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Death of a Citizen (Matt Helm #1) (1960)

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by Donald Hamilton A family man and writer of Westerns is confronted  by his bloody past as an undercover operative during WWII when an old comrade shows up with a story about an upcoming assassination attempt. From here we embark on a vivid first-person narrative about a man who seems to have successfully buried his essential killer nature beneath a veneer of conventional respectability only to find that it is much closer to the surface than he thought—and closer to his heart, too. Over the course of the novel, Matt Helm (code name Eric) smoothly reverts to his old training, becoming more than a match for agents who haven’t had the hiatus from killing that he has. This novel doesn’t treat the concept of the reawakened killer as seriously as the brilliant David Cronenberg film A History of Violence (and presumably the graphic novel upon which it was based and which I haven’t read), but author Donald Hamilton does squeeze plenty of pulpy goodness out of it, and Helm provides a terrif

Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark Is Rising #1) (1965)

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by Susan Cooper Three siblings on summer holiday discover an ancient  treasure map and race against the forces of the Dark in order to unlock its secrets.   This is one of those books that I’ve always known I should read and have finally gotten around to.  I have not been disappointed.   Susan Cooper masterfully evokes long, lazy vacations in a seaside getaway, where every feature of the geography seems to promise wonderful things.   Susan Cooper I was reminded of my own beach vacations as a boy, my brother and I making up stories about every cave we found and longing for a real adventure.  The fantasy aspects of the story are nearly nonexistent, so some readers may feel like they are the victims of a bait and switch, but the quality of this story and the writing is so high that I did not feel cheated.   Many reviewers have noted that the series improves with later installments, so I know I have some great reading ahead of me.

Castle in the Sky (1986)

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Director/Writer: Hayao Miyazaki, from a concept by Jonathan Swift Stars: Mayumi Tanaka/James Van Der Beek, Keiko Yokozawa/Anna Paquin, Kotoe Hatsui/Chloris Leachman, Minori Terada/Mark Hamill, Fujio Tokita/Richard Dysart, Ichiro Nagai/Jim Cummings On a strange alternate Earth, a young boy and girl (Mayumi Tanaka and Keiko Yokozawa / James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin)  evade capture by pirates and government agents as they try to learn the secret of the flying kingdom of Laputa, to which the girl has a mysterious connection.  Although the animation is not as smooth as some of Miyazaki's later films, there are still plenty of mind-blowing visuals and actions sequences here.  Although there are plenty of battles and high adventure, the movie also displays the gentle humanism for which Miyazaki is so well-known.

The Emperor of Death (The Phantom Detective #1) (1933)

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by G. Wayman Jones AKA D.L. Champion AKA Jack D'arcy The Phantom Detective was the star of the second  pulp magazine to feature an ongoing hero, following The Shadow and predating Doc Savage by one month.  Millionaire Richard Van Loan lived the exciting life of an ace during World War I and had trouble readjusting to sedate civilian life after the war until he found his new calling: battling crime as the masked Phantom Detective.  In this first adventure, he is already well established, having earned the respect of law enforcement everywhere and the fear of the underworld.  He almost meets his match against Hesterberg, the Mad Red, who has a plot to blackmail foreign governments into providing loans to Russia by threatening to leak a cache of sensitive documents.  We never learn what’s in these documents, but they act as a fine McGuffin to pit our hero against the villain and his evil hypnotist, Sligo.  Though definitely a match for any man, the Phantom is a bit more grounded and v

Babel (2006)

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Director: Alejandro Inarritu Writer: Guillermo Arriaga, from an idea by Alejandro Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga Stars: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Boubker Ait Al Caid, Adriana Barraza, Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble, Rinko Kikuchi, Koji Yakusho Four stories play out in the US, Japan, Morroco, and  Mexico, all connected by the careless act of a child with a weapon and compounded by cultural ignorance.  Each story features an act of cross-cultural interference that results in tragedy, but these interferences are made without malice and are presented in an understanding manner by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga.   It may have been irresponsible for the Japanese hunter (Koji Yakusho) to leave a high-powered rifle behind in Morocco, but he only wanted to show his appreciation.  (Rinko Kikuchi really earns her Oscar nomination in this part of the film.)   It was foolish for the young Moroccan boy (Boubker Ait El Caid) to fire at the tourist bus, but

Freaky Deaky (1988)

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  by Elmore Leonard A trio of former 60's radicals who were always more  thrill-seeking opportunists than truly idealistic revolutionaries orbit an alcoholic millionaire who seems to have only a handful of brain cells remaining.   They are all scheming to get their hands on his money.   Some of their schemes involve explosives, which leads to the accidental involvement of a former Bomb Squad officer and an aspiring starlet.   Once Elmore Leonard gets these characters and their conflicting agendas bouncing off one another, a solid, entertaining thriller is the result.  This was my first Leonard novel, and I was pleased to find that his reputation for masterful dialogue is richly deserved.   Elmore Leonard All of the characters are well-drawn, but Woody, the millionaire, is a particularly brilliant invention.  The climax seems a bit abrupt, though it has the virtue of being poetically just.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Adventures of Tom and Huck #1) (1876)

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by Mark Twain (AKA Samuel Clemens) Mark Twain's story of a boy's life in a small town  on the Mississippi River is worth reading for many reasons.   Mark Twain AKA Samuel Clemens First of all, it is just plain fun.   Tom has many amusing adventures, such as the famous white-washing incident.   The imaginations of the children are fully engaged; in a world without even picture shows, radio, or recorded music, much less TV, video games, or cellphones, the boys and girls of St. Petersburg do not lack activities to keep themselves entertained.   There is also a dark side to this world, as exemplified by the murderer Injun Joe (here some of the unfortunate racism of the period sneaks into the narrative) and the many superstitions of the children.   Another reason to enjoy this novel is for its anthropological qualities.   Twain took care to replicate the speech of that place and time as much as he could, and he claims that the beliefs and activities of the children (though not the s