Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Words and Pictures

As I sit here thinking over the last 12 months
I realize that 2009 was good to me. If you've been following this blog, you know that I graduated from the University of Texas, had fun with my family, started a new (and better) job, was accepted into the graduate Teaching program at St. Edward's University, enjoyed a lot of performances by local theatre troupes, attended my first Bouchercon, met one of my favorite authors, took a vacation where I got to spend an entire day on the beach, read an insane number of books, and discovered "new" musicians and BBC shows.

However, I wanted to share a little something more this New Year's Eve.

Fortunately, I had my camera with me for most of the year
so I can share the highlights with you.

2009 was the year I finally won our annual Christmas Slap-Game contest
and also the year I finally realized I'm in love with The Proclaimers.
2009 was a year for spending time with family:
Alek finally caught that pesky Christmas fairy.

We tried something new - fish 'n' chips, shepherd's pie, and Woodchuck cider - at a pub.

We fought over who had the best holiday photos.

We .... stood in front of trees together.

2009 was a time to go back to the classics
And to try new things.
We had bad pet news
(Omar was diagnosed with cancer)

And good pet news.
(The lasers are now 100% operational!)

We celebrated birthdays
and enjoyed life's little luxuries.
2009 gave us surprises,
narrow escapes,
and plenty of time to reflect.

And, of course, 2009 will live in our memories as the year Dad and Alek invented Overhanded Bowling.

Here's saying "so long" to 2009, and a hearty "hello" to 2010. I hope everyone enjoys the hell out of the new year - I sure plan to!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Halloween 2009

Ok, so let's pretend that Halloween was actually, say, six or seven days ago. And that these photos are on time.

I pulled the awesome straw and got to be event-planner for the evening. As much as I complain about living back in the suburbs in terms of there being nothing to do here, things turned out well:

Our intrepid trio started the afternoon at Main Event. Jyan came as Steve Jobs-dressed-as-Arthur-Dent (there's a bathrobe and towel in the back of the car),

Sarah went with the theme "mod", and I went with the theme "pirate costume I can still play laser tag in".

You see, I was worried that if I went the full striped skirt and boots route they wouldn't let me play. And let's be fair - laser tag trumps Halloween costume, always. (As it turns out, I would have been fine. They let a rather tall man in a gorilla costume in with no problem... which was totally terrifying in the strobe lights)

We warmed up with a few quiet games

and then one of us went, "wait, they have mini golf here?" After seeing the word "Glo" before "Mini Golf", it was a done deal. We were not disappointed, because the first thing we saw after walking in? This:

Yep, that's clearly a neon stargate knockoff. I absolutely love it. The rest of the mini golf area was similarly psychedelically amazing:

After a full round of golf and another $20 in shooting/killing/stabbing/horse racing games, we were starting to check the clock

and sure enough, it was time to head over to the local Alamo Drafthouse for the Texas premier of Dead Snow. The showing of Dead Snow was just amazing - there's nothing quite like the energy of sitting in a room full of semi-drunk Halloween revelers while watching a Norwegian Nazi zombie movie. Or, if there is, it's probably illegal.

After the movie we made a beeline straight back to Main Event, where we finally got to play some laser tag, with the aforementioned guy in a gorilla suit, a ton of tiny kids, and thankfully a handful of other grown-ups.

When we tired of running around in the dark and getting our pride bruised by middle schoolers, we moved on to the more adult sport of bowling. Which we're also pretty terrible at, it seems:

Sarah was Tsu, and Jyan and I chose our names from How I Met Your Mother, in honor of the fact that Jyan's got me hooked on the show. SWA in this case is short for Swarley ... and don't think I didn't get a huge kick out of my score in frame 9.

Coming "soon": Thanksgiving photos! With any luck, before 2010.

Oh, and because it seemed vaguely appropriate, here's a photo of my cat terrorizing my fish:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Little Slice

Although I write my reviews in exchange for a chance to check out new music and books, I have a friend who reviews plays and music in exchange for pay. As a result, we each tend to get very different albums. We were discussing our current projects the other night, when I mentioned that I was about to review the new Five For Fighting album Slice.

His response? "I'm so sorry."

We have disparate tastes in music, but I will admit that his comment slightly colored my expectations for the album. I'd never heard anything by Five For Fighting before: would I hate their music?

As it turns out, I needn't have worried. Right from the first track (Slice) I was drawn in by the music. In fact, the eponymous track is my favorite song on the album. Slice blends allusions to some of my favorite older songs with references to current culture, and the music perfectly matches this melding.
There was a time a long, long time ago
Chevys and levees played on the radio
No cell phones, just 20,000 lights
Swaying on a saturday night alright

Can you imagine that slice of time
Rock and roll was young
People stood in line
To hear music that played into their lives
That you could carry till the day you die

Hey man sing me a song
When we were everyone
We were more than just a slice of American Pie

Have you read my blog today
300 million little USA's
Your doorstep is just a click away
We'll get together one of these days

One line I read on the Five For Fighting website kept coming to mind as I enjoyed Slice, and I think it sums up the feeling you get from listening to the album:

If every album provides snapshots of where an artist's mind and heart is at the moment, Slice, the latest offering from John Ondrasik (aka Five for Fighting), is a collection of digital jpegs and faded Polaroids.

This description works so well because, throughout Slice, I appreciated the balance between "new" and "old" sounds - many of the tracks evoke older music that I love, but without sounding like a copy. For example, the track Love Can't Change the Weather pays homage to classic R&B music.

If you're interested in the album, there is a moving video of Five For Fighting's Changes on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. John Ondrasik can also be found on Twitter.

Thanks, One2One Network, for sending me this album to review!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Brandi Carlile

I popped in the new Brandi Carlile album, "Give Up The Ghost", on the way home after our Halloween festivities. Two thoughts sprang immediately to mind:

Thought #1: "Give Up The Ghost" is amazing driving music. This is especially true for tracks such as Looking Out, Dying Day, Dreams, and Caroline. These songs are upbeat and catchy; I wished I'd already known the lyrics, because they really make you want to sing along. Preferably with the windows down and a long stretch of highway ahead. I almost wanted the drive home to be longer, as I would gladly have listened to the album a second and third time right in a row.

Thought #2: Brandi Carlile has a beautiful voice. While I wouldn't use words like "refined" and "polished" to describe her voice, I also don't think that sort of sound would have worked on this album. Instead, Carlile's voice makes me feel that she's a very down-to-earth woman -- and that's she's having a great time singing her songs. It felt like she put part of herself into every track, from the opening Looking Out to the moving Before It Breaks, and through the final song, Oh Dear.

If I may give a piece of advice: you really need to check out Brandi Carlile's music! Amazon has some brief clips from "Give Up The Ghost" that I believe will give you a pretty good feel for her album.

If you'd like to find out more, Brandi Carlile can be found at and on Facebook.

Thank you, One2One Network! This is my favorite album I've received to review this year.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Another fantastic Saturday evening, all around.

One thing about not owning a car is that ... I drive an awful lot of cars. My parents' blue car, my parents' green car (the difference between the two being that the green one has, shall we say, limited mobility), my grandmother's car, my friend's father's shiny gold Mercedes - none of the friends I see on a regular basis drive, so I play chauffeur if they supply the vehicle. Or money for lunch; I'm not picky.

Tonight, a friend invited me to see the Weird City Theatre production of Nosferatu ... and I got to drive another car. This time, it was The Purple Subaru.

Another thing about driving many different cars is that you become adept at quickly locating the important levers and buttons. This may not sound like a big deal, but when you're talking about cars spanning different makes, models, and decades, things can get hairy. I thought I finally had my car-checking down to a science, since last time we went to a play I learned that some cars have a cleverly hidden switch that opens the gas tank cover.

So I felt pretty good when I adjusted the seat, adjusted the mirrors, turned on the lights (but NOT the brights), and got the passenger's side door open in under ten minutes. Until we got to the gas station and realized the parking brake was still on.

Things got even better 30 minutes and many miles later. I'd just spent several days in Indianapolis, so it took me a little while to realize that the white plumes coming from under the hood were not steam from hot air hitting cold, but rather smoke. From the air compressor, as we found out a few minutes later. If we ever make it all the way to and from a play without having to consult someone by phone about the car, I'm going to bake myself a cake.

We fortunately got things sorted out, much to the dismay of the eager cab driver who parked across the street to watch us check under the hood.

We were also, for the first time in three or four plays, early rather than late for the showing.

Speaking of which...

Nosferatu is based on both Bram Stoker's Dracula and the 1922 film. It was shorter than most plays I've seen - it started at 8 and we were back in the car by 9:40 - and the sets were sparce. However, I think this minimalism was a good thing. There's no extraneous anything, just the meat of the story, which as a bonus has a neat little twist ending. Also, kudos to whomever was controlling the lighting: it looked great.

Basically, if you get a chance to see Nosferatu, you should; it's showing at the Dougherty Arts Center from now until November first. Tickets aren't expensive, and it's a good way to get into the Halloween spirit.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Joshua Bell - at home with friends

When I woke up this morning, the temperature had dropped overnight - from an unpleasantly humid 82 to a delicious 64 - and I could just hear the sounds of the brass section of the marching band warming up at the high school. It seemed like the perfect time to pop in Joshua Bell's new album and enjoy the weather.

At Home With Friends is, as explained in a personal message included in the liner notes, an extension of a tradition from Bell's childhood. The album pairs Bell, on violin, with a number of other talents like Chris Botti, Sting, Josh Groban, Frankie Moreno, and Regina Spektor. The full track listing is impressive:

I Loves You Porgy featuring Chris Botti, trumpet
Come Again featuring Sting, vocals
Oblivion featuring Carel Kraayenhof, bandoneon
Cinema Paradiso featuring Josh Groban, vocals
Para Tí featuring Tiempo Libre, various
My Funny Valentine featuring Kristin Chenoweth, vocals
Maybe So featuring Edgar Meyer Sam Bush and Mike Marshall, strings
Grieg: Sonata No. 3 featuring Sergei Rachmaninoff (Zenph re-performance)
Eleanor Rigby featuring Frankie Moreno, piano & vocals
O, Cease Thy Maiden Fair featuring Nathan Gunn, baritone
Il Postino featuring Carel Kraayenhof, bandoneon
Left Hand Song featuring Regina Spektor, piano & vocals
Chovendo Na Roseira
featuring Dave Grusin, piano
Look Away featuring Edgar Meyer, bass and Chris Thile, mandolin
Variant Moods: Duet for Sitar & Violin featuring Anoushka Shankar, sitar
I'll Take Manhattan featuring Marvin Hamlisch, piano
Left Hand featuring Regina Spektor, vocals

At Home With Friends made for great mood music to leave on today. I may have been influenced by the weather, but I felt that several of the songs invoked the spirit of Fall, particularly Chovendo Na Roseira and Left Hand Song.

Surprisingly, and in contrast with other albums I've reviewed, At Home With Friends doesn't have a single track I actively dislike. That being said, I do feel that the true strength of the album rests with the musical rather than the vocal arrangements. Left Hand Song and Come Again are both good songs, but the tracks that I enjoyed - and that grabbed my attention - most were those which focused on the instruments.

Joshua Bell plays extremely well, and his versatility comes through over the course of the album. Duet for Sitar & Violin, for example, is an intriguing piece (and my personal favorite on the album), as are Look Away and Oblivion. Even better, over the course of the album I was introduced to a number of songs and instruments I'd never heard before.

Overall, I think At Home With Friends was a great idea on Joshua Bell's part.

A very hearty thank you to the One2One Network for giving me the chance to review At Home With Friends!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bouchercon 2009, Day 3


Alek went out for a haircut this morning with dad. He's a shoo-in for "Axe Murderer" in "Axe Murderer/Not An Axe Murderer" now. Although I don't know if anyone plays that game in Lincoln.

