Saturday, July 31, 2010

BOOKS: The Fade by Chris Wooding

I regularly read several book review sites and catch a few more with some review magazines. As I encounter a positive review that highlights story material I think I will like, I add it to my Birthday and Christmas Wishbooks that I give out to my extended family twice a year. It's really just a glorified book list ... and a contract with them that I won't buy any of the books on the lists in the two months they get the list before having to use it. It works out quite well.

With one, small, occasionally irritating problem. Sometimes, the books go on the list and sit there a while until a paperback edition comes out (I prefer paperbacks due to cost, space-savings and weight ... I hate hefting some of these monstrous hardcover editions). Soooo, I forget WHY the book got on the list. Such a case last Christmas was The Fade by Chris Wooding, an author I was totally unfamiliar with.

NOTE: See how I managed to start and end the preceding paragraph with a preposition. Mr. Goddard and the rest of the English staff at Bramalea Secondary School are scowling where ever they are.

At any rate, I was further confused by a book that started on chapter 30 and proceeded to chapters 29, 31, 28, 27 and 32. The narrative was a little jumbled up, but nothing like the receding (snaking?) chapter numbers. But along about chapter 32, you know, the one before chapter 26, things started making sense. And by the time I got to chapter 0 (which came three chapters after chapter 40), I had enjoyed myself immensely.

Betcha you're wondering what the heck the book is all about, other than trying to confuse the Master of the Castle of Confusion. Think "Land of the Giants," the sixties TV show with little, little people making do in a world much bigger themselves. Now, take the little people and make them so small, mushrooms pass for giant trees. Next, make sunlight deadly to all 'life' in Wooding's world. Spores, crystals and sentient life amongst the roots abounds.

Now imagine the battle for survival between different sets of sentient beings. Orna is part of a raid on a position held by the enemy Gurta. In the battle, Orna's husband Riss is killed and she is captured, despite being one of her side's leading fighters, a lithe assassin-trained member of the Cadre. The rest of the book is her getting out of the inescapable prison she's thrown into, journeying with nomads and eventually ending up back home. All in attempt to find her boy Jai.

Throw in lots of back-stabbing with the powerbase of her race and you have a superb combination of fantasy, military SF, political intrigue and world-building. A hearty recommendation.

Just don't look at the chapter numbers.

Friday, July 30, 2010

SOFTWARE: A Kludge for the LNK Issue

The internet has been abuzz with the news that Windows has a serious security issue with icons of all things. It's possible to just LOOK at a web-site or even stick in a disk or thumbdrive and get hammered by ill-meaning software. The problem relates to how Windows has handled LNK (aka shortcut) files since time immemorial. It's been broken forever.

And now the bad guys know that.

Microsoft either can't find a solution that works across all versions of Windows (and they are morally responsible to fix even out-of-service versions) OR it's stubbornly sticking to its regular patch schedule of the second Tuesday of each month. Neither explanation is good.

There have been a couple of attempts to skate around the issue. Microsoft itself detailed a long list of mods you could make to your system that would ultimately turn all icons into white squares. Ugggh! I found another complex solution called Ariad that was better. But still, too complex for the layperson ... or me.

Then today, Sophos stepped up. The Anti-virus makers now have a tool that is easy to install and will work in the time til Microsoft gets its solution out to the public (and let's hope it wasn't reason number one, above). You can find it here. Take a look at the video. And re-iterating what it says, you don't need to be using Sophos Anti-Virus. This will work with any AV product.

Even Microsoft's.

DO NOT DELAY. This exploit's out in the wild and it's one that usually safe practices will still fall prey to. And I do NOT have the time to fix anybody's computer right now.

BOOKS: Cat in A Hot Pink Pursuit by Carole Nelson Douglas

I don't like cats.

There, I said it. I'm a dog guy. But I'd be hard-pressed to find many detective novels that have dogs as major characters. When writers sit down to write their cozies, it seems that cats are favoured. It's because of their mercurial nature, of course. You can't COUNT on cats, so they can do anything the writer wants them to at key times. Reluctantly, I started following the exploits of one certain cat about fifteen years ago. Midnight Louie.

And now, I have most of the books in the series written by Carole Nelson Douglas (or ghost-written, Midnight Louie would claim). I'm up to the seventeenth book, Cat in a Hot Pink Pursuit, with five or six somewhere deeper in the stack.

Part of the charm, (ALL of it if you ask me) of these books is Louie's human companion, one petite PR ace by the great name of Temple Barr. Barr works in Las Vegas, the home of many, many stories, as the long-running CSI series will attest. People die there in interesting ways. And, I point out, Barr's been accidentally figuring the crimes out for longer than CSI has been on the air. Which brings me to a point. Douglas is STILL finding new and interesting predicaments to place Barr in. And what's better, there's precious little of Max Kinsella and Matt Devine in this book. I sort of like the Barr-Louie team without the encumbrances of a love triangle.

On the other hand, looms Lt. C.R. Molina, a cop who doesn't quite find Barr as adorable as the other two gents. Reversing back to the first hand, Molina sort of needs Barr. She's the only adult she knows that could pass for a teen. That's important because her daughter Mariah is in a local TV production of a teen beauty pageant, one beset with problems, not the least of which is the local presence of Mariah's father, a known not-nice guy. And it's about to get worse. Temple and Midnight Louie join up just in time for the bodies to start dropping.

The TV show is called Tween and Teen Queen and Mariah is in the younger division. Soon, Temple gets all dolled up and joins the older group, plus takes on the job of Mariah's protector and confidante. Without mentioning Molina the Elder's involvement. Now, by dolled up, I mean punked out. Temple's not there to win, and tries to ensure that by going leather, piercing (fake) and tattoos (fake of course) with a new dye job for her usual titian locks. She enters the contest as the raven-haired Xoe Chloe.

This being a Midnight Louie case, you can be sure of two things. One, we get murders. Not too many, not too few. Just right for these usually light-weight novels with a penchant for (gallows) humour. Secondly, the story gets inset chapters from Midnight Louie's point of view. And in this book, just about all of Louie's extended family of daughter, lover and would-be lovers shows up. It's as hokey as heck, but Douglas makes this all work. Remember, I'm reading the SEVENTEENTH book in this series.

When all is said and done, Temple and Matt are making cooing noises and Mariah is a pretty happy tween. Mother Molina isn't too bad off, although some of her secrets have been shed, too. Midnight Louie? He's more or less happy to have survived the confluence of concubines.

Nothing wrong with that.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

BOOKS: Medusa Rising by Cindy Dees

We're getting to the end of this Reading Month and I'm not quite finished with the Romance genre yet. Having been pleased with how little mushiness existed in Medusa Project, I was more than happy to dive into Medusa Rising, Cindy Dees' second of seven books in the Medusa series. And you know, it wasn't half-bad.

Whereas the first book in the series was almost all action, with a little smooching to get it past the Silhouette Bombshell editors, this book ramps up the Romance a smidgen. Still not too much for this relation-phobe. But there's definitely more sexual tension. It also stars another member of the team, rather than team leader Viper.

This time around, the Jamaican-born Dr. Aleesha Gauthier, code-named Mamba, is the star of the team exercise, which is the re-taking of a cruise ship that has been taken over by a combination of bad guys from Europe and some American ideologues. If it sounds like a re-routed script from a Die Hard movie, you wouldn't be far wrong.

Focusing on Mamba has its moments. She tends to resort to island patois in times of stress, or when a role in an operation demands it. She's a healer who doesn't know if she really has killing in her. (I tried to think back to the first book and the skirmish in the Middle East with a insane posse of crazy Arabs, and I can't actually remember her shooting anybody. And as good as that book was, I wasn't going to re-read it for just that one detail). And she's really good in water, opening the book on a training exercise with some SEALS. About the same time as that exercise, the bad guys are setting the stage for the denouement in the book, setting up some undersea mines.

It doesn't take long for the Grand Adventure to get taken by Viktor Dupont and his merry band of Basque separatists and militarily-trained American dopes, pushing an agrarian agenda. Naturally, Dupont has a hidden agenda of his own that he keeps tight to his vest until very, very late in the book. With the kooks in charge, it's up to the Medusas to get on board and re-take the ship with minimal loss of life, ending the Gordian Knot of who should do what between the Yanks, Brits and Bahamians.

Mamba and the Medusas get on the ships in what would make a cracker-jack movie action sequence. Then, most of them hide out in one of the various rooms left open by the villains getting all the men off the ship or murdered quite early in the takeover. Obviously, being women is a key to this operation. Aleesha ends up being the most visible of the Medusas, as she's caught, more or less, by one of the bad guys, away from the team. As luck would have it, the bad guy that catches her is an undercover MI-5 agent, Michael Somerset.

The middle part of the book is taken with intelligence gathering and the dance between Aleesha is he figures out she's part of a rescue plan and then tells her that he's a mole and tries to prove it. Meanwhile there's a lot of sighing and brushing by and, you know, tension. In the end, when the big rescue comes, Aleesha has to act on her instincts and trust him, all the while breaking her "Do No Harm" oath in a major way. Like I said, it could be a Die Hard movie.

All in all, while not as good as The Medusa Project, this was another enjoyable read. I could really go for Romance books if they were all like these two.

BUT we know they aren't.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

BOOKS: Mr. Monk Goes to Germany by Lee Goldberg

As you might have detected, English is NOT my first language. I was a Royal Canadian Air Force brat, born here. But the family encamped for Baden-Baden in what was then West Germany when I was a few months old. My brother Wayne was born there and I probably spent as much time with my baby-sitter as I did my parents. Ergo, I basically started speaking Deutsche before English.

I honestly don't have much memory of my time in Germany. My earliest memory of Europe (the only one) is playing in Madurodam in what was called Holland back then. Madurodam is the famed Miniature City and I seem to remember doing the Godzilla bit stalking through the streets of buildings that came up to about my waist. The only other memory of getting to and from Europe was that I spent the whole time in my stateroom painting the walls that kind of sickly green only reluctant sea-farers know. There wasn't any such thing as Gravol for kids back then.

To be honest, I don't even retain much German, although I did take the class in high school with John Becker, one of the better teachers at Bramalea Secondary School. As with my other language classes, I skated by the class rather than actually take it, dropping it as soon as my language requirements were done. One of my more major screw-ups.

Which brings me, short story long, to the subject of today's review: Lee Goldberg's sixth book in the Mr. Monk series, Mr. Monk Goes to Germany. Surprise!!!!

Look, this review is like all the other Mr. Monk reviews. If you like the show, or have read the preceding books, this is a good continuation of the fun and frivolity that is Natalie Teeger's daily life with Adrian Monk. Well, maybe fun and frivolity is over-stating it a bit. Okay, so Adrian can drive her (and his psychiatrist) out of the country and across the ocean. But still, there's mirth in other's misfortunes. The Germans even have a word we've appropriated for it: schadenfreude.

And boy, do we get schadenfreude in this story.

Dr. Kroger heads over to Germany for a conference, leaving Monk close to mental implosion. (And don't we still miss Stanley Kamel?) Faced with falling into the abyss, Monk decides to hop onto an old Air Canada plane (drugged up, of course) and follow him. And he does NOT uncover a murder during the plane trip!! In fact, he doesn't discover any murderous mayhem until arriving in Lohr, which is more or less on the way to the Black Forest. Monk and Natalie track down the good doctor Kroger at the conference, being held at the Franziskushohe resort. At which point Natalie and Dr. Kroger have a verbal spat, with each blaming the other for Monk being there, rather than back in San Francisco. Natalie throws the doctor's manipulation of her and Monk that led to the trip to Hawaii in his face during the fight. And with that, it's back to normal, although taking place in Germany.

Monk REALLY handles bucolic settings about as well as I would have. Cobblestone streets, millennia-old houses made of stones, mortar and long-lasting hope and the lack of straight corners has him in full-on OCD mode. Well, until an inn-mate dies and there is the chance Monk sees the six-fingered man, a critical part of learning how his wife Trudy was married.

It's all pretty clever, especially that murder in the inn. Goldberg gets the usual detecting out of Monk while wrapping it up in a love-letter travelogue to Germany. Is he on the mark with his observations? Can't tell you. For Monk, yes.

For Germany? Well, there is only so much you should expect a four-year old to remember.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

BOOKS: Destiny by Alex Archer

There are close to 30 Rogue Angel books out there right now and the series got off to a very good start with Destiny. It, like all the others, is credited to the house pseudonym of Alex Archer, although this volume was apparently written by Victor Milan.

It's not the most original novel ever written. And the speed with which the books comes out, suggests an almost assembly-line approach to their creation. But, it does do riffs on classics and it's a pleasant, quick read. It actually showed more promise than has played out later in the series, with few of the first-book supporting characters really carrying on. So, I don't recommend the WHOLE series. But the first book? Absolutely.

The series star is archaeologist Annja Creed. Think of a female Indiana Jones with the attitude of Tomb Raider uber-female Lara Croft. She's part of a TV show that goes around "Chasing History's Monsters." She's the legit side of the research team. There's better-known eye candy that does most of the on-air stuff. She does the dirt and dirty work. And, as befitting her series' title, she's a bit of a loner. Beautiful, smart, athletic ... and a loner. Sure. I should be tagging this series as Science Fiction.

At any rate, we get a setup not too different than you would expect from Clive Cussler. The prologue takes us to Rouen in France about six hundred years ago, give or take a decade or two. The prize that will change Creed's life comes to the montain it will call home for six centuries. And then we start the story.

Creed follows a lead to a story of a creature called La Bête, said to live in the Cevannes Mountains. Think werewolf. Needless to say, there is a scientific and historical explanation to the legend. But there is something mystical too. And Creed fights off Corvin LeSauvage and his gang of bad guys and natural disasters to expose the truth, taking advantage of a found blade than she can will into existence when the time is proper. Any allusions to Jean D'Arc are purely intentional.

I thought Archer/Milan came up with an interesting character and equally interesting supporting characters and was REALLY disappointed when they didn't follow Creed into the second book. As a book that stands by itself, it's a recommended read.

Monday, July 26, 2010

SPORTS: And Now, the NBA Solution

Having solved the conundrum that is the CBA loophole the NHL is trying to close after-the-fact because of the signing of Ilya Kovalchuk by the New Jersey Devils, I turn now to the rapidly deteriorating situation in the NBA.

Chris Paul, a heretofore well-thought of player (Remember, I pointed out his serious character flaw as his collegiate career came to an end), is showing every bit of no class that others have shown before in demanding a trade. Well, not publicly. There would be penalties for that. But in private, and through his flunky representation, Paul has let it be known he wants out of New Orleans. And of course, that doesn't mean he'd be willing to escape New Orleans only to land in the hinterlands of Detroit or some such place. No, he wants to go to Orlando to play with Dwight or LA to be Kobe's compadre or maybe New York, providing the Knicks didn't have to give up much to get him. He's tired of playing with the po' boys and wants to play for a contender.

Shame on him. And every other well-paid player who put his name to paper and then started cashing (HUGE) checks. EVERYBODY wants to play for the title and win at least once. Paul's job, the one he's taking the money for, is to do EVERYTHING in his power to make that happen. FOR THE TEAM paying him NOW, not his future employers when he takes his talent elsewhere for the talent equivalent of 2o cents on the dollar.

This petulant self-aggrandizing approach to the game happens in every sport. But, because basketball is played with five men on the court and a rotation of three or four more, one player can make a HUGE impact with his performance. Or the withdrawal of same. Now, there are reports that Paul is the kind of guy who will play hard DESPITE wanting out of town. If he does, he'll be the first. Think he's going to smack Bryant upside the head on a lay-up attempt when he's been pining semi-publicly to be his teammate ASAP? There's an edge to the best in basketball. And players headed out of town don't have it. So, executives give in and trade them for the 20 cents, rather than the 10 cents when the man-children REALLY shut things down (Yes, Vince Carter, I'm pointing the finger at you).

I've detailed my plans for these 'trade' requests in the past. I think it should get REAL expensive to pull the dagger out of your team's back and stick it in, just a little lower. And I guarantee you, Paul will have to stay out of New Orleans for the rest of his life, if he pulls the ripcord on the Hornets.

But, you know, it takes two to tango. The TEAMS have hardly been innocent by-standers in all of this. We've watched as the Knicks, Wizards, Nets and, to a certain extent, the Heat all threw away parts of at least two seasons, two COMPLETE seasons if you are talking the Knicks, in the vain hope of winning the recruitment lottery that was early July this year. Other than winning the Wall lottery, Washington ended up the worst. And the Knicks aren't much better either. But they're willing to let this season (and next) go to seed, all in the hopefully vain hope of forming their own power trio.

Time to put a rest to making fans sit through season(s) of throwing in the towel when the opening shot goes up in October. I mean, watch Indiana this year. They aren't going to do anything but suffer through this season, because of the lottery-like cap space they will have next July. It's untenable.

Soooo, when the contract negotiations go on between now and then for a new contract between the NBA and the players, there HAS to be a some protection for fans of teams who's management is about to adopt Knick Self-Immolation Plan v2.5. That and protection against idiot players feeding their own egos by imagining a league with only LA, Miami, maybe Boston and Orlando and a Knick team void of knuckleheads. The rest of the league can head for the CBA.

Adopt my 'trade demand protection plan' from last winter and get some relief there. As for spoiling Larry Bird's plan? Use a ranking system. I'd recommend Chris Reina's at RealGM as a starting point. Whatever you do, end up with a ranking. Rank the players in four tiers. Tier A has the top 30 players. Tier B has the next 45 players. Tier C has the next 60 players. Tier D has everybody else AND rookies. Teams can't sign more than one player from tier A or B in any given off-season, not on their own roster. They can go after two tier C guys. And there are no limits to Tier D acquisitions. I'd also limit combined A and B signees to three over any two-year period. Pull off all exceptions to the Bird rule, including annual mid-level exemptions and bi-annual veteran exemptions. Plus, no three-year minimum to get Bird rights. Contracts limited to five years and NO voiding options. (And no trade kickers and ABSOLUTELY NO NO-TRADE CLAUSES).

Of course, I'd give up hardening the cap to get these things. But ANY letup means I'd harden that cap but good. QUADRUPLE dollar for dollar for each million to Ten Million dollars over the luxury tax limit. Then I'd DOUBLE it again after that. Let's REALLY see whether Dolan can stomach Paul at that price.

As a fan of a have-not (although they sure seem to like Toronto's strip clubs when in town), I want a chance at a title, just like San Antonio has had, vack in the day when superstars didn't make promises to "See you on South Beach." If the NBA does NOT do it, then the little clique that is the American Olympic team can decide where each of the titles for the next few years will go to. And it ain't coming to Canada if they have the only say in it.

BOOKS: How to Live on Mars by Robert Zubrin

Yesterday, I told you about my sister-in-law wondering about my book choices. Here's one Dawna, my honorary sister-in-law (She's married to my best friend Patrick), wondered about. How to Live on Mars by Robert Zubrin doesn't look much like a fiction book at all. Looks like what it purports to be, a guide to living on Mars written by some guy named Zubrin... sixty some odd years from now.

And it's one of the funniest books I've read in years. And, it's got more hard science in it, then just about anything since I chugged through Charles Sheffield's Borderlands of Science, which is what, ten years old?

The conceit is simple. We are in the year 2071 and this guidebook to surviving and thriving on Mars has fallen into our hands. Zubrin runs through all the usual topics for this kind of book. Getting there, surviving there and then thriving there. In each case, he talks about the VARIOUS ways of doing these things. And you'd be surprised.

Zubrin offers up just about all of the options for everything and shows you why the 'smart' people do only pick one of the choices they have before them. There IS a best way to get to Mars, to pick out a space suit and how you get your air and water, and how to conduct business. There's a best place to set up a homestead and a better place others place to work. There are even suggestions at what kind of work you should get involved in, depending on your risk reflex.

And Zubrin loves making asides about politics and unions and the women who run them.

If ever there was a case of feeding the patient science in a loving covering of jam-packed humour, this is it. It's not a long book and can be comfortably read in five hours or so. Just about a perfect antidote to a long, tiring week dealing with dolts.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

BOOKS: Rain Fall by Barry Eisler

My sister-in-law Lucy was kidding me a couple of weeks ago about my list of books I wanted for my birthday. At least one, maybe two, could loosely be termed romances. Both were actually fantasies with slight romantic side-plots, including one that I was sold on by the cover alone. It had a dirigible.

I'm deathly afraid of high heights, as any sentient non-bird should be. But I love dirigibles and airships, or anything like them. So I read the likes of Kenneth Oppel. My family has had boats forever. I haven't been on one in decades. When I was younger and had no choice, I huddled in the middle of the boat, absolutely sure that if I looked over the the sides, my glasses would fall off and sink all the way to China. So I read the marine thrillers Clive Cussler writes. I'm bad, REALLY bad at taking orders. So I like the military SF of Elizabeth Moon and David Weber, amongst others. I haven't been close to being an athlete in a LOOOOOOONNNNNGGGG time. But as a former sportswriter, PA announcer AND coach for teams from Canada in several sports, I read whatever sports books come across the transom.

In other words, I read what I won't/can't do myself.

So, let me tell you about assassin John Rain, the star of Barry Eisler's series kickoff, Rain Fall. (You KNEW I was going to get to the review part of this eventually). He's half-American and mostly Japanese, as Yogi Berra would probably describe it. Born of an American mother and a Japanese father who got together in the aftermath of the second World War, Rain, aka Junichi Fujiwara, was born there, but spent his formative years in the States. He opted to enlist near the tail end of the Vietnam War and became a killing machine on behalf of his Motherland. And when that war ended, he didn't have anywhere to go, but into the mercenary profession. Eventually, he specialized in killing for hire.

This would normally make Rain a villain. At least a disagreeable sort. But there is something about hitmen who star in novels. They tend to be good people, if you can get around their little problem with what they do for a living. I offer you the Keller novels by Lawrence Block, for example. And Rain is another hitman with a heart of gold, so to speak. In Rain Man, the first of a long-running series, Rain arranges for the fatal heart attack of a man in Tokyo, only to end up in serious like with the man's daughter before too many more pages have gone by.

The man Rain killed was a whistle-blower after a lifetime being part of the crooked political process in Japan. Variously, a Forbes Magazine writer, the CIA, the Japanese equivalent of the FBI and the big boss of an extreme right wing Japanese political party all want the evidence the dead man was supposedly carrying on his person at the time of his death. Since the evidence is missing for MOST of the book, the various factions all think Rain and Midori, the beautiful pianist daughter of the initial target, have the evidence.

What we then get is typical thriller stuff. A tour of Japan's highlights and lowlights follows, including a platonic visit or three to love hotels by the duo on the lam. Eisler gives us both the Japanese and English sides of most conversations, no matter which language is being used at the moment. It's actually quite good as a travelogue. And the action bits are the kind of scenes you would expect for the local, lots of martial arts and Jackie Chan daring do. If Eisler didn't resort to his detective-like hero having a serious jones for jazz music (Do ALL similar heroes HAVE to love jazz and/or the blues?), I'd have to look hard for something to complain about.

I quite liked the book and intend on following up on the story of Rain, who was told in polite, but firm tones, that he was persona non grata in his Fatherland at the conclusion of the book. Unless he was to lend his unusual talents to the inscrutable (cliche, I know, but ...) policeman who ends up the winner in the free-for-all for the evidence.

I'll miss Midori, though.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

BOOKS: A Christmas Stocking by Frank Stewart

Every now and then, when I'm down in the dumps, I pull out a slim red volume called A Christmas Stocking, written by one of Bridge's great southern gentlemen, Frank Stewart.

I had a chance to meet and then work with Frank during my brief sojourns as the PR flack for the American Contract Bridge League. His reputation is deserved. And he's a writer who can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. He's mostly a column writer available here. But his little red book of feel good stories centred around Christmas at the Bridge Club. is a guaranteed pick-me-up every time.

How slim is slim? Well, at 64 pages including copious illustrations by Joellen Cianciola Watkins, it's actually got less wordage than most magazines these days. I normally head right for the concluding of five stories, Millard Pringle's Christmas. On my most recent reading, I then u-turned and read the first four in order. By the time the hour was up, I was filled once again with bonhomie and had put thoughts out of my head of committing bodily harm on some of my .... smarts-challenged .... clients.

Stewart certainly isn't the first or even the most prolific writer of tales told about a local Bridge Club stocked with colourful (and colourfully named) characters. Heck, I did more than a bit of it myself in my column-writing days. Most people who read the major magazines would finger Victor Mollo and later David Bird as the masters of the art. But, for my money, Stewart succeeds best in capturing the humanity that is Bridge at the local club. Mollo and Bird both strive for the yuks and succeed admirably.

The thing that resonates with me about the Millard Pringle story is because of my experiences as a young player at the Bramalea Duplicate Bridge Club, run by a pair of teachers from my former senior public school, Mark Loeb and Bob Fedosa. I think I was shepherded just right and it wasn't long before I was one of the better players at the club, despite still being in high school. One night I arrived without normal partner Don Penning and was faced with the proposition of playing with the club harridan or with a gentleman who was, simply, the worst player in the club. I picked the guy over the gal.

What happened next beggars my imagination, even these many years later. The whole night was a horror of bridge, with some bidding exercises that simply weren't possible. At the night's conclusion, we finished last. How badly last? EVERY OTHER PAIR FINISHED ABOVE-AVERAGE!!! You could imagine my reaction and the need for Mark and Bob to pry my fingers from around the throat of my incredibly inept partner.

And you'd be wrong. The goodness of my partner (one of the few people I have ever accepted an invitation to go to his home and dine with his family) shone through all night. Attacking him in any way would have been the equivalent of kicking a puppy. Repeatedly. We lost Arif Uzziman too soon from the local Bridge circuit.

The story about Millard Pringle ends differently in the book. The feelings it brings back aren't so different.

Friday, July 23, 2010

BOOKS: Showcase Green Lantern Volume 1 by Various

DC Comics was a little slow on the uptake when Marvel Comics started releasing their Essentials collections in soft-cover black and white editions for under 20 bucks. These so-called 'telephone books' were really good ideas, letting younger readers get a chance to go back and read twenty or so comic books from the very beginnings of today's most popular books, at a price of just under a buck an issue. And at the price of colour. More of that in a moment.

So, seeing the success Marvel had, DC revived the old Showcase name as the blanket title of their own black and white reprints. Great move, fostered, as I understand it, mostly by Bob Greenberger. The Showcase line debuted with Green Lantern Volume 1, which covered the original Showcase's issues 22-24 and then issues 1-17 of the eponymously named title. 529 pages of comic goodness.

Naturally, I grabbed it as soon as it came out. Specifically, I was looking for the early Green Lantern issue that featured the first appearance of The Black Hand. A crook with smarts and nothing in the way of super-powers. Nothing like he's been portrayed over the last year in the latest of DC's idiotic darkening of their comic universe. But I digress. At any rate, I was a little disappointed. In fact, The Black Hand doesn't appear in this volume, because his debut wasn't until issue 29 of the comic. That issue DID make it into Volume 2 of the Green Lantern Showcase's, in case you want to look it up for yourself.

The other disappointment was more a laugh than a disappointment. There's a certain absurdity to kicking off your black and white imprint with a character who creates GREEN things out of nothingness and who has a weakness for things coloured YELLOW. Outside of the cover, there's a paucity of such colouring information, making the books quite puzzling at times. You would have thought DC might have started off with Batman or Superman. Even Wonder Woman. But no, they went for the colourful character first.

And you know, it wasn't really all that bad of a decision. The date range of the original material is roughly October of 1959 to October of 1962. That hit MY sweet spot for discovering comic books (I was born in 1956). Green Lantern was written mostly John Broome, with a couple of stories by Gardner Fox, both of whom were great writers of the 'funnies.' Gil Kane did almost all of the art work, tamed into beautiful submission by inkers like Joe Giella and especially Murphy Anderson. And the subject matter was more about alien baddies than earthbound ones.

It's decent reading, GREAT nostalgia and a good Reading Room reader. And this one cost only ten bucks. It might not have been original, but Greenberger and his team did well by me with this debut to the Showcase collection.

After which, Greenberger was let go by DC. The mind boggles. He's still working in the media field as a freelancer and has an active Internet blog presence. But he never got a chance to see through his weird decision to start the black and white line off with the colourful and colour-prone lead-off character.

SPORTS: The NHL Screwup AND The Solution

It's interesting that history is so determined to repeat itself in the NHL. Alexei Yashin signs a 10-year deal that the New York Islanders learned to hate. So they tried it again with Rick DiPietro and a 15-year deal. Already hate it. Other teams see the 'success' of the Islanders in doing this long-term thing and try their own variations. How's it working out for you in Tampa with the Vinnie LeCavalier deal? And he's a GOOD GUY.

The whole purpose Detroit, Chicago, Washington and now New Jersey are handing out LIFETIME contracts, is to take advantage of a loophole in the bargaining agreement with the players that AVERAGES the per-season hit to the payroll cap. A hard cap with very few intended workable exceptions. In order to get Ilya Kovalchuk at a $6M number yearly, despite paying him closer to $10M yearly for the likely length of his career, Devil GM added six more years for a sum total of 3.5M dollars. Bingo, you have the magic cap number of $6M.

Course, the NHL finally got religion and said it violated a clause that basically says, you can't try to circumvent the spirit of the agreement. Which is, to get a reasonable cap number over a reasonable length of contract. One man's reasonability is another man's idea of ridiculousness. Thus, the NHL finally said enough was enough and tried to put the cap back on the genie bottle.

It'll all end up in court. Betcha Kovalchuk doesn't hit the ice in a Devil's uni this calendar year. Might be back in Jersey at the turn of the year, lawyers flanking him on either side. Or he might be suiting up with St. Pete's of the KHL. Either way, he won't play if he won't blink on giving up his $102M contract, one that exceeds the offer he turned down in Atlanta by a couple of mill. He's an obstinate guy and he's fixated on not taking a haircut for pronouncing the Atlanta bid not enough.

The IDEA of the averaged salary isn't the flaw in the CBA. And neither is the lack of a maximum contract length, which, to protect the owners from themselves, should have been five years (a number the NBA is getting to). Nope, it was the lack of control on the AVERAGE concept.

Simple solution to the whole issue. Salary can't deviate more than 12.5 percent year over year (either up OR down). Can't deviate by more than 20 percent over a two-year period. Thus, the average stays the average. Or thereabouts. If somebody wants to pay Kovalchuk $10M a year for the next ten years, the likely extent of his remaining playing career, have at it. It's your team's money. BUT, you'll still be paying him a bit better than $8M for that final year when he might be better off in a rocking chair than getting rocked on the ice.

Suddenly, the idea of having a manageable buy-out (usually by one of your successors as GM) isn't so enticing. It's a lot easier to give Kovalchuk 3.5M to walk away from his last six years of contracted servitude, then more than twice that, PER YEAR, for no work. Amortization can only work so many miracles.

A little change and the BIG problem with the CBA goes away.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

BOOKS: The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

Blank out the author's name and the title. Change all character and place names to generic names. Now let me see the manuscript. If Joe Haldeman wrote it, I can spot it. I'm HAPPY to say I can spot it. Case in point, The Accidental Time Machine.

I read MOST of The Accidental Time Machine in the waiting room of my doctor's office over the course of two visits. It's a smooth, quick read and a smooth, quick ride through what could pass as the history of the next bazillion years. Albeit in a slightly different dimension than ours. Close, but different.

Haldeman wrote the seminal Forever War and the two volumes that followed it (but weren't quite as good). The more-or-less same plot was featured in that book. A war fought through space and time, especially time. Travel meant not only leaving your loved ones behind, but your own era, as the time dilation required to travel and fight the good fight meant years, centuries, millennia passed for the people at home who said good-bye to the soldiers.

The Accidental Time Machine only has one lonely mother to really feel the loss of hero, Matt Fuller. Fuller is, more or less, a screw up. He's working in a lab, because it can occupy his brain. Otherwise, his life is a mess. His girlfriend has ditched him. He's a flunky, but is waaaay smarter than anybody else he does business with. But he can't seem to get things together.

One day, he accidentally invents time travel. Haldeman is a master at describing the mechanism without dispelling the magic with any science that's obviously wrong. It's a 'magical combination' of a number of things that manage to produce demonstrable time travel. With nothing tying him to right now (albeit a slightly futurized right now), Fuller opts to become a temporal traveller.

So, off we go on a joy trip to virtually the end of time itself. Fuller is on a one-way trip with each jump outdoing its predecessor by an increasing number of years. His first 'public' jump is done in a flashy car, wearing a scuba suit. (it makes sense at the time). By the time he's two more jumps past, he's a celebrity and his arrival is expected. Two more jumps and he's a mythologized figure at the base of a religion. Two more jumps and he's forgotten, as is most of what passes for knowledge. Still later, he's in outer space looking at a world decimated by mankind's misuse, and is now just a big game preserve for the life that follows Man.

All of this is conjecture on Haldeman's part. Entertaining, and probably well-researched. But just conjecture. The REAL issue with Haldeman is whether you feel he's obligated to return the time traveller(s) to their current era to examine their ability to re-relate to their once common folk and friends.

The lack of that 'truly coming home' aspect is something that I think makes Haldeman distinctive and interesting. He combines distopia's and utopia's, sometimes even in consecutive chapters.

All that thought-provoking helps keep the mind off what you are truly doing in a doctor's waiting room. Waiting for the doctor.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

BOOKS: Sizzling Sixteen by Janet Evanovich

It appears that 2010 is the Year of Atonement. First, John Sandford recovers from a dismal 19th volume in his series of Lucas Davenport novels with the 20th, Storm Prey. Now, I'm happy to say, Janet Evanovich is back in form with Sizzling Sixteen, the latest of the numbered Stephanie Plum books.

Coming off two down years, I didn't know what to expect from Evanovich. It has become a birthday ritual to get the latest Plum book from the O'Neill's and read it that night. Work commitments prevented me from normal routine, but I did manage to fit it into a couple of nights of bed-time reading. It's a smooth and quick read, although with a rushed ending that isn't unique amongst Plum books.

Until the ending, we have Stephanie having minimal contact with Ranger and Joe, although she kisses each and gets kissed by each. In between smooches, Stephanie spends most of the book on the lookout for Vinnie, her black sheep of a family member. And her boss. Vinnie gets snatched early in the book and Stephanie, Lula and Connie spend most of the next 200 pages or so tracking him down.

That becomes a little dangerous. Gunplay is involved. So are stink bombs. And Mr. Jingles, who's a chicken-lovin' alligator. Plus, the latter-day Charlie's Angels manage to pull off a million-dollar heist, with full intentions of using the money to ransom Vinnie back from the baddies they stole the money from. Through it all, Stephanie only wrecks one car. It's a tour de force of detection.

Honestly, I think the success of the book can be put down to a minimal amount of involvement for Grandma Mazur. Looking back at books 14 and 15 in the series, I think Evanovich OD'd on using Grandma, who's really a one-note character. She dresses outrageously, makes oblivious remarks on the way to and from visitations at Stiva's Funeral Home. She doesn't add much new. And that's certainly the case in this book, after she gets hobbled with a broken foot.

Best thing that could have happened to a reader.

Now, before I gush too much about the book, let me remind you of the ending, which is sub-standard. Once again, a Stephanie kidnapping fraught with peril a few pages from the end gets wrapped up like Evanovich needed to cut back to a strict page limit. She gets points for having the Hobbits save her. But it's all quite a bit rushed.

Plus, I think Evanovich had a REAL opportunity to take the series in a new direction, to have some change in what has been a largely static situation. There's a bottle with something in it that surprisingly remains intact throughout the book. I HONESTLY hoped there was something in that bottle that might prove practical for a change in the power structure at the Bail Bonds office. Say a winning lottery ticket or a hundred shares of Google. Good money, but not life-changing money.

How interesting would it be to have Stephanie as the boss and owner next book? Unfortunately, that wasn't what was in the bottle.

But I'm already looking forward to next year's birthday.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

BOOKS: The Wrecker by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott

Clive Cussler has developed a cottage industry over the last few years. He's leveraged his work creating and detailing the exploits of Dirk Pitt and Kurt Austin into at least three more on-going series, each of which has a co-author. How much do they help in the book-churning machine that is Cussler these days? I have no idea. But I will tell you that I enjoy the Isaac Bell series co-written with Justin Scott and The Oregon Files books co-written with Craig Dirgo and Jack DuBrul more these days then the on-going Pitt and Austin series. Part of that is because Cussler doesn't actually APPEAR in the newer series. Yet.

The tome at hand in this entry is The Wrecker, the second of the Isaac Bell books. Bell is of the mold of a Pinkerton agent at the turn of the 20th century. The first book in the series, The Chase, was a crackerjack yarn built largely around the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. This book is from a year later as the railways continue to spider their way across America, connecting sea to sea and north to south. Cussler and Scott wax intimately about trains to a degree matched by Cussler's love of all things marine. I suspect Scott might be the driving force here.

The Wrecker can be read with having earlier read The Chase. The Wrecker as a character, is a nasty guy, bent on becoming the major domo over the transportation system critical to the American Way of Life. It takes a few chapters before we know who's behind The Wrecker persona, as he personally sends more than a few trains to their crashing demise, mostly with lots of lost life. When the mask is removed, we discover he's a well-connected man in the entourage of railman Oswald Hennessy. It's Hennessy who hires Bell amd his Van Dorn Agency to figure out who's trying to destroy him and his operation. And to stop the crimes.

From coast to coast, Bell and his operatives foil most further attempts by The Wrecker to destroy Hennessy's company. It all comes to a head in Oregon, where a just-finished trestle is the scene of the 'final' showdown between Bell and The Wrecker.

I put the quotes around 'final' because this IS a Cussler book. There is a framing sequence that starts the book and ends it, far, far, away from Oregon and years away from the dramatic events of that showdown. It's absolutely, perfectly Cusslerian in concept and execution.

Evaluating this book is easy. It's one of Cussler's best of the last five years. Top-notch thriller writing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

BOOKS: By the Numbers by Scott Morrison

If ever there was a more perfect bathroom reader for the hockey fan, I can't imagine it's any book other than Scott Morrison's By the Numbers: From 00 to 99. One of the key numbers is 2007, as in the year it was copyrighted, although I didn't get it until last Christmas.

Why is 2007 important? Well, it has to do with number eight, the number worn by my favourite all-time player, Dick Duff. It was most interesting to open the book, skip past the number 4 worn by Bobby Orr and Jean Beliveau and ignore the end of the book where Wayne Gretzky sat triumphant as the greatest 99 of all time. I wanted to get right to what was most important.

Where on the list of 8-wearers was Duff?

And Duff was the eighth-best 8-wearer of all time. Assuming all-time stopped right there and then in 2007. Cuz, if you slid your finger down a couple of spots, Morrison and his panel of mostly CBC hockey guys listed one Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals tenth. One would think that the first updating of the book might very well move Ovechkin all the way to first amongst the wearers of my favourite number (hey, it was as close to Dick Duff as I was going to get), ahead of Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins.

And I'm all right with that.

The contributor list for this first edition included (in alphabetical order): Cassie Campbell, Don Cherry, Bob Cole, Eric Duhatschek, Elliotte Friedman, Garry Galley, Kelly Hrudey, Jim Hughson, Dick Irvin, Pierre LeBrun, Ron MacLean, Greg Millen, Harry Neale, Scott Oake and Drew Remenda. That's a not-too-shabby list.

The book, itself, is fascinating for its abilities to invoke the names of the long-forgotten. I mean, does anybody other than a die hard Montreal Canadiens' fan (GUILTY!, GUILTY!) know that Guillaume Latendresse is the only 84-wearer in NHL history? Or that ex-Habs Pierre Turgeon and Donald Brashear also once wore 87 (for other teams), otherwise, the exclusive property of the one-time Habs' fan, Sydney Crosby? Yes, Crosby was ranked as the top player of that number of all time. I think THAT's pretty safe.

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly going to be lingering arguments about other numbers for years ... and that's not even including young pups coming along to throw their sticks and gloves into the rink to get ranked. Would YOU rank Nikolai Khabibulin ahead of Zdeno Chara for 53, more or less because The Bhulin Wall took Tampa Bay to an improbable Stanley Cup while Chara has merely been the most fearsome defenceman for most of this past decade? Pssst, they ranked Derek Morris ahead of Chara too. REALLY!!!

The number 31, traditionally a goalie's number, has Grant Fuhr ranked ahead of Billy Smith, Curtis Joseph and Eddie Giacomin. Interesting. Back one number to 30 and we see Martin Brodeur ahead of Terry Sawchuk and Bernie Parent. Hmmmm. As for the ultimate goalie number, number 1, Sawchuck gets top billing over Jacques Plante, Georges Vezina, Glenn Hall, Johnny Bower, Parent, Gump Worsley, Goerge Hainsworth, Turk Broda and Giacomin. Surely there has to be a bar fight in those names somewhere.

I could go on and on. And I did, a couple of pages at time. Took awhile, but I finally got through to 99 where Gretzky was a no-brainer over Wilf Paiement and Rick Dudley. There were three others who wore the number, Leo Bourgault, Desse Roche and Joe Lamb. But you'd have to be a Montreal Canadiens fan of some standing to know those names these days.

Did I mention I'm a Habs' fan?

IF you are any sort of hockey fan, even one who follows the lowly Leafs of Toronto, this is a great gift to give or get.

NOTE: And just to be above-board, Scott and I got waaaaaay back to our beginnings as sports reporters, he with the Sun, me with Guardian, both of us covering high school sports. He is a good guy and I couldn't be happier this book did so well.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Top 25 from the last 365 Days Part 3

I celebrate the start of my 54th year (Car 54, Where Are You? jokes are appropriate for the next 54 hours only) by ending my look back at last year's best TV shows. As I saw them. They aren't the ones everybody else says are the best. They are the ones I enjoyed more than any others.

Nitpickers will take a look at the two British series that bookend this list and point out they finished just before my birthday LAST YEAR. Ergo, they should not be eligible to hold such exalted positions in the pantheon of television shows. Well, while BOTH did end just before the official year started, I didn't catch them on DVD until just after my birthday. SOOOOOOO, no complaining!!!

#10 Personal Affairs (British)

I believe I've mentioned the admiration I have for the minimal number of episodes in British series, rather than the padded number we often get in American seasons. That number is usually six, although I remember the much missed Crime Traveller ran in four-episode series. Personal Affairs ran for a hectic five episodes and that was the perfect length.

Roughly, if you transplanted the Desperate Housewives into The Office and gave them five hours to tell their whole story from start to finish, you'd end up with something akin to Personal Affairs. It started with five 'personal assistants,' and finished with one less than that (as well as one less boss, than started). It's torture to say much more than that, for fear of ruining YOUR DVD-watching experience.

Three of the five assistants (Annabel Scholey as Midge Lerner, Laura Aikman as Lucy Baxter and Maimie McCoy as the wonderfully-named Nicole Palmerston-Amory) are more or less consistent through the shows, doing their jobs, expressing hopes of moving up and/or out and generally serving as the foils for Ruth Negga as Sid Siddiqi, who's real name is Doris. And yes, Scholey is a smash as the winsome and cute Midge, a far cry from her turn in Being Human as one of the most obnoxious characters you'll ever see.

Now, Doris is a sullen little lass. She's 'undercover' in the office. Not as the company mole, which is a not surprising idea that occurs to her fellow workers. No, she and her idiot boyfriend have plans to rip the company off. That they find their way TO the office on a daily basis creates a sense of wonder. Well, at least him. She's got a sort of sweet nature beneath all the punk exterior that emerges late in the game when she owns up to her inner Doris.

While THAT plot percolates, the office manager/mother hen, Olivia Grant as Grace Darling, goes missing quite early in the first episode, just after we find she's overly-competent and the key to holding the emotionally-fragile group together. Much of the middle three episodes is spent covering up for Grace's absence AND trying to find her. There are caper-like trips to various places looking for her. It's all quite wacky.

Before time runs out, we get an explanation for most things. Grace's is pretty wild. And the best part? It's all over before they've worn out their welcome.

#9 White Collar

This latest smash success from USA (the network AND the country) is my top-ranked caper show for the year. And YES, I'm aware that you could label the sixth-ranked program a caper show, but White Collar, Hustle and Leverage are basically written from the bad guy (or slightly reformed bad guy)'s perspective.

Both Hustle and Leverage are about teams pulling off modern-day Mission Impossible type missions, albeit for personal gain. Mostly. The antecedent for White Collar is It Takes A Thief. It's a lone criminal mastermind played by Matt Bomer being utilized by a lawman with his hands firmly placed around the crook's neck. And to be honest, as suave as Bomer's Neil Caffrey is, it's Tim DeKay as Peter Burke that makes the show for me.

DeKay seems to have been around forever because I thought he was Lance Kerwin. He plays a wearied fed who once caught Caffrey and was given the task of catching him again in the pilot. To his ultimate dismay, he did. And then had Caffrey offer him a deal. He'd 'help' if he could get information about his 'missing' wife and avoid being sent back to hoosegow. As quick as Malachi Throne made the same deal with Robert Wagner's Al Mundy, Burke agrees.

There are differences. Caffrey is more con than cat burglar, which was Mundy's forte. And Throne's Noah Bain never had a babe of a wife. Especially one that looks like Tiffani Thiessen. (And it's Tiffani, not Tiffani-Amber this time around). And, more surprise, I like Thiessen in this role. Given the fact I only ever liked her in non-femme fatale roles, I guess that isn't surprising. She is one of two good secondary characters. Willie Garson continues to be as good as it gets in supporting actors. His Mozzie should have been called Willie Sutton. He steals every scene he's in.

Well, I've thrown out a lot of names from TV seasons gone by. But White Collar feels fresh despite all of that. Very 21st-century.

#8 Chuck (#3)

WHAT!!!!! My beloved Yvonne Strahovski forced to settle for eighth place!!!! This after I'd guaranteed her a top-ten ranking for life last year!!!

The reason? Too much Chuck in Chuck. Not enough romance between AGENTS Bartkowski and Sarah. Too much of the fake Superman, but just about the right amount of Superboy's ex-beau. Who'd have believed Kristin Kreuk could look adorable, come for a visit, and NOT turn out two weeks later to be an agent for the bad guys? Another couple of people we saw too little of: Captain Awesome and Anna Wu.

Now that I've got all that complainin' off my chest, let me point out ... the show is STILL EIGHTH out of the kazillion shows I was subjected to last year (and those were just the dancing reality shows). And that ain't bad. The show's wry sense of humour and the ever-entertaining Morgan and Jeffster, the two-headed attention-diverting co-workers/band, continued to be enjoyable. Plus Adam Baldwin's John Casey simmered and stewed as well as he's ever done. And that bit with his daughter and Morgan? Ahhhh, what goes around ...

At any rate, Zach Levi's safe as long as he keeps squiring Strahovski around the little screen.

#7 Castle

The humour's bawdier than The Mentalist. Stana Katic is the dark-haired version of Yvonne Strahovski. The cute, bright daughter, as played by Molly Quinn, is as good as Hayley McFarland on Lie to Me. While completely different, Susan Sullivan plays as interesting an omni-present mother as Mary Beth Peil does on The Good Wife. And Seamus Dever and Jon Huertas are funny AND competent as the two go-to cops in Katic's squad. Heck, Tamala Jones is the sexiest M.E. since ... well ever.

Plus the star is a Canuck. How can Castle NOT be a top-ten show? Nathan Filion would have to go all Pierre Berton on us before that would happen. Berton was famously forever working on his next book. He wouldn't have had time to flirt furiously with Katic's Kate Beckett. Or as Castle would call her, Nikki Heat. And yes, I read the book. And I enjoyed it for what it was. And it wasn't award-winning, just entertaining.

I make no apologies for enjoying this yuppie Murder She Wrote by way of Moonlighting. Is there a single unlikable character in the lot? Anybody annoy you? Are most of the mysteries frothy fun? That's NO, NO and YES.

And that's why it's the lucky seventh most-entertaining hour this past 365 days.

#6 Burn Notice (#6 LY)

What does a show have to do to get ahead in this ranking? Burn Notice tried. They ditched one of my personal bete noirs in Tricia Helfer. Somebody fed Gabrielle Anwar so her wacko Fiona didn't look so anorexic, in addition to being a former Irish gun-runner. Bruce Campbell shed a few pounds, keeping his cuddly charm but bringing back memories of when he was a leading man (If Chins Could Kill book review coming up before the end of the year). I could almost say the same over Sharon Gless tightening up a little and bringing back memories of when she was the babe in Cagney and Lacey.

Plus, Jeffrey Donovan is one of the hardest-working actors in TV, giving voice to both Michael Westen and the show itself. He does the absolutely vital voice-overs.

With the government thing more a background detail than a plot B in the shows, we got most of each hour devoted to the subject at hand, whatever that was. More time to execute elaborate schemes, more entertainment value for the viewer.

And yet the show STILL can't crack the top five. It's just not right. And no fault of the folks behind this USA tentpole show. Unfortunately a returning great, three rookie shows and a swan song that wasn't, were all just a bit better than a good year of Burn Notice.

#5 New Tricks (British)

Welcome back!! New Tricks (sixth-ranked three years ago) made a triumphant return due to having a bunch of old favourites come back and spend an hour with our old codgers.

The guest star list included the ever-lovely Glynis Barber and Michael Brandon of Dempsey and Makepeace fame, Malcolm Storry from Jekyll and The Knock, Daisy Beaumont of both The Border and Mumbai Calling, Imogen Stubbs who was Anna Lee, Rob Spendlove from The Last Detective and Barbara Flynn of Cracker. And just about the whole guest cast of The Bill over the years. If this was the last season of New Tricks, it was a good one.

New Tricks remains uncopied over here on this side of the pond. We have had shows built around investigating dead cases. But nobody's glommed onto using the senior set as the investigating officers. Alun Armstrong, Dennis Waterman and James Bolam all ended the year better off than they started. Armstrong's Brian Lane dealt with his problems with alcohol right off the bat and he and Esther, played with the ultimate in forbearance by the great Susan Jameson, seem to be on good footing. Bolam's Jack Halford seems finally to have come to grips with his wife's death. And Waterman's Gerry Standing seems to have settled in as father and grandfather to his various girls and their kids. Now he can spend more time singing that infernally-catchy theme song.

Which brings us to the leader of her merry band of men, Amanda Redman as Sandra Pullman. The season ended on a shocker that hit a little close to home for Pullman and could be either a stopping point for the series or the lead-in to a seventh series. I have no idea at this point whether that will be the case.

But, if it IS the end of New Tricks, it's been one heck of a good run.

#4 Drop Dead Diva

This is Being Erica for this year. And, I fear, the show might not have the legs to make it back on this list. It might have already jumped the shark with its second season debut with that opening number featuring 'Judge' Paula Abdul.

But for one glorious season, Drop Dead Diva was a sight to behold.

The conceit in the show places the brain of wannabe model Deb in the body of plus (maybe a bit more than plus)-sized lawyer Jane. The reason for the body-jumping is that Deb, in a bit of "I'm Special" attitude-giving, up at the pearly gates admission office, decides she's not ready to die and wakes up on the operating table, where Jane had just died. Because she didn't complete her processing, a loophole of grandiose proportions, Deb's allowed to keep on keeping on. Albeit with the help of guardian angel Fred.

Still with me? Size zero Deb (Brooke D'Orsay, also of Gary Unmarried this past season), now must make her way through the legal minefields Jane (Brooke Elliott) used to traverse so ably, before sacrificing herself by jumping in front of a bullet meant for her boss. Fortunately, Deb gets to access Jane's smarts, but they come semi-randomly, usually in headache-inducing bursts of insight.

Of course, Deb had a fiancee in the making. David James Elliott-lookalike Jackson Hurst joins the firm because what dramedy doesn't need an unrequitable love, at its core. Hurst's Grayson is the thoughtful kind, giving hope he'll see past external features to see that Jane (We are now going to start calling Deb by her body's name) is (still) a wonderful catch. Instead, he hooks up with nasty office hotty Kim, played by (for the first season only) red-headed Kate Levering. Mix that all up with some great supporting characters, the usual melange of legal cases and the misplaced soul thing and you get a great show.

Let me point out, Stacy (as in Stacy Q?) played by April Bowlby and Fred, played by Ben Feldman, are critical to the show's success. Adorably dopey and insightful Stacy and the basset-hound like Fred are the grounding that prevents Jane from going crazy. Both know 'the secret' and help conceal it. On the old Jane side of matters, a couple of comedic pro's help lots. Margaret Cho is fabulous as Jane's personal assistant and Rosie O'Donnell is very strong as a recurring judge character, who's Jane's mentor.

Elliott has already been a Broadway star, so the girl can act. And sing. She also bears a fairly strong resemblance to a dark-hared Drew Barrymore. The question is, will the public accept a plus-sized star not named Roseanne?

The answer, at least here, is yes.

#3 The Republic of Doyle (Canadian)

I'm half Newfie. And I have no trouble bragging about Newfoundland, God's Little Green Acre on earth. Newfoundlanders are a hard-living, boisterous bunch, adding sea-faring sensibilities to typical Canadian attitudes. My Dad's from Kelligrews, a hop, skip and a long jump from St. John's. Been a long time since I was there, but I still remember that last visit fondly.

So, when the CBC decided to base a detective series out of Canada's most easterly point, I was leery. Afterall, Newfie jokes abound on the mainland. But what I got with Republic of Doyle is a charming show about a family of detectives making do in the province's biggest city. Although who left out the 'The' in the title? Noisome.

Allan Hawco is a creative driving force behind the series as well as starring as Jake Doyle. His accent's a little hit or miss, not nearly as thick as some of the others in the cast. Especially copper Leslie Bennet as played by Krystin Pellerin. And I have to admit, I like the accent, even if impenetrable at times. (My grandmother once told me my father was down by the water, and all I heard was "Down by the by, by." I kid you not!). Pellerin is pretty, and with that accent, pretty irresistible.

Except 'most' times to Jake, who has a zany ex-wife. I'm pretty sure Jake and Nikki, the doctor, go back and forth as to who still loves the ex four times in the show, but that guess could be light. Nikki (Rachel Wilson) is very hard to resist, too. Of course, Jake comes by his manly charms the easy way. Dad Malachy (Sean McGinley) somehow finds himself paired with Linda Boyd, who's a few years his junior and won't marry him. Boyd, who could be Rene Russo's twin sister, turns out to have a past that makes her Rose the not marrying kind. Still, Malachy's got a good thing going with Rose.

And just to confirm this is a family thing, there's Malachy's grand-daughter Tinny, played with adolescent contrariness AND smarts by Marthe Bernard.

I like the look, sounds and feelings this show evokes in me. It's like a trip home without the gas fumes and large credit card bill. Absolutely love it.

#2 The Good Wife

Didn't see that coming a month into the TV season. This was a show that wore down my doubts as the season-long novel played out. I still think star Julianna Margulies should smile more, she looks like a harsh matron most of the time. A beautiful matron, but harsh. I think I saw more of her character of Alicia come through by season's end.

Alicia is the wife of disgraced (and jailed) politician Peter Florrick, played picture-perfectly by Chris Noth. Alicia has to become the family's new bread winner and goes to work at a legal firm run by Josh Charles as Will and Christine Baranski as Diane. The firm isn't exactly thriving and the job opportunity is more of a contest than anything long-term. Alicia and Matt Czuchry's Cary are in a season-long competition for one spot.

That was how things went initially. Then, Peter got out of jail for a re-trial and the show started to improve leaps and bounds. No longer were the kids and Peter's mother, played just as perfectly by Mary Beth Peil central figures. Thus made bit players, the background story of how Peter got convicted became the forestory. Alan Cumming was brought on as a creepy campaign strategizer, shoving Joe Morton's character more into the background. Alicia now had to figure out how to co-habit with Peter, living in a room down the hall in their now claustrophobic apartment, which also passed for his political HQ.

At work, she was succeeding with the help of Kalinda, the investigator. Archie Panjabi managed to make Kalinda a REAL interesting character. You assumed she was on Alicia's side, but changing sides seemed to come natural to Kalinda, in SOOOO many definitions of the term.

In the end, Alicia and Cary, played with that smugness Czuchry seems the poster boy for, each 'won' their little battle to survive. I think there's a good chance The Good Wife will be right back here next year in the top ten. Maybe even the best.

#1 Torchwood: Children of Earth (British)

In a lot of ways, this five-episode mini-season of Torchwood was NOT all that original. Elements of it could be traced back to dozens of SF shows, movies and books. You could even draw on the Pied Piper fable, if you wanted to go back far enough. But then again, there really are only seven stories and everything is just a variation on one of those seven themes.

That said, Russell T Davies made a most interesting melange out of all of the components that made this series of Torchwood the most interesting viewing experience I had over the last 365 days. Just another victory for Brit TV, following up on earlier top-ranked shows State of Play and Jekyll (each short-run one-offs of their own). Guess it's safe to say that I like stories with beginnings, middles AND, most importantly, ends.

The Torchwood team started short-handed and lost from there. No Owen. No Toshiko. Not even any Martha Jones. Just Captain Jack (John Barrowman), Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), Gwen (Eve Myles) and her hubby Rhys (Kai Owen). Half-way through the series, even that lot had been reduced by one.

In the midst and destruction that decimated the Torchwood team, Earth faced the threat of a bunch of kid-snatching aliens, who arrive on Earth on a light beam and set up shop on the top floor in a building in London. Of course, accomodations have been built for them, instructions for which were sent on ahead. And, as it turns out, this isn't their first visit. All of which plays into the immortal life of Captain Jack, who was there the first time.

