Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Erika Robuck and Michael Palin share some adventure time in My Year With Hemingway

Starting off the summer season in My Year With Hemingway, I decided to go for a book set in one of his favorite places,Key West in Florida during the 1930s.. The title of Erika Robuck's novel Hemingway's Girl does not refer to his then wife Pauline but to Mariella Bennet, a young woman who becomes their household maid.

Mariella is the sole supporter of her recently widowed mother Eva and her two younger sisters,Estelle and Lulu. She meets Hemingway by chance one night as the two of them are attending a local boxing match. He admires her strong will and during their friendship, refers to her as "daughter." Yet there is a slight air of  attraction between them.

Mariella does her best to ignore that depth of feeling towards him and it helps that she falls in love with Gavin, a WWI vet who is working on a government construction project.  Not to mention while working for the Hemingways, she gets to see both the good and bad of the acclaimed author's nature.

One of the strengths of the book is how well developed a character Mariella is(she's loosely based on a real life person in Hemingway's life at that time) and how even without Hemingway, her story is truly compelling. From mourning the loss of her father to working out her feelings for Gavin and Hemingway, as well as working towards a dream to have her own fishing boat, she is a solid leading lady in her own right.

There are some moments in the book that brought to mind another wonderful novel involving a legendary artist and a young maid who inspired him. Girl with a Pearl Earring touched upon similar themes yet Hemingway's Girl has a more down to earth sensibility in it's depiction of an artist and potential muse. Mariella always insisted that Hemingway never use her as one of his characters and it's a promise that he keeps,for the most part:

Erika Robuck not only gives her characters, fictional and otherwise, vivid lives on the page, she also blends in a true historical event known as the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.

 Hemingway assisted in the clean-up of the devastating aftermath of that storm and wrote a scathing article about the lack of government effort to protect the people caught in it's path. That disaster fits well into the story and adds some extra substance to the overall arch of the novel.

While Hemingway's Girl has  it's own unique style, I believe that fans of historical Hemingway fiction like The Paris Wife would truly enjoy this book. It's a wonderfully woven tale that gives it's heroine her independence while allowing the spirit of Ernest Hemingway to make his mark upon her journey towards adulthood:

 As a companion piece, I watched Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure, a travel documentary that the Monty Python player did for the BBC back in the late 1990s. As a fan of the author, Palin was delighted to visit the many places around the world that Hemingway had been, from Spain to Key West to Cuba as well as parts of Africa and even the Chicago suburbs where Hemingway grew up.

He sets  out to do some of the things that Hemingway did in life, such as hunt and fish(with less than thrilling results) and during his time in Cuba, makes several attempts to interview Castro. That running gag is one of many humorous highlights that Palin uses to enhance the experience for the viewers and he succeeds splendidly at that:

The only real flaw in the series is that the sequences are not set within a linear time frame. We go from one place to the other without much rhyme or reason to anchor the trip,for the first half,anyway. It didn't need to be a complete birth to death timeline but a little more structure might have helped. Nonetheless, Palin does entertain as well as inform both readers and viewers alike.

Well, this is a nice start to my summer and my next literary stop will be A Moveable Feast (which is actually a reread for me). I hope everyone has a grand Fourth of July weekend and to send you off with a song in your heart, here's my theme song pick for Hemingway's Girl.

 ABBA may not seem very Hemingway-esque but the heartfelt lyrics of "Chiquitita" reflect the emotional connection between Mariella and Ernest Hemingway nearly pitch perfect to me:

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Who's afraid of the new Ghostbusters song? Not me!

We've been hearing a lot of flack about the new female friendly Ghostbusters movie for months now and the haterade just keeps on flowing. The latest outrage is over the recently released revamped theme song, performed by Fall Out Boy with guest appearance by Missy Elliot.

The immediate response was that of horror, as various media outlets insisted that this was the "worst song ever" and "nightmare inducing". Well, as a fan of movie theme songs(even the bad ones), I was intrigued to say the least.