While they hit up the barber shop - a place so traditional I can't get a haircut there because I shave my legs - I headed over to the convention center for The MWA Celebrates Edgar Allen Poe panel (Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Peter Lovesey, John Lutz, Sara Paretsky). During the pre-panel wait, I struck up a conversation with the woman in front of me, during which it came out that I hadn't read novels by any of the authors on the panel - I was there for the content rather than the speakers. The woman asks, "Oh, so you're not a mystery reader?"

Well, I am, I'm just working up from Poe and Doyle and Christie and Stout to authors who are, you know, alive. As it happens I've finally made the transition from authors who are dead to authors who are "extremely old" (his words, not mine), like Michael Z. Lewin. Frankly, though, I couldn't get too annoyed at a woman who volunteers at food pantries and a steam boat museum (!) in her free time. When I'm older, I will be more than happy to become a "full-time volunteer."

The panel itself was interesting. There were people who knew much more about Poe than I ever have - and one woman in a truly cool themed vest - so I walked away with some new information. There was also a discussion about why, if Poe was bipolar (as has been suggested), there's no evidence of any writing from his "up" periods, and the running joke became "where are the tree poems?" Toward the end of the panel, Sara Paretsky randomly bust out with a "Poe poem" that does involve trees. I've done my best to reproduce it here from memory, so if you were also in the panel please feel free to correct me:

I think that I shall never see
A murder committed by a tree
Unless for asshole takes an ax
And gives that sucker 40 whacks
While some fool -let's call her me-
Walks past, and it crushes she.

Afterwards I had quite a bit of free time, even after I spent 20 minutes over at the Crimefest table. I think I might have to see if I can save up the $ necessary to go next May for two weeks: the full package includes trips by ferry and steam train, discussions over coffee, and a trip to Dartmoor in addition to room and board during Crimefest.

The Bouchercon 1934 panel (Ted Hertel, Marv Lachman, Larry Light, Gary Warren Niebuhr...I think), which came after a lunch of White Castle, covered the news, births/deaths, novels, short stories, and pulp magazines of the year. I especially enjoyed the ads from pulp mystery magazines: "dentures by mail", anyone? And, just as things got rolling, a reporter and Archie Goodwin's girlfriend showed up, so they conducted an interview during the panel. The last panel was The Sting Goes On (John Billheimer, Michael Bowen, Sean Doolittle, Jack Getze, Richard Thompson - except one of them called out sick and I don't remember who it was), which had a surprisingly small audience. I have no idea why more mystery fans wouldn't want to sit through a panel on cons; they appear in nearly every mystery I've read. Regardless, all the people who didn't attend missed a very fun/funny conversation ("I'm so slow, if I wrote guys trying to run the 'fiddle game', they'd be using a piano").

After The Sting Goes on, dad and I walked around the city a bit, up Mass. Ave. The "artsy" district was quite a disappointment in terms of things to do, so we made our own fun with my camera.

However, I'm not certain how much of what we took would be considered "serious art."
There's nothing that makes me want to enter a gallery less than "Serious Art" on the window. There's all sorts of free and fun art outside.
There was supposed to be a screening of one of the A&E episodes of Nero Wolfe, but technical difficulties (in the vein of "tapes don't go in a dvd player") nipped that in the bud. We did have a nice conversation with an author (Roberta Rogow) who kindly sang a few snippets of song for us. Once the room cleared out and people headed home, we got bored and wandered the convention area and, as usual, created our own fun.

I had a brief Zen moment where I found myself
but it passed.

All following photos published with apologies (and thanks?) to Michael Connelly, Martin Limon, Rick Mofina, the moon, the creators of James Bond, and shoe shiners everywhere.

I thought I'd end with a photo of dad and me on our thrones. Because "throne" makes me giggle.

Photos will be added tomorrow night. We have to get to bed early because there are free books tomorrow morning.