The aliens want Earth's children. Not all. But even one is too many. And they want a heck of lot more than one. And if Earth does not comply, they will take all of them. And they DO seem to possess the means to do so. Politicians all over the world are forced to make some very, very difficult decisions, a rock and a hard place type of decision. And we watch as many of the pols crumble under the strain of doing so. Yet, we understand them all, brave and craven alike.

Captain Jack and Gwen eventually save the day of course. And one of Captain Jack's descendents plays a key part in making that happen. It's a brief exception, it seems, to Captain Jack's ability to remain above relationships, for fear of the foreknowledge that he will outlive them all, EVEN if they go the distance to a natural death of old age.

Still, the heart-breaking scene at the end as Captain Jack leaves Earth because it hurts so much is/was a fitting conclusion to a great five hours.

Torchwood will be back and a new team will have to be built, given the paucity of survivors and the need to fill 13 hours next time around. But try as he might, I just can't see Davies being able to reproduce the special series from last summer.

And there you have my list of top shows from the 365 days spanning my birthdays in 2009 and 2010. Let the comments begin.

BOOKS: Charlie Stross and His Secret Science Fiction

(I wrote this about four months ago for publication today on my birthday. I thought the knowledge that Stross wasn't finished with my favourite series over the last five years was something akin to a birthday present. Obviously, some things have changed, including the decision to make this a Review Month of sorts. But I'm going to leave this posting as it was intended to appear today.)

I love science fiction. Mostly, I dislike fantasy, the exception being science fantasy. Confused yet? So was Charlie Stross once upon a time.

Sure, I've read a Harry Potter novel or seven in my time. Liked several books that I covered in my last mass of reviews that were fantasy, pure and simple. I almost always go for 'steampunk' novels that feature dirigibles or airships of that sort. So, I can't claim total disregard for the fantasy label on a book. But I have to have read a good review or two before breaking down and reading down THAT alley.

So, it comes as a complete shock when I read this past spring that Stross' Merchant Princes books were fantasy. Sure, there were sabres and axes and rudimentary gun powder through parts of the novels. But there were also airplanes and atom bombs. And politics. And economics. And even computers. And the viewpoint character was the very picture of a modern-day journalist, all female and capable and even Jewish. Not much fantasy material there.

But fantasy it is, according to his first contract with TOR, the publishers of the books. Now, according to a column Stross wrote back in March, the idea for the book series was to finesse past an existing contract he had with Ace. The column describes the genesis of the series, including the astounding (to me) decision to market the series as fantasy. I NEVER KNEW! I read the reviews, liked what I read and liked what I read when I got my hands on the first three books even more. The only issue I had was the rather abrupt ending to the third book, Clan Corporate. Otherwise, I was completed wrapped up in the world(s) Stross laid out before my eyes.

People will remember my review of The Merchant's War, the fourth book of the series, contained a suggestion to wait until the rest of the six-book series was out before devouring. In fact, the perfect way to enjoy Miriam's battles with the Merchant Princes was to get all six and allow for a couple of weeks of eating, sleeping and just plain reading, foregoing all other things like work and less entertaining entertainment. I took some of my own advice and haven't read the fifth book, The Revolution Business, which has been in my possession since Christmas. My birthday is coming up this month (TODAY in fact) and primary on the wish list is Trade of Queens, the sixth and concluding book of the series. Whilst I will still read the latest Evanovich to start off Birthday Reading Week, the day after and the day after that day will be spent finishing off the two novels I have yet to read.

The other thing about the column was the interesting news that the six books of the series will not be the last Stross plans to set in his triple-world continuum. In fact, the six books were originally set for just two mammoth volumes. He has yet a third book (to be broken up into three smaller volumes due to printing exigencies) to come some time in the future. He's been writing the series for almost all of this past decade and wants a few months off before getting down to REALLY polishing off his opus. He's saying two or three years, but I hope fandom and common sense makes him shorten that delay.

At least that's MY fantasy for right now.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

TV: The Top 25 from the last 365 Days Part 2

My voice has held up, and as a result, I am back with part two of my top 25 TV shows over the last 365 days. This part will cover numbers 11 through 20, starting in reverse order with number 20, of course. I remind readers that these are my most enjoyable picks. There is not a Dexter or Mad Men amongst them because I enjoy, usually, lighter fare. I make no apologies for my preferences. Read on at your own risk.

#20 Eureka (#10 LY)

Eureka is the science fictional equivalent of NCIS. Nothing much changes in the midst of much change. Other than the over-arching storyline of whether Colin Ferguson's character Jack Carter will ever hook up, permanently, with Salli Richardson's Allison Blake, each episode is a delight of ideas, a little bit of action, and a lot of heart.

Really, this show doesn't suffer from a lack of ideas. If anything it has too many ideas. Each week, one of the scientific curiosities that abound in the mythical town of Eureka goes awry. The uber brains that inhabit the town usually find some way not to be able to contain the damage. And it's up to Sheriff Carter to save the day. For the first two years of the show, much was made of the fact that Carter wasn't intellectually part of the community. But in the third season it became evident that the local residents have come to realize Carter was smarter than he looked. And basically the same went for Carter's daughter's Zoe played by Jordan Hinson.

The first to realize this was Joe Morton who's Henry Deacon is very much the soul behind the local community. Henry still is around but this was the year that Douglas Fargo, played by Neil Grayson, became a much larger part of the problem/solution matrix in Eureka. Much to the benefit of the show.

Eureka has been a top 25 show here in this list since its inception. It got to number 10 last year, based largely on the good work of Ed Quinn, who is no longer with the show. But even without Quinn, this is always an entertaining hour.

#19 Human Target

I really didn't want to like Human Target. It's not like this is the first attempt at writing the stories of Christopher Chance, the DC Comics character. There was a short-lived 1992 show that starred Rick Springfield as the chameleon-like character. It was awful. I mean really, REALLY awful.

But a generation heals all wounds. Although, it took me some time to warm up to Mark Valley as the new Christopher Chance. New also as being an almost completely new character. It helped that his two supporting characters were played by Chi McBride as partner Winston and Jackie Earle Haley as the enigmatic Guerrero. I never turn away from a show with McBride. And it's amazing that teenage heartthrob Kelly of the original The Bad News Bears has grown up to be the grizzled old guy that Haley seems to have become. He might be as good as supporting actor as there is right now.

I was still hit or miss on Human Target until the sixth episode as a couple of familiar old faces showed up as potentially recurring characters. In that episode, Chance had to rescue a scientist played by Kevin Weisman of Alias fame, with the covert help of Autumn Reeser who was a tech at the company where Weisman's character was being held. In fact, Reeser, most famous for her roll on The O.C., did, in fact, show up later as a semi-reluctant recruit on another case. The reason why the show jumps into the top 20 is the possibility that Reeser will be back for more. She has landed a role on the new fall show coming in September, so nothing is guaranteed.

Even without Reeser, the show improved through its last few episodes, as bits and pieces of Chance's pasy came back to bedevil him. I particularly enjoyed his two battles with Lennie James as Baptiste. During those battles, we discovered that not only was Christopher Chance NOT a random choice for a new name, but was a continuing cast of white knights much like the comic books' The Phantom. It is an interesting turn on the comic book character that has been around for decades. Works for me.

#18 Leverage (#2 LY)

A drop from number two to number 18 seems like a hefty price to pay for bringing on Jeri Ryan. But so be it. I have never understood the allure of Ms. Ryan, who famously starred as a cat-suited Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation and as a lawyer in Shark. Oh and she was married to a philandering politician. I wish I could say she's just a pretty face, but actually really believe she's just a great body. Cruel I know, but that's the way I feel.

Ryan came on this year while the exquisite Gina Bellman was on maternity leave. Frankly, she was adequate. But more than adequate was required. The disintegrating Nate Ford, played by Timothy Hutton, has back story with Bellman's Sophie Devereaux. It's part of what made that first year so very good. Sophie could talk to Nate on a level that was important to the show. Ryan's Tara Cole filled the spot on the team, but not the role.

As usual, the capers were top notch and the rest of the main cast, Christian Kane, Beth Reisgraf and Aldis Hodge did top-notch work.

I expect Leverage to return to the top 10, and even contend for top spot next July based on what I've seen of season three so far. Bellman's back and so is my enthusiasm for the show.

#17 Real Time with Bill Maher (#12)

Bill Maher, like Penn Gillette, is an acquired taste. If you think he's funny, you probably think he's really funny. If you think he is a smart political commentator, then you probably largely agree with his point of view. Guilty on both charges.

As I mentioned last year, Maher was forced to cope with the fact that he had neither George Bush nor Dick Cheney to kick around. And he hadn't been awarded the ultimate gift of an idiot president from Alaska. What was he to do? What was he to do? Well, he did quite well.

This year, Maher has had more comedic gristle but he seen a little more tired of the stupidity of the people he was making fun of. And I believe his biggest problem was that he didn't see any light at the tunnel coming from President Obama and the Democratic party. Sure the continuing presence of Sarah Palin on the national political scene, the rise of the Tea Party and the continuing obstinacy of the Republican Party in preventing positive political discourse made his job fundamentally easier. But where were the bright people to answer the clarion call for intelligent rational solutions. With disasters like the Icelandic volcano and the man-made oil-spewing screwup in the Gulf Coast, there's been no shortage of things to induce sadness.

I wonder if Maher wants to continue banging his head against this wall of stupidity. But until he decides to stop I'll still be watching Real Time each week it comes out.

#16 The Dog Whisperer

I do not believe in an animal-free top 25. I love dogs. I had dogs for most of my life until the end of the last century. Since then, I tried once to replace my beloved Benji with a another long-haired toy dachshund, but my brief time with George Bugaboo was a disaster. I am not good enough to be a dog owner any more.