So, I found the audio edition video(at this time, there's no official movie clip version) and bent my ear to listen. Turns out that it's not as terrifyingly bad as many claim it to be:

Granted, your mileage may vary when it comes to Fall Out Boy( I like them well enough) but all in all, this is a perfectly suitable song for this particular version of Ghostbusters, just as the original Ray Parker,Jr. tune was for the now classic 1984 film.

I did notice a significant difference in the refrain, with FOB making it "I'm not afraid" instead of "I ain't afraid of no ghosts!", which to me signals the major difference between both films.

The first song is a whimsical adventure intro, emphasizing the comedic nature of the movie. The newer version seems to be more action adventure focused, which is not necessarily a bad thing. What both renditions have in common is aptly reflecting the spirit of the film and that is exactly what a theme song is supposed to do!:

Also, this isn't the first time the song has been remade. There are three other cover versions, including one that Run D.M.C. did for the Ghostbusters II soundtrack in 1989.

 Not to mention that if you're looking for bad movie theme songs, this new Ghostbusters song doesn't qualify at all for such a dubious honor. Remember Vanilla Ice and his "Ninja Rap" for TMNT 2: The Secret of the Ooze or better yet, former Ghostbuster Dan Ackroyd teaming up with Tom Hanks in a ham fisted rap for 1987's Dragnet? That's nightmare material,folks.

Movie theme songs are a tricky beast to tame but when done well, they can instantly bring to mind the thrill of seeing that particular movie for the first time. That's why even a new take on an old theme like this needs to set itself apart. Otherwise, it would be just a sorry retread of a song that detracts from the movie it's representing:

 Of course, some of this negativity for the new song is part and parcel of the whole "we hate the new Ghostbusters movie" bandwagon. Look, people, the movie is almost here and whether you like it or not, there is a possibility that it might actually be good.

Even if it's not, there are far worse things out there in the world right now, so if you don't want in, just change the dial and tune into something else. If nothing else, this new Ghostbusters is inspiring old fans and new to get together for some much needed laughs and we truly could use more of that positive energy these days.

Even the original cast is happy to see this twist on their former glory and the new players are eager to honor those who went before them. So, why don't we follow their example and not be afraid to take a few fresh pop culture steps on the dance floor:

Monday, June 27, 2016

Packing up a picnic basket of July and August reads

A lot of crazy things are going on in the world right now and while we are in the midst of many changes, the one solid thing that you can always count on is a good book to read.

That doesn't mean you can't be concerned with what's happening out there, it just means that you also need to take a bookish break from the daily flood of headlines and social media memes.  A refreshing dip into literary waters can really clear your head and heart in order to prepare for what's to come.

With July and August not too far ahead of us, there are plenty of brand new books on the way, enough to fill a picnic basket of page turning goodies to enjoy as we settle down in the shade of the season:


 Liane Moriarty has done well with her sharp social dramas on the bestseller lists and her upcoming novel Truly,Madly, Guilty promises to be just as wickedly juicy.

The story is centered around an incident at a neighborhood barbecue, where three sets of friends are still feeling the aftereffects of. Erika and Oliver were planning to ask Erika's childhood friend Clementine a huge favor that would change the course of their marriage but thanks to receiving a spur of the moment invite from their rather well-to-do neighbor Vid, that became impossible to do.

They're not the only ones to suffer from that careless accident which was due in part to the adult neglect and a child's near miss. Moriarty often paints a compelling picture of middle class flaws and foibles and her latest portrait should be just as picture perfect(July):

 Melanie Raabe's debut novel The Trap has quite the meaty meta premise. Reclusive author Linda Conrads decides to release her long awaited new novel,only this one has a special purpose. She wrote it in order to capture the man she fervently believes is her sister Anna's killer.

As Linda sets her literary plan into motion, she also allows journalist Victor Lenzen to have an exclusive interview with her, suspecting him to be more involved with the case than he claims to be. As the two of them circle each other while the book is becoming a hot topic in the press, Linda wonders if she was right about who her true target is.

This sounds like a smart and snappy thrill ride with a few fun twists along the way. Plus, it's a debut novel and if we're lucky, we may get a whole lot more from this engaging newcomer(July):


 The husband and wife team of Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe take a foodie focus on a portion of American history that still affects our culinary way of life. In A Square Meal, they look at the aftereffects of the Great Depression upon food consumption and social change, such as school lunch programs and food stamps.

