. While they are on their 2nd season up there, the first season just ended here on National Geographic TV. And I do mean just ended, but more on that in a little bit.

This airlines is a family affair, and Buffalo Joe has his two sons working at it, Mikey who runs the place, and another son that is a mechanic. To deal with the rugged conditions up there, they fly vintage WWII aircraft. Seriously, they actually have original aircraft that flew in the war, including DC-3, DC4 and C-46, and use them in frigid conditions with high winds, snow and ice. No matter they keep breaking!

Throughout the 13 episode season, there are some storylines. These include the sale of 2 waterbombers that they need to get to Turkey to get paid, and the hitch is that this type of plane is not supposed to go across the Atlantic in winter. Another is that in order to get to fly the plane, one must start as a "Rampie" with the company, and work on loading cargo for months before you get the big promotion to flight attendant. Oh, and these guys and gals all have their pilot licenses already to make this even more painful.

So anyway, I was enjoying the show, and then Nat Geo decides to finish off the season. So without any notice, they just air the last 2 episodes... at 3 AM! Oh, and you can't even get them on demand, on Amazon, not on iTunes. And they are available in Canada on demand, but it is blacked out here in the States. At this rate, guess we'll never see Season 2 down here, which is too bad.

Ice Pilots NWT Season One Overall Grade: A-
Nat Geo TV Scheduling Grade: F


What do you get if you combine the co-creator of Avenue Q, the creators of South Park, and America's nicest and goofiest home-grown religion? You get The Book of Mormon, an energetic musical that's both irreverent and sweet -- and whose songs are damn funny.

The play has the format of a road trip/fish-out-of-water story. In Salt Lake City, the Mormons are being paired up and sent off to do missionary work. Elder Cunningham is nerdy, nervous, and prone to making things up. Elder Price is handsome, charismatic, and dreams of going to Orlando. But while the other Mormons get great assignments ("Oh, Japan!" "Land of soy sauce!" "And Mothra!") Price isn't happy to find that he and Elder Cunningham are going to Uganda -- where starvation, AIDS, and warlords make life miserable. What are two amazingly polite white missionaries to do?

The Book of Mormon soundtrack is terrific, capturing the story of the play and providing a nice variety of musical styles. The Mormon world is overly clean-cut, from a chorus of doorbell-ringing pitches ("Hello!") to a goal of repressing one's emotions ("Turn It Off") to a rousing anthem of Mormon beliefs ("I Believe") that includes all the goofy ones. Meanwhile, Africa has its own sound: the coping phrase "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (which, when you know the translation, won't replace "Hakuna Matata" as your feel-good phrase), the idealized version of Salt Lake City ("Sal Tlay Ka Siti"), and the pretentious "I Am Africa" ("Like Bono!"). And both sounds, like both sides in the play, come together for the big finale "Tomorrow Is A Latter Day."

Parody is easy, and mockery too, but The Book of Mormon soundtrack manages to walk the line between making fun of the Mormons and not overlooking their silliness. There's plenty of crude humor ("I can't believe Jesus called me a dick!" "Let's be really fucking polite to everyone!"), but also lots of silliness, from the near-campy "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" to a baptism presented just like a deflowering. We even get two versions of the Mormon history: the official one ("All-American Prophet") and the one with Elder Cunningham's embellishments ("Joseph Smith American Moses") that includes the starship Enterprise and a magical fuck frog. It all works very well, showing both a wicked sense of humor and a love for catchy Broadway tunes.

The Book of Mormon won the Tony for best new comedy, and The Book of Mormon soundtrack is a great reflection of the humor, heart, and twisted laughs of the play. It's a delight.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch