Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Favorite Fictional Character --- Orko


In the world of long gone, Saturday morning cartoons, the sidekick reigned supreme.  Off the top of my head, I can think of 20 to 30 that served alternately as comic relief, and as their show's conscious.  They could quickly become the heart and soul of show, and at times, they overshadowed the main characters.  Some of them have gone on to be remembered with fondness, and other with derision, if they are even remembered at all.  Then there are the ones who have become cultural icons, instantly recognized by the masses.  They can be found merchandised to the hilt, in other works of fiction, and as a stand in for some sort of cultural ideal.  In the world of the cartoon sidekick, one of my favorites of all time comes from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, a cartoon that existed to solely sell toys.  Oddly, Orko, the hero of this post, was the only character who started off on the show, before ending up as a toy.


Orko is one of those characters that has continuously bridged the line between annoying and heroic.  On one hand, the writers, when they couldn't think of any other way to get the action started, would have Orko screw something up, and the rest of the show would be him, and others trying to fix the problem.   The rest of the time, he was the one would somehow save the day, rescuing He-Man and the other Masters out of some predicament they found themselves in.  It was as if they could never really get a real handle on who Orko was, or at the least, couldn't figure out the way to use him. 

It's that bizarre dichotomy of character, that has endeared him to millions of us that grew up with him on our TV screens. He's so earnest, so eager to do the right thing, you can't help but find his bumbling charming, and forgivable.  He ended up on Eternia by accident, with no way of getting home.  Where many of us would have hunkered down, and wallowed in self pity for a while, he decided to make the best of the situation, even though he found himself at a disadvantage in his new home.  On his home planet, he was a powerful wizard, on Eternia, who has different natural rules, that magic doesn't work as well as it should. But he never gives up, he never feels sorry for himself, at least not for too long, and he's always willing to give all of himself when it's asked of him.  If you think about it, he is the whole reason He-Man even exists.  If he hadn't saved a young Adam in the swamp, Skeletor would have conquered Eternia long ago.  And if you take that logic to it's next level, that means Orko is in fact the hero of the show, not He-Man.

They tried to reboot the show, and the characters in the early 2000s, but it never recaptured the heart of the original.  Part of that was due to the changes they made in the characters personalities, including in Orko's, and part of it was simply bad writing and even worse animation.  Orko, at least for me is a cultural icon that can not be reproduced.  While I wish they would have done a better job of defining who he was as a whole character, not just good for a laugh or two, Orko is the one who has stuck with me all these years later.  Now I just need to see if I can find his action figure one of these days.  Besides, how can you not love a guy who is responsible for bringing Christmas to Eternia.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Ghost of a Smile by Simon R. Green


Synopsis From Back Cover:

Meet the operatives of the Carnacki Institute - JC Chance: the team leader, brave, charming, and almost unbearably arrogant; Melody Chambers: the science geek who keeps the antisupernatural equipment running; and Happy Jack Palmer: the terminally gloomy telepath.  Their mission: Do Something About Ghosts.  Lay them to rest, send them packing, or just kick their nasty ectoplasmic arses...

A distress call was received from the private research centre of one of the biggest drug companies in the world.  The police went in - and never came out.  A national security team stormed the place.  No-ones's heard anything further from them, either.

Now it's in the hands of the Carnacki Institute's rising stars. They have the wrong equipment. They have no idea what awaits.  And they have the clock ticking in the background.  But they also have a secret weapon; JC's very lovely - and very dead - girlfriend...

Part of the reason I love Simon R. Green's book so much, are the names he gives to his creations. Whether they are the good guys, or bad, they all just have cool names.  It can be a name that is very specific to the type of person they are; personality, abilities, that sort of thing. They can be bad-ass names, that come straight from a dark and twisted comic book.  Or they can be a simple definition of what the character is, as in the case of the main, terrifying villain in Ghost of a Smile, The Flesh Udying.