The rapid turn from hearty farm fresh meals to making do with leftovers and frozen foods is also on the table, and yes, there are a few recipes from that era that are included. As we are examining our own food choices these days, this well prepped look back at such a major fork in the road ought to be on our reading menu(August):


 Memories of the past make up a large portion of the story in Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson as a visit to an old neighborhood revives the 1970s for our leading lady August.

August and her younger brother moved from Tennessee as children and grew up in Brooklyn without their mother,who was having difficulty getting over a death in the family. While that hit hard upon August as she reached her teen years, she did manage to form a circle of female friends that helped her deal with the various conflicts of each other's lives.

Now returning to bury her father, August reflects upon those times with Sylvia, Gigi and Angela and wonders where it went wrong  between them all. Or did it all become right in the end? This is Woodson's first novel for adults and the acclaimed, award winning author of children's literature brings her full game and then some to this new literary setting(August).

Jennifer Close takes a look at how politics can make unlikely friendships flourish in The Hopefuls, as Beth and her ambitious husband Matt move from New York to Washington D.C. as he takes a job in the new Obama administration.

As Matt struggles to keep up with his more successful work buddy Jimmy, Beth winds up making friends with Jimmy's wife Ash, who really helps her deal with the new social scene that they're both in.

When the foursome move to Texas as Jimmy decides to run for public office there with Matt as his campaign manager, the ties of friendship begin to fray. Especially between Beth and Ash(now preferring to be called Ashleigh), who find that they have less in common than they realized. This mix of humor and politics, plus a dash of friendship drama, should make for a sparkling current events cocktail this summer season(July):


 For the past few months, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes has been dolloping out slivers of his new historical fiction,Belgravia, online. For those who prefer to have their story telling cake in one complete piece, the hardcover edition will be available by July 5th.

The plot follows a family going through enormous changes and challenges in England of the 1840s, yet many of these new beginnings start way back in 1815. During the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, things are set into motion that will affect the lives of several of the guests for some time to come.

I suspect this new saga will be satisfying to Downton Abbey fans yet also appeal to a new set of readers who like to savor the rich flavors of historical drama. Whether or not this new Fellowes tale becomes a made for television event, it's more than likely this book certainly will be a welcome escape from the dreariness of midsummer TV(July):

Hopefully, some of these books may whet your summer reading appetite and give you reason to go outside this warm weather season, if only to a bookstore or library.  While it may be tempting to avoid the humid haze of summer completely, keeping a few social plans is good for your spirits unless you're going to be bored silly in the heat. In that case, a good book is the right place for staying cool and having fun:

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Battles royale on GOT and Outlander,plus giving some thought to Braindead

The much awaited "Battle of the Bastards" took place on this penultimate episode of Game of Thrones yet it wasn't the only throwdown in town.

 Upon her return to Meereen, Dany had to rally her forces along with her dragons in order to halt the invasion of the Masters. It was an excellent display of  power as all of the three dragons went forth to send fire from above on the war ships, the Dothraki went after the Sons of the Harpy and Tyrion's crew set the tone for the one remaining survivor to spread the word about what happens to those who cross the Mother of Dragons.

Another bonus of this battle was the arrival of Theon and Yara, the latter making a strong connection with Dany and a new alliance was born. Hopefully, this means that we'll see Danearys head for Westeros by next season, especially since it looks like new leadership is going to be needed sooner than they all think:

As for the main event, it was as massive as expected and yes, Rickon Stark was the first casualty as Ramsey used him for target practice there.  Jon Snow and his troops(with a late in the game assist by the Knights of the Vale) did win the day and Ramsey got his grisly just desserts but we need to talk about Sansa.

What is troubling a lot of people,myself included, is why she withheld the fact that she asked for help from the Vale via Littlefinger. Granted, she didn't tell Jon or anyone else about meeting Littlefinger in the first place(Brienne is the only one who knows but was sent out to recruit the Blackfish before the battle took place). What kind of long game is she playing here?

