Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Favorite Fictional Character --- Heckle & Jeckle

There are certain characters, dreamed up in bygone eras, that I really don't think would find an audience today.  Some of them are products of their times, created to fit into an era's zeitgeist.  They could be too naive, cute, or innocent to find an audience in today's jaded marketplace.  Or they could play to a stereotype that would not be tolerated in today's world.  Others, and I'm thinking of the characters I'm featuring today when I say this, just may be too abrasive to find refuge in the living rooms of 2016.  I could be wrong, maybe these guys could find an audience, but I'm thinking their shtick would have to be tweaked a bit, maybe a lot.  But even their abrasiveness may find a home. I look at some of what's on TV these days, including cartoons, and I'm amazed by the crassness of it all.  Toilet humor runs amok, and intelligence is downplayed.  If I were a kid of today, I would be watching a whole lot of vintage cartoons, not the drivel being produced now.  When all is said and done, I'm thinking Heckle & Jeckle may be a tad bit too mean spirited enough for today's youth, especially with the way bullying seems to be such a huge issue.  Despite it all, I still love them.  It's impossible to watch a cartoon of theirs, without cracking up.

For those of you who don't know Heckle & Jeckle, it's the two magpies in the picture above.  If you go by their accents, one is English, the other is from New York.  Other than that, I'm not really sure anyone could really tell them apart.  They are both temperamental, brash, antagonistic, sarcastic, and at times, a wee bit mean spirited.  They rarely ever aren't the instigators of their little capers, and often times go on the offensive, long before their "foe" knows what's going on.  They both can be devious in their actions, but that's seems to be Jeckle's forte, more than Heckle.  They are grifters and freeloaders, and damn proud of it.  They look out for themselves, and aren't overly concerned about the damage they inflict. 

Even with all those negative things I just said about them, they are the best of friends and have the other's  back, no matter what.  As with all partnerships, they have their sniping moments, but's it's almost impossible to not see the true friendship and camaraderie between the two of them.  They are loyal to each other, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and if they were real people, they probably would have met a similar fate.  And did I mention, they are frickin hilarious?  Unless I'm gagged, it would be impossible for me to not laugh out loud when I watch them.  I adore them, and if that makes me a mean person, I can live with it.  At least I'm a mean person with a wicked sense of humor. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Caitlin Ross and the Commute from Hell by Brian Olsen

Synopsis From Publisher:

Caitlin Ross is on track to be the action star she's always wanted to be.  She's go the lead in a new play at a downtown theater, she's got a handsome, successful boyfriend, and she's picked up some killer new martial arts skills.  But after a missing teen reappears outside her theater, disfigured and violent, Caitlin finds that there's more to being a hero than just throwing punches.  When mysterious portals start hurling her friends around New York City and into danger, Caitlin will have to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep her loved ones safe.  If she survives long enough to discover the truth behind their teleporting tormentors, can Caitlin avoid the monstrous fate awaiting her in the theater's basement?

Where Alan Lennox and the Temp Job of Doom, opened with a scene direct from a slasher movie, Caitlin Ross and the Commute from Hell, opens with a scene direct from the type of  science fiction horror movie that gave me nightmares as a kid.  I saw The Fly once as a kid, and I have yet to be able to sit down and watch it since.  Because of that movie, we all know what happens to someone when their body is transported from one container, into another container that contains another live body.  So you can imagine what happened to the kid mentioned in the synopsis, when the evil scientist kidnapped him, put him in a transporter type pod, and tried to transport him to another location, using a dog as the other test subject.  Here's the rub, in order to transport someone, you have to break them apart at the atomic level.  In order to recreate them, you have to have some sort of building blocks in place, otherwise the body can't be reconstructed.  It's a gruesome and bloody process, and the horrors of it are on full display, more than once.

There is a lot going on in this book, and once again the action is split between the four roommates.  They have tried to move on from the nightmares created by the artificial intelligence, Amysyn, that tried to kill them in the previous book.  They thought they had beaten her, but humans being the fallible creations that we are, a character you badly want to be a good guy, ends up resurrecting a part of it, in order to try and defeat other intelligences as they develop in the future.  He has his heart in the right place, but the actions he takes, in conjunction with the scientists he partnered with, do so much more harm than good.  One is an egomaniac, willing to sacrifice anyone in order to reach his goals.  The other, is a grieving mother who just wants her daughter back, a daughter who died as a result of her research.  Both of them are bat shit crazy, and blood thirsty in their attempts.  As a reader, you don't realize that he is responsible for all the pain and death that is inflicted in this book, and there is a lot of both, until the end.  And even then, you still want to like him.  The roommates still want to like him, and in many cases, they find that they can forgive him, if not totally trust him.

Between the wormholes opening up, hurtling subway cars to the ground, and old men into shark infested water, to the horrific consequences of the transportation machines, there is a ton of science run amok in this book.  Sometimes the "scientific" aspects of the book felt heavy at times, but the author, doesn't bog the action down with overly elaborate explanations or descriptions.  And while I know this is all science fiction, it fits so well into the world the author created, that none of it felt too far out there.

There are also a lot of new characters introduced, and others that are more fully developed in their second outing.  Certain side characters are turned into heroes, and characters you thought may stick around, end up being cowards, or dying in ways I wouldn't wish on those I dislike the most.  None of them are superfluous, as they all seem to enhance the action, rather than take away from it.

Overall this was a fast paced, humorously bloody and violent romp through New York City.  It was a terrific second book to the series, and it keeps strengthening the four roommates as individuals, and as a team.  I can't wait to read the third and fourth books now.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker

Synopsis From Dust Jacket:

In the cold spring of 1936, Arthor Crandle, down on his luck and desperate for work, accepts a position in Providence, Rhode Island, as a live-in secretary/assistant for an unnamed shut-it. 

He arrives at the gloomy colonial-style house to discover that his strange employer is an author of disturbing, bizarre fiction.  Health issues have confined him to his bedroom, where he is never to be disturbed.  But the writer, who Crandle knows only as "Ech-Pi," refuses to meet him, communicating only by letters left on a table outside his room.  Soon the home reveals other unnerving peculiarities.  There is an ominous presence Crandle feels on the main stairwell.  Light shines out underneath the door of the writer's room but is invisible from the street.  It becomes increasingly clear there is something not fight about the house or its occupant.

Haunting visions of a young girl in a white nightgown wandering the walled-in garden behind the house motivate Crandle to investigate the circumstance of his employer's dark family history.  Meanwhile the unsettling aura of the house pulls him into a world increasingly cut off from reality, into black depths, where an unspeakable secret lies waiting. 

I haven't read a lot of H.P.  Lovecraft's writing, nor do I really know much about his personal life, so when I stumbled upon this book in the store, and was captivated by the cover, I knew I had to give it a shot.  Once I got it home, it stayed on my bedside table for a few days, but once I picked it up, I was lost in a world of Gothic madness and fear.

If you have seen the movies Thr3e or Dream House, you will quickly catch on to what's going on, and you will definitely get a good understanding for the title of this book.  If you haven't seen those movies, I'm not going to spoil the book, or the movies for that matter, by explaining what they all have in common.  Just know this, even though I was able to figure out the twist of this book about half way through, it didn't take away from my enjoyment of it, nor did it keep me from buying into the story of Arthor Crandle and his employer.  The clues are there for you to pick up on.  As long as you are paying attention to the side characters, and how they interact with Arthor as he encounters them, you won't stray too far into the woods.

This is one of those books where the atmosphere is everything.  This is a book that you feel enveloped in from the moment you first crack it open.  It's heavy and oppressive.  You feel like you are drowning underneath a layer of unease and tension.  From the moment Arthor appears on the page, you know he is not going to have a an easy time of it, and that he is hiding from his life  The tension and unease all stem from him, like a miasmatic fog wafting over a fetid swamp, you know he is the source of it all.

Of course, like any good Gothic story, the house plays a big role in the tone of the book.  It's falling apart, full of memories and ghosts, and presents the perfect backdrop for Arthor and his secrets.  It's a confusing labyrinth of secretes and misdirection, all built around the goal of playing games with Arthor's, and the reader's, mind.  It's hard to put a finger on what's real, and what's not.  But, as long as you follow the trail of bread crumbs the author leaves behind, I'm sure you will be able to figure it out for yourself.  If you can't, I'm sure Arthor will help you feel at home.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

One Day, What Happened In Orlando, Will Never Happen Again

I've been trying to get a review written for a little over 2 hours now, and no matter how many times I get it started, neither my brain, nor my heart is really in it tonight. Every time I blink, every time I let my mind wander, even for second, the images of the early morning attack in Orlando, FL is all I can see.  What has now been determined to be the largest mass shooting in United States history, has taken fifty lives, with countless others still fighting to stay alive.  It has claimed brothers and sons, mothers and fathers, husbands and lovers.  It has robbed the LGBT community in Orlando of a place they thought would be safe.  I has robbed the national LGBT community of our collective sense of safety.

The man who did this, and at this point in time, I could really care less what his motivations were, was a monster.  I know some want to jump up and down and scream it was Islamic extremism rearing it's head, and if that's the talking point you need to spout, go for it.  I won't name the shooter here, because I think he is getting enough attention already, but from what I'm reading, this guy sounds like a unstable, homophobic bastard who decided it was his place to teach us a lesson. Whether his motivation was religion, hate, or a combination of the two, it doesn't change the results of his actions.  Fifty people are dead.  Fifty people will not be able to go home ever again.  Families are left grieving as they read texts sent to them from inside the club, as their loved ones were dying.  Communities are left reeling, and it will be a long time before many will really feel safe again.