I've never really thought about it, but names truly are a powerful thing.  Yeah, we have all read a book, or watched a movie, where the bad guy is vanquished by the hero learning the true name of their foe.  If a demon is involved, the name hunt is going to come up, it's a sure thing.  Hell, just ask Superman and Mr. Mxyzptlk, names are important.

But that's not the importance I'm placing on names in these books.  After reading numerous Simon R. Green's books, nine of them now, I've learned, anew, how powerful names truly are. Sure, the whole vanquishing through uttering a name cliche has come up in his books, but it's more in the way he uses names that I've become intrigued by.  Since I don't know the author, I'm not going to say this as a definite statement, but I'm pretty positive that he puts some thought in to the names, and that they aren't picked out of a hat.   Each name he picks seems to have a very specific function.  And I appreciate that.  These are names that give me insight into the characters's personality.  They help me understand the character's thought processes, and their motivations.

I've always appreciated the author's style and humor in his writing.  He blends satire, horror, fantasy, and science fiction, just about better than anybody I've ever come across.  Ghost of a Smile, the second book in the Ghost Finders series, is a continuation of my love affair with his work, and it's the book that finally got me to look at the naming of his characters, and the insights those names give into what's going on on the page.  It's a madcap ride through a locked building, think a traditional haunted house story set in an office building, and involving a lot more than a ghost or two. Think more on the primal level, and you may get an idea of what our ghost finders are facing.  If you think of the name he gave his main monster in this one, The Undying Flesh, you get an even better idea of what it is they faced in that building.  Like they always say, names have power, and Simon R. Green is genius at utilizing that power.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe by Andrew Dickson


Synopsis From Dust Jacket:

Ranging ambitiously across four continents and four hundred years, Worlds Elsewhere is an eye-opening account of how Shakespeare went global.  Seizing inspiration from the playwright's own fascination with travel, foreignness, and distant worlds - worlds Shakespeare never himself explored - Andrew Dickson takes us on an extraordinary journey:  from Hamlet performed by English actors tramping through the Baltic states in the early sixteen hundreds to the skyscrapers of twenty-first-century Beijing and Shanghai, where "Shashibiya" survived Mao's Cultural Revolution to become a revered Chinese author. 

En route, Dickson traces Nazi Germany's strange love affair with, and attempted nationalization of, the Bard, and delves deep into their history of Bollywood, where Shakespearian stories helped give birth to Indian cinema.  In Johannesburg, we discover how Shakespeare was enlisted in the fight to end apartheid.  In nineteenth-century California, we encounter shoestring performances of Richard III and Othello in the dusty mining camps and saloon bars of the Gold Rush. 

No other writer's work has been performed, translated, adapted, and altered in such a remarkable variety of cultures and languages.  Both a cultural history and a literary travelogue, Worlds Elsewhere is an attempt to understand how Shakespeare has become the international phenomenon he is - and why. 

I'm going to put this out there before we even get started, I'm not a huge Shakespeare fan. It's not that I don't like him, but I can't say I would ever go out of my way to read one of his plays.  In college, I played Philostrate in a production of A Midsummer's Night Dream, set in feudal Japan.  I've enjoyed a few movie versions of Much Ado About Nothing, and I love the movie version of Titus Andronicus that I've seen.  And outside of mandatory reading in high school and college, that's the extent of my dabbling with Shakespeare  So for you die hard fans, I'm sorry that I'm not in love with the Bard, at least not as much as you are.

That lack of exposure to Shakespeare, is why I agreed to review this book.  I was intrigued by the concept; the author traveling the globe, learning how particular cultures absorbed and interpreted his works for their own.  For the most part, I really enjoyed the journey that Andrew Dickson took me on.  I do wish he would have been able to visit a few other countries, but I get that finances dictate how much global traveling you can really do.  And while there were moments that felt bogged down in detailed minutiae, I appreciated the work he put into the book, and his love for the subject shines through on every page.

After finishing the Worlds Elsewhere, while I can't say that my interest in Shakespeare's work has been increased, I will admit to having a little more respect for him, and the influence he has had on a global scale.  I don't think I truly had an appreciate, or understanding, of how popular he was across the globe, and how adaptable his works are to other cultures, at least not on the level I was exposed to in this book.  For that alone, for gaining a new appreciate for an author who is globally loved, I'm grateful for reading this book.