She was very angry and insistent that Jon should have consulted her in his war counsel but when he did ask for her opinion, Sansa went into passive-aggressive mode there. For her to have trust issues is understandable but come on, Jon has never given her a reason to doubt his word!

 If anything, he's as doggedly loyal as Ned Stark was, which didn't help him in the end. Perhaps it's that trait which Jon and Ned both share is what is causing Sansa to hold back and play her own game but she needs to be careful with that. As things wrap up, Sansa may find herself in a corner with no way out if she doesn't keep her true allies on hand for back-up:

The battle fronts are just as tricky on Outlander, as Claire,Jamie and friends find themselves in the midst of a failing rebellion. 

What's worse is that the fatal fight at Culloden that Claire wanted to stop from happening looks as if it's going to go forth as history decreed it. Time travel is never easy but being armed with limited foreknowledge like Claire and Jamie are can be more of hindrance than a help there.

Some of the small changes that have been made by Claire's presence in the past, such as the unexpected demise of the sneaky Duke of Sandringham, may make a difference in the end but there's no way to be sure of that. We do know that Claire does make it back to the twentieth century but at what cost? Well, we'll find out soon enough, I suppose:

Despite my doubts, I decided to give Braindead, the new summer CBS series, a try. The set-up is basic sci-fi satire as Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)goes to work for her congressman brother in order to get enough money to finish her documentary.

Her dislike of politics and a government shutdown allow her to start noticing some strange behavior(not to mention exploding heads) that seems to be connected to a Russian meteor in American custody. That space rock turned out to be an ark for army of alien ants that are burrowing into the brains of many people, including those in high office. That under the radar invasion is only making the shutdown worse but it could be the start of something even more dangerous to humanity.

The show is only two episodes in, so I have to give it a little more time. At this point, the characters are interesting(with new ones to come) and it's creepy how all of the space bug infected folk take an instant liking to "You Might Think" by The Cars. (I wonder if those critters can be defeated by Huey Lewis and the News?). For now, Braindead has yet to prove it's worth as food for pop culture thought:


CUTTHROAT KITCHEN: Alton Brown's twisted culinary competition has been having a "Time Warp Tournament" lately, with challenges being based on such long ago decades as the 1950s,60s and 70s, with the finale to take place in the 1990s. What I love about Alton Brown is that he has a wicked sense of fun and it's good to see that others enjoy playing along with him,right down to getting in costume:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Taking an off-beat look at Frankenstein's bicentennial

Despite it's official publication date of 1818, many consider 2016 to be the official 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein due to the fact that she begun writing this now classic tale of terror in the summer of 1816.

Well, that's a good enough of a starting point, I guess and since this story is all about unusual creations and how to handle them, I thought that the best way to celebrate this literary milestone was to take a gander at some of the more unusual reinventions of both the doctor and his monster.

Frankenstein has had many reincarnations over the decades, ranging from breakfast cereals to cartoon characters, and often getting confused with his own creator. Here, I will try to showcase them separate and highlight the most interesting aspects of this doomed pair in pop culture lore:

HERMAN MUNSTER: Having Frankenstein's creation become a bumbling sitcom dad was a near stroke of genius, as many of the film versions did have a sympathetic view of the creature.

To some, The Munsters was simply a middle class version of The Addams Family but I would so prefer to hang out at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. For one thing, the whole family was loyal and lovable to each other,unlike the lethal sibling rivalry over at the Addams residence.

The heart and simple soul of the family,not to mention a few other borrowed body parts, belongs to Herman. His well meaning manner and moments of naivety made up for his occasional grumpiness and Fred Gywnne really made his mark upon the role. A perfect combination of character and actor makes this take on Frankenstein's creation one of the most beloved and admired in TV history:

ADAM: Since the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer took place in college, it did make sense that the Big Bad for that run turned out to be a Frankenstein like foe.

 The human/demon hybrid known as Adam(played by George Hertzberg) was meant to be the template for a secret government project to mass produce an army of super soldiers. However, it was inevitable that the creation broke free of his creators and as is the way of these things, decided to become the master of his own destiny,complete with a makeshift army of his own design.