This isn't new though.  The LGBT community has had a target on our backs for far longer than any of us really care to think about.  This guy is no different from Eric Rudolph who bombed an Atlanta gay bar in the 1990s.  He's no different from the folks at Westboro Baptist Church, who called this shooting a righteous act of God.  He's not different than the arsonist who killed 32 people in a New Orleans club in 1973. He's no different than Scott Esk, the Oklahoma politician who, in 2014, called for the stoning of gay men and women.  He is no different from Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two men who beat Matthew Sheppard, before tying him to a fence post to die.  He's no different than the regime that sent gay men and women into gas chambers during WWII.  He is no different than those who sent gay men and women into asylums, to be experimented on like guinea pigs. He is no different from the doctors who used electrocution, chemical castration, and lobotomies to try and cure us. He's no different than the American "Christian" organizations that helped pass the death penalty for gay people in a few African countries. He is no different from the monsters in the Middle East, and elsewhere, who are willing to use religion to take the lives of gay teenagers.  He is no different from the parents who kick their gay children out of their home, and force them to fend for themselves on the streets.  He's no different from every other person who has beaten, spat upon, or killed someone simply for being gay.  He's no different from every other person who sees us, and our relationships, as worth less then themselves.

One day, this won't be an issue.  One day, we will be able to live our lives without worrying that we could lose our families, or our lives, by being true to ourselves.  One day, coming out won't be a term anyone remembers.  One day, we will be able to go out in public and not worry about being attacked if we show even a little bit of affection to our partner.  That one day, needs to get here soon.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Favorite Fictional Character --- Quick Draw McGraw

If you haven't been able to figure out by now, I'm a huge cartoon fan.  Actually, I should probably restate that in a way, that makes me sound like I have good taste. Here it goes.  If you haven't been able to figure out by now, I'm a huge fan of cartoons from the 1980s, and earlier.  I'm sure, if you are around my age, or older, the know the reason I had to qualify my statement.  And it's a simple point.  Once you get past the very early years of the 1990s, cartoons sucked.  The quality of the animation seemed to go down hill, get horrifically sloppy.  I've tried to watch recent cartoons, and except for a few like Dora, they are not only pathetically animated, but horribly written as well.  They have devolved to the basest humor, and if that's what's on offer now, I'm glad Saturday morning cartoons are a thing of the past.  And as much as I love the cartoons of the 1980s, the cartoons my mom, and myself, grew up watching are some of my favorites.

Take this guy for example, if you don't know who he is, this is Quick Draw McGraw.  He is probably the most entertaining sheriff the Old West ever had.  Was Quick Draw the sharpest knife if the drawer, not even close, and I think he would be okay with that description of himself.  But Quick Draw had heart, he had bravery to spare, and he always strove to do the honorable thing.  It is true, he had to be bailed out, more than once, by his deputy, Baba Looey, and occasionally the bloodhound Snuffles, but he did save the day, occasionally, all by his lonesome. 

Just to put this out there, I could have done without his masked alter ego, El KaBong.  He really should have left the masked vigilantism to Zorro, who used his sword, way better than El KaBong could ever have used his guitar.  I'm not even sure how he was able to find the time to go on his incognito adventures.  I would think being sheriff would take up a lot of his time, but what do I know.

I can tell you what I do know though.  I would take Quick Draw McGraw, in any incarnation, over the drivel kids are watching today.  Whether his madcap adventures made sense or not, they were entertaining.  Not only that, as crazy as the story lines could get at time, they at least had a story to tell.  

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Manhattan Mayhem edited by Mary Higgins Clark

Synopsis From Dust Jacket:

From Wall Street and Greenwich Village to Chinatown, Harlem, and beyond, the street and skyscrapers are brimming with crimes and misdemeanors.  Now, best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark invites you on a tour of these iconic neighborhoods in Manhattan Mayhem, and anthology of all-new stories from Mystery Writers of America, produced to commemorate its 70th anniversary.  In Lee Child's "The Picture of the Lonely Diner," legendary drifter Jack Reacher interrupts a curious stand-off in the shadow of the Flatiron Building.  In Jeffery Deaver's "The Baker of Bleecker Street," an Italian immigrant becomes ensnared in WWII espionage.  And in "The Five-Dollar Dress," Mary Higgins Clark unearths the contents of a mysterious hope chest found in an apartment on Union Square.  With additional stories from T. Jefferson Parker, S.J. Rozan, Nancy Pickard, Ben H. Winters, Brendan DuBois, Persia Walker, Jon L. Breen, N.J. Ayres, Angela Zeman, Thomas H. Cook, Judith Kelman, Margaret Maron, Justing Scott, and Julie Hyzy, Manhattan Mayhem is teeming with red herrings, likely suspects, and thoroughly satisfying mysteries. 