I would like to thank the publisher, Henry Holt, for providing a copy of Worlds Elsewhere, in exchange for an honest review.
                                                                                                                                                                               

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Favorite Fictional Character --- Bookworm


Sidekicks are a tried and true archetype in the fictional world.  They don't always stand out, nor are they all that noticeable at times, but they all serve the same function.  They may perform that function in different ways, but they are all there to make their partner more relatable to the audience.  They do it through humor most of the time, but they can also act as storytellers and interpreters for their partners.  In other ways, and when they are utilized at their weakest level, they are simply there as a prop, something for their stronger counterpart to play off of.  That is the worst kind of sidekick, and one that a reader/viewer will never pay attention to, which is a waste of potential.  It robs the character of being memorable, and it robs the audience of a character they could care about.


On character that hovers around the line between being a great sidekick, and an almost overlooked one, is Bookworm from a few Merry Melodies cartoons.  He is the occasional sidekick for Sniffles, another character I absolutely adore, and though he never utters a word, he's frickin adorable.  We first meet him in Sniffles and the Bookworm from 1939, as they wind their way through various adventures in a closed bookshop, as book characters come to live.  Where Sniffles is a talkative little guy, Bookworm uses facial expressions and hand gestures, pantomime, to get his point across.  He is expressive and charming, and I wanted nothing more to hang out with the two of them as a kid.

Sadly, he was only used a handful of times, but he was the right anchor for Sniffles.  He would be scared, if Sniffles needed to be brave.  He would be cautious, if Sniffles needed to think things through a bit more.  Whatever Sniffles needed to be, Bookworm was the right catalyst for him.  Between the two of them, Bookworm is probably the one who sticks in the minds of most people, at least those reading this blog, because he was probably the more relatable to our lives.  He was a quite sort of guy, happier when he could bury his head in a book to read adventures, rather than living them himself.  At the same time, he was a true friend for Sniffles, never letting him face the world alone, ready to face his fears, if that's what was asked of him. 


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Alan Lennox and the Temp Job of Doom by Brian Olsen


Synopsis From Publisher:

Alan Lennox has been assigned yet another soul-crushing temp job, keeping him from his first loves - drinking, playing video games, and looking for a boyfriend.  But Alan's new job proves to be anything but boring when his co-workers start turning up dead.  The mysterious megacorporation Amalgamated Synergy has taken a deadly interest in Alan and his three roommates, and the hapless quartet are woefully unequipped to deal with the psychotic secretaries, murderous middle managers, and villainous vice-presidents hunting them down.  Their investigation leads them deep into Amalgamated Synergy's headquarters, but can Alan and his friends stay alive long enough to discover who - or what - waits for them on the top floor?

Picking a book, totally on a whim, can have it's drawbacks.  Often times, especially if it's a book you haven't really heard of before, a synopsis can sound promising, but the book itself leaves you cold.  You end up kicking yourself in the ass for even giving it a try, and swear with your last breath, you will never be so reckless is choosing your next read.

Then there are those rare times that the whim pays off, and pays off in spades.  I'm not even sure how I ended up spotting Alan Lennox and the Temp Job of Doom, but it's not something I would normally give a second glance to.  I've had mixed results with urban fantasy, so I tend to stay clear of it, unless it's series or author I'm already familiar with.  There was something about this cover, and yes, I'm going to blame the cover, that just grabbed me.  It also helps that the book was free at the time, so I figured what the hell, it won't be like I'm out any money.  So I downloaded the book, started to read, and didn't put it down until I flicked past the last page.

The book opens with a classic horror scene.  A single, lonely individual, stuck at work in her Tokyo office building, long past the time when her coworkers have left for the day, is staring at her computer screen.  Naturally she's not working, rather playing a game that simulates working at an office job.  What's better than being an office drone, than playing a game as an office drone?  When she finally shuts off the computer, ready to go home, she is startled to see the reflection of her manager in the dark screen.  Next thing she knows, she is being chased through the building by her murderous boss with a baseball bat, and I'm pretty sure you can figure out the rest.  From Tokyo, the scene shifts to New York City, where the rest of the action takes place.