So I must get my dog fix off TV and the occasional visit from Bear the German Shepherd who lives next door. Thankfully, National Geographic has made a big investment in Cesar Milan, the so-called Dog Whisperer. I wonder, if I'd watched enough Dog Whisperer episodes back in the day, whether I could've gotten George Bugaboo to eat and enjoy his time here at the Castle of Confusion. I never did get George to eat on the schedule he was supposed to. I really became afraid he would starve to death here. So I returned him to the breeder I bought him from.

I knew fundamentally that the human has to be the pack leader in any house a dog lives in. But watching Cesar handle all kinds of troubled mutts and pampered problem pups, makes me think I might be able to have a dog again someday. Then, I peer out at the thermometer, take a look at the temperature, and think how little I would enjoy walking the dog and I let those thoughts fade into the ether. And don't even get me started about going outside during the depths of winter.

Cesar doesn't do much whispering. He does a lot of finger snapping, finger-pointing and jabbing with those fingers. But he does it all calmly, without inducing stress on himself or the dogs. Anybody who watches this show and doesn't come away knowing, for a fact, that dogs are man's best friend are just too dumb for words. Anybody who owns a cat should trade in for a better model.

#15 The Mentalist

The dear departed TV show Monk, created the template for the current wave of Sherlockian detectives with a character flaw or two. Or in Adrian Monk's case, several hundred. Monk ended this past year with a solution to the murder of his wife, which was the driving force for eight years of pure comedic detective gold. Thankfully, Lee Goldberg's novelizations continue.

Back to The Mentalist. Patrick Jane, as played by Simon Baker. He is a reformed con man preacher who is able to solve crimes lickety-split before the opening credits. We saw lots less of that this year and more of the hour-long mystery type of episodes wherein Jane didn't have the solution immediately upon meeting the suspects. I liked that.

In playing along with Jane, the home viewer got the chance to solve it too. Along the way, we had a chance to see the developing relationship between Owain Yeoman's Rigsby and Amanda Righetti's Van Pelt. It more or less ran a full course, starting and stopping before the season was out. That was more or less at the behest of new head honcho Aunjanue Ellis, who plays special agent Hightower. Ellis adds a different spice to the mix. But I honestly miss Gregory Itzin as the former boss, Virgil Minelli.

Staying the same, acting as the tent poles for the zaniness around them, were Robin Tunney's Agent Lisbon and Tin Kang as Rigsby's partner, Cho. In every comedic situation, there has to be a straight man and Tunney manages to show exasperation well, with the occasional admiring sideways glance as Jane pulls one out of his ... well, you get the idea.

I enjoy the series and I enjoyed how not every show was about Red John this year. That said, it's time to start bringing that part of this saga to a close. It will be interesting eventually when Red John's gone as a motivating factor for Jane. What will happen next?

Maybe a leap to the top of the heap. That's what!

#14 The Big Bang Theory (#1 LY)

How mighty are the fallen? Well, not so mighty. But still so very funny. In a list remarkably bereft of any half-hour comedies, The Big Bang Theory remains the best sitcom on broadcast TV. And, Jim Parsons is still the funniest man on TV, bar none.

So why is last season's top-ranked show mired down here in the 14th slot? Bluntly, not enough of Parsons' Sheldon and too much of supporting characters Howard and Raj, as played by Simon HelBerg and Kunnal Nayyar. Add in the dissolution of the oh-so-cute couple of Johnny Galecki's Leonard and Kaley Cuoco's Penny. It's the dream of all geeks to get the beautiful woman, and the story line where Leonard and Penny ended two years of dancing around each other, was rather inspiring to those of us who can't pass for being a sports star or a model. So grumpy old me is downgrading the show over a lack of romance. Read that sentence again and wonder at the wonders of the universe.

Bluntly, like the grade given Leverage, I'm being a bit churlish over a small part of what is actually a really good show. I expect The Big Bang Theory to be back in the top 10 next year but I just had to register my disappointment over the oh so obvious plot development.

And if I'm still being honest, I'm really not digging the humanization of Sheldon all that much either. The last three shows of last year saw Sheldon even evince a slight interest in the other sex! Oh, the horror, the horror.

As a final aside, I managed to see the original pilot to The Big Bang Theory about three months ago. Kudos to the programming executive at CBS who had the foresight to see the potential in that pilot that eventually became the show a lot of people love. Other than Sheldon and Leonard, virtually nothing nor nobody from the original pilot survived. If I'd been in the test audience, The Big Bang Theory would never have seen the light of day. It was that bad.

#13 Legend of the Seeker (New Zealand)

This is the second of the ranked shows that has been canceled. An independent production by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapper, the folks behind Xena and Hercules, it was the little show that couldn't find a spot on anybody's schedule. Saturday afternoons isn't prime time, even though the show had prime time quality throughout.

Had I watched the first season in time for last year's ranking, it would have been a top 10 show. As it was I just watched the first season on DVD in time for the start of the second season. And while the second season didn't match the entertainment quality of the first season, it was still a worthwhile hour to look forward to each week.

The series was based on the works of Terry Goodkind, a noted fantasist who created a whole new world for heroes Richard Cypher, Kahlan and Zedicus to run about and right justice. Craig Horner had the thankless role of the too good to be true hero Cypher, while Bridget Regan became the heroine Kahlan, showing more range and emotion that you would expect. And who couldn't enjoy the wacky wayward wizard Zedicus as played by Bruce Spence? The second season added a fourth to our merry little band of travelers as Tabrett Bethell joined up as the ex-Mord'Sith, Cara.

In that first season, the group battled the evil machinations of Darken Rahl, given voice and sinister presence by Craig Parker. The second year, the Big Bad was mostly a faceless entity with a rare visits by the revived Rahl to spruce up a flagging show. The continuing harrying by the Sisters of Light and the Sisters of Darkness was little recompense. There were more Darken Rahl episodes towards the end as Raimi and Tapper realized a faceless enemy was frankly boring.

I still enjoyed the show immensely. Regan is next door sexy and Bethell's Cara was almost pure sex (combined with an almost complete lack of a moral filter) and were watchable throughout. I thought Spence was underutilized in the second season, although not as underutilized as Parker.

The books weren't followed to an excessive degree by Raimi and Tapper, so I suspect there's lots of hours of enjoyment and surprise they could be had simply by going back to the original source and reading Goodkind's books. They are on my reading stack as I write this.

#12 The Border (Canadian)

And now we have back to back canceled shows. A plague on programmer's houses. The Border won't get a fourth season, although I suspect that the show had actually run its course finishing its third season. This was a show just on the outside of the top 15 two years ago but fell out of top 25 contention last year because of replacing Sofia Milos with ex-Battlestar Galactica babe Grace Park. My predilection for Milos' character, Agent LaGarda is well known. Park basically was the wrong person in the wrong spot. Beautiful lady though.

The changes in the third year included another beautiful lady leaving as Nanzeen Contractor, who played Sgt. Haroun didn't survive the season two cliffhanger. She was replaced as the Muslim character in the show by Athena Karkanis who played Agent Massi. We also got plenty of disgraced agent Detective Sgt. Grady Jackson (Graham Abbey), as well as Catherine Disher(Superintendent Norton) and Mark Wilson (Detective Sgt. Moose Lepinsky).

But what made this show really good were three characters. Computer hacker extraordinaire Heironymous Slade, as played to perfection by Jonas Chernick, was what I would would hope to be, if I worked for the government. Slightly geeky, usually pretty successful. Jim Codrington was always interesting as agent Darnell Williams who doubled as the CSIS liaison. I guess he defined dark and mysterious.

Which brings us to the last member of our key trio. James McGowan played Maj. Mike Kessler, the head of the Immigration and Customs Security Agency. He played it with a low key approach while somehow inserting himself into the center of the action more often than not. I mean it wasn't as bad as William Shatner's Capt. Kirk leading every away mission, but Kessler seemed to be where the action was more often than not. And yet he did it with a lack of bombast that typifies Canada. He did a great job with a well-written character. He will be missed on screen.

#11 Hustle (#8 LY)

The second of three caper shows on this list and the second-ranked caper show for the last 365 days. Hustle continued to be the quintessential British TV show. Six episodes ... six tightly written episodes ... six inventive episodes. No padding to get to a 22-episode American-style season. Not even the 13-episode length, seen so often on cable and here in Canada. It is possible however, that the ideas that propel Hustle into the top rankings each year are maybe getting harder to find.

We had a second year of basically the same crew coming back from last year when we had the triumphant return of Adrian Lester as Mickey Bricks, Michael Stone. The Kennedy kids, Emma and Sean, as played by Kelly Adams and Matt DiAngelo, seemed more part of the gang rather than the new kids on the block. That seemed to dull the sharp edges just a bit. And the romantic tension that was developing between Emma and Mickey didn't seem to really develop.

The other slightly off part of the series this year was a lack of grandiose-ness. Oh sure, there was a full-sized tiger made of gold, as the gang pulled one over on an insurance scamster. But that was it for highlights.

Mind you, I'm comparing this season past with past seasons and have found it wanting. Compared to other TV shows, Hustle was awfully close to making it to the top 10. I'm not sure there's another season with a rapidly aging Robert Vaughn playing Albert, left in the tank. But surely we haven't seen the last of him or Robert Glenister as Ash Morgan. I'd be happy with just a special or two, like has happened with the Jonathan Creek specials this past year.

And wouldn't that be interesting to see the oh so minuscule British series length reduced even further.

And thus ends my luck at the second 10 TV shows from the past 365 days. I did discover that dictation of the length of this posting did exceed the dictation capability of Dragon Speaking Naturally. At least my version. I had to start and stop and start again. But assuming my voice holds true, I will back here celebrating my birthday tomorrow with the top 10 list of TV shows from the last 365 days.