I've never made a secret of the fact that I'm addicted to short stories.  There is almost nothing better than a perfectly crafted tale, told in a short amount of space, that doesn't leave you feeling cheated as you read the last word.  I've always been in awe of the ability it takes to take a story idea, to boil it down to it's core, all the while keeping it as complex and rewarding as a full length novel.  Some of my favorite authors, Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Connor among them, were brilliant short story writers.  After reading Manhattan Mayhem, authors who I have always enjoyed, have now proven to me that they are just as good at writing a well crafted short story.

As in any short story collection, there were a few in this one that just didn't work for me, but that has more to do with taste, than the author's ability.  There are a few that are set in the past, including one with a bit of time travel, and since I've never been a huge fan of historical fiction, I could have done without them. And there were a couple that I could classify as short thrillers, more than mysteries, and I'm not a huge fan of those either.  Overall though, I think Mary Higgins Clark, and the Mystery Writers of America, put together a stunning anthology that worked to show of Manhattan in all it's diverse glory.

The collection starts with "The Five-Dollar Dress," by Mary Higgins Clark, and it was a fitting start.  For me, it was a perfect example of what a good short story should look like.  It was well crafted and concise, without robbing the reader of necessary information.  It told a complete story, beginning to end, but it left me wanting more.  I want to know what the character does with the information she discovers, of how she handles what can now be perceived of as the truth.

"White Rabbit," by Julie Hyzy, is a brilliant short that takes place within a time span of 30 minutes at the most, but the tension is so well done, I felt I was sitting on the Central Park bench for hours instead.  "Three Little Words," by Nancy Pickard brought me into the world of the elite residents on the Upper West Side.  At least those who are trying to keep family secrets hidden, and are willing to go to great lengths to do so.  "Damage Control," by Thomas H. Cook, while not a mystery in the strongest sense of the word, broke my heart in it's examination of human frailty and misunderstandings.  "Trapped!," by Ben H. Winters, an author I already love, allowed his cast of Chelsea actors to showcase his sense of humor and timing, proving that he is another Ira Levin.  "Red-Headed Stepchild," by Margaret Maron is what I would expect from the aforementioned Shirley Jackson, if she has been writing a story of selfish kids on the Upper East Side.  There were a few other stories I enjoyed, but these were the ones that truly blew me away.

This anthology has already added quite a few books to my ever expanding wish list, I'm just hoping that the Mystery Writers of America keeps these anthologies coming.  I'm not sure if this was a one time idea, but I can easily get behind books that explore the neighborhoods of Boston, New Orleans, or even Chicago.  As long as the murders, and other misdeeds, are as intelligently conceived as they are in Manhattan Mayhem, I'll be there, ready to dig in.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Favorite Fictional Character --- Wilma Flintstone

I'll be one of the first to admit, that I'm a sucker for strong female characters.  The majority of the characters I chose to highlight when I first started this feature, were women.  I'm not sure if it's because I've always been surrounded by strong women, starting with my great-grandma who ran a lumber mill way past the point when others retire.  Whatever the reason, I've always been drawn to them. From all time favorites like Miss Piggy & Buffy Summers, to characters I've only recently discovered like Harriet Baxter, I'm always excited when I get to spend time with them.  What I really like though, is when the character comes from a source you wouldn't have expected her to come from.  You expect Buffy to be strong, after all, she is the vampire slayer.  What you don't expect is that same strength coming from a prehistoric housewife, one of four central characters that starred in a cartoon that debuted in 1959.

I think most of you know this rather iconic character, just from looking at her.  I'm pretty sure that Wilma Flinstone is a mainstay of American pop culture, and will probably never fade from the public consciousness.  Wilma is in some ways the stereotypical 1950s housewife.  She stays home, cleans house, cooks dinner for her husband, and once Pebbles is born, spends her time raising her.  But she's so much more than that.  She is the iron willed force that keeps her husband in line, keeping him from screwing up to badly when his schemes go wrong, which they always do.  She is the central figure that the others orbit around, without her, there is no family, no TV show for them to star in.

Granted, Wilma, especially in the beginning, could be a little too strong.  She could be a little too harsh with Fred, hitting him over the head a few too many times, and berating him a smidge over what was appropriate.  I'm not sure if that was at the beginning of their marriage, and they were still trying to figure it all out, but I'm glad that over the course of it, they seemed to reach a level they were both comfortable with.  

Wilma is one of those characters that I would not want to get on the bad side of.  She always seemed fiercely loyal to those she cared about, but willing to take on those that she thought were fake, or meaning harm to those close to her.  At the same time, she is one of those characters, along with Betty, I would love to go have a glass of wine with.  I could imagine a good time would be had by all.