Alan, the hero of this book, has just stormed out of another boring temp job, and insists on meeting his roommates for a drink at their favorite lesbian bar.  This scene sets up the group dynamic, though we have already met them separately.  Dakota Bell is the ambitious girl, plugging away at her first job out of college, working for Amalgamated Synergy.  She's been there for months, but has never been given a task to do.  Mark Park is a personal trainer, more concerned with picking up women and setting up Alan with a hot client, than he is anything else.  By the way, Amalgamated Synergy is at work in his life too.  The gym he works at is owned by them, the hot chick he picks up is a VP for the company, and the client he sets Alan up with, is lawyer involved in a lawsuit on behalf of a certain game developer.  You know, the game the office drone in Tokyo was playing, right before her brains were bashed in, the game every single character in this book is playing.  Then there is Caitlin Ross, the struggling actress, hellbent on finding the next big gig.  She gets suckered into working for Amalgamated too, as a voice actress.  No reason is given, the director of the shoot has not clue why they are doing it, neither does the corporate exec who shows up to supervise.  And that's sets the scene, though I'm leaving a whole bunch of details out.

What follows is a hilariously gruesome, workplace killing spree.  It takes a satirical look at the modern workplace, poking fun at the size of global corporations, and the hive like mentality they instill in their employees.  Alan Lennox and the Temp Job of Doom, also plays with the precepts of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.  It blends the genres together, breaking all the rules, and has a ton of fun at the same time.  In that regard, it reminds me of Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix, poking fun at not only modern society, but the genre(s) the book is being written in.

I'm hoping the remaining three books of the series, each one features a roommate as the main character, are half as good as this one.  From what I can tell, though the nightmarish situations change, each book will find the roommates fighting for their lives, surrounded by satire and gore.  I can't wait to dive into them.  This was definitely a whim that paid off.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Favorite Fictional Character --- Beaker


Do you ever like something, without really knowing why?  It could be a movie that you can't stop laughing at, but everyone around just wants you to shut up.  It could be a heinously ugly sweater you picked up from a thrift store, but for whatever reason you couldn't leave it behind.  Or maybe it's a really bad rock song from the 1970s, that brings a smile to your face, not matter how long it's been since you've heard it.  Don't get me wrong, I'm sure if you really stopped yourself, and truly thought about it, you would be able to figure where the fascination comes from.  Most of our likes are tied to memory in some way, whether we always make that conscious connection.  Maybe that sweater reminded you of a favorite grandparent, and the song brings up an image of your first crush. No matter what, we like something for a reason, sometimes we just have to stop and figure out why.


For those of you who have no idea of who this guy is, let me introduce you.  Beaker is the unfortunate lab assistant to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, the resident scientist on The Muppet Show.  When I say unfortunate, I really mean that word in a more cataclysmic way.  I don't think he poor guy has not had something bad happen to him.  If an accident can happen in a lab, it's been done to him.  I think at one point in time, he was even eaten.  I don't know why he stayed around, year after year.  If I had been in his shoes, forced to participate in every wacky experiment Dr. Honeydew came up with, I would have run for the hills long ago. 

I've been contemplating doing a post on this guy for a while now, but have always put it off.  I've always been a huge fan of Beaker, but I could never truly figure out why, at least not enough to truly put down in words.  I know I've filled you guys in on a lot of aspects of my childhood, and I'm betting you don't think there were a lot of happy times, at least not judging by what I've been posting lately  I promise you, there were.  More often than not, I was a happy kid, a socially awkward one, but happy nonetheless.  And when I think about Beaker, it's those times of watching The Muppet Show with my mom and brother that I think about.  It's the memories of uncontrollable laughter, as poor Beaker is submitted to one mishap after another.  It's the auditory experience of hearing a character communicate in nothing but meeps, and still be able to make some sort of sense, at least to a kid  Beaker, and many character like him, remind me of the good points in my childhood, which only helps to put the bad in perspective.  So, while he may not have had a significant impact on my life, or moved me in a profound way, I do know why I like him.


Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Children's Home by Charles Lambert


Synopsis From Dust Jacket:

In a sprawling estate, willfully secluded, lives Morgan Fletcher, the disfigured heir to a fortune of mysterious origins.  Morgan spends his days in quiet study, avoiding his reflection in mirrors and the lake at the end of his gardens.  One day, two children, Moira and David, appear.  Morgan takes them in, giving them free reign of the mansion he shares with this housekeeper, Engel.  Then more children begin to show up. 

Dr. Crane, the town physician and Morgan's lone tether to the outside world, is as taken with the children as Morgan is, and beings to spend more time in Morgan's library.  But the children behave strangely.  They show a prescient understand of Morgan's past, and their bizarre discoveries int he mansion's attics grow increasingly disturbing.  Every day the children disappear into the hidden rooms of the estate, and perhaps, into the hidden corners of Morgan's mind.

Every once in a while I come across a book that is almost impossible to review, not because it's horribly written or boring to read, but because it defies description.  The Children's Home is one of those books that no genre label is really going to fit.  There are elements of horror, fairy tale, fantasy, and science fiction.  Throw in generous helpings of the Gothic and psychological, and you may be able to grasp the sort of book this is.  I'm going to assume, if you were to look for this in your neighborhood bookstore, it would be shelved under the generic Fiction label.  At least that's where I hope you find it after you read this review, and take a car trip to get your own copy.

My reaction to this one, is as close to my reaction to Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, as I've had since then.  I'm gong to simply tell you guys to read this book, pray that you do, and give a big "I told you so", once you do it.  But if I'm expecting you guys to just do what I say, maybe I should try to get across why I loved this one as much as I did.

In Morgan, we are given a narrator who is both deeply flawed, and extremely likable. Morgan is one of those characters that I could easily see myself spending time with, holed up in his mansion, floating from conversation to conversation.  He has a painful family past, and no true familial relationships to ground him.  He is a passive participant in life, though I'm not always sure of that, as glimpses of a "real" Morgan do appear from time to time.  At first, he lives alone, except for some nameless staff, on this massive estate, closed off from the outside world.  In a very Shirley Jackson style way, we are given to know that maybe this is for the best, and that outside those walls, society is falling apart and isn't a place anyone in their right mind would want to be.  His household grows with the inclusion of his housekeeper Engel, who is definitely not all she is purporting to be.  And then the children start to arrive.  And that's when the Shirley Jackson aspects of this book, really start to kick in.

As the reader, you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that something is definitely off about the whole thing.  The children range in age from newborn to early teens, and they just show up.  Some appear on the doorstep, others emerge from the lake, and some just appear out of thin air. You are really never sure, including after the bizarre ending, who these kids are, or where they are coming from.  Are they the ghosts of kids sacrificed for the family fortune? Are they time travelers from the past and future, trying to prevent an even more heinous outcome? Are they from another reality all together, trying to save some aspects of this one?  Regardless of who they are, or where they come from, the bigger question is why are they there.  After the ending at the factory, it's safe to say we know the answer to that, but I'm not totally convinced.  There is an almost dreamlike quality to the scene, I'm not sure if Morgan, Dr. Crane, or I as a reader, can truly trust everything that happened.

With any good Gothic story, there needs to be an element of romance, and we have that with Morgan and Dr. Crane.  The author does a terrific job of navigating their relationship; keeping it on the purely platonic level, but allowing a reader to infer what is really going on between them.  As with the rest of this book, their relationship is open to interpretation.  I can almost bet, 50 of my friends could read this one, and not pick up anything of a romantic nature between the two characters, but it's all I noticed when they were together.  Maybe it's because, after all he's been through, and after the children leave, I want Morgan to have a solid future.  It doesn't have to be a blissfully happy life, but I need for him to be on solid ground, sure of his place and of those in his life.