 Ironically enough, Buffy had to resort to magic in order to become a hybrid warrior woman in order to defeat him. While a few fans were never thrilled with this season, I found Adam to be an interesting villain that should have been better developed there. Nonetheless, he did have quite the spectacular showdown scene towards the end of that story arch:

FRANKENSTEIN,MD: Getting back to the not-so-good doctor, this web series did take a darkly humorous approach to the story at first. Seeing the scarily ruthless ambition of Victoria Frankenstein (Anna Lore)at the expense of her assistant Iggy(and later, a few friends) was a good way to jump start this post modern adaptation.

The fear factor did kick in as the show went on,particularly as Victoria got quickly over her head with her reanimation project which lead to the unavoidable tragic results. Yet, the early dark humor helped to humanize our leading lady as well as get a few actual science facts blended into the story telling mix:

DR. FRANK N FURTER: Using dark comedy for any retelling of Frankenstein is only one of the elements of the cult classic film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which mocked oh so many pop culture standards.

Granted the Frankenstein thread is a slim one in this particular crazy quilt but Tim Curry's performance as the mad and scantily clad doctor stands out like a splash of red on a little black dress. In this version, the doctor is far more developed as a character than his hulking he-man of a creature and is seen as an anti-hero of sorts. Dr. Frank N Furter was well ahead of the times, in more ways than one:

I'm glad to see that Frankenstein's legacy is alive and well and hopefully will remain so for centuries to come. No matter how or how well you tell a good story, it will always find fresh ears and voices to keep it's quality and style feel brand new:

Monday, June 20, 2016

A few new additions to my summer reading list

With today being the official first day of summer, the time to start dipping your literary toes into that summer TBR pool of books is at hand.

I happen to have a good head start on my stack of page turners but there is always room for more, as they say. Lately, I've had the good fortune to add on a trio of intriguing titles that with any luck, I will have read before Labor Day weekend. Lofty goal, to be sure, but good reading is always worth it:

A Read To be Prized: One of the websites that I check out for new book info is Read It Forward and recently, they held a contest to showcase the new set-up for the site. It was a "Literary Emoji Scavenger Hunt", where you looked for emojis with a bookish theme such as typewriters and Shakespeare's portrait to sign up for book giveaways.

 It lasted for about a week and it was pretty fun(plus I got to read a couple of great interviews with Curtis Sittenfeld and Terry McMillan) but when I got an e-mail telling me that I won, I was happy and curious all at once. Which book did I win?

My prize turned out to be Allison Amend's Enchanted Islands, a novel inspired by the journals of Frances Conroy, who during WWII was part of a husband and wife spy team in the Galapagos islands. The story also focuses on a lifelong friendship that Frances had with childhood friend Rosalie, a bond that was briefly broken due to an act of betrayal that took place after the two of them ran away to Chicago from their Midwestern small town during their teens.

This story sounds amazingly good and I have to say that the cover art is beyond gorgeous(trust me, it looks even lovelier than in the picture above), plus the end papers have reproductions of the actual maps that Frances and her spy husband Ainslie drew up together. Out of all the books that I did sign up for, this one promises to be a true gem of a read:

A Warrior Woman Emerges: Thanks to Blogging for Books, I have the chance to explore the creative landscape that author Emily Barton puts in place for her new novel, The Book of Esther.

The time frame is 1942, with a bit of an alternate historical twist.  Esther is the daughter of one of the leaders of Khazaria, an isolated country ruled by Jewish warriors that has become home to a flood of refugees escaping from the reign of terror growing in what they call Germania.

Wanting to take part in the upcoming fight to both protect the refugees and keep the invading hordes from Germania at bay, Esther is held back by the traditional notions of not allowing women to be warriors. She then undertakes a quest to find a legendary village of Kabbalists, who may have the power to not only help Esther reach her goal but to save their mutual homelands as well.

A refreshing look at the power of women is always welcome and it ought to be fun to see how Esther overcomes her particular obstacles to become the warrior queen that she knows in her heart she was meant to be. In an age where we have the likes of Brienne of Tarth and Daenerys Targaryen as maidens of might, it's grand to see another fierce female join their ranks:

Learning to Fly: Finally, I treated myself to a couple of new paperbacks and one of them happens to be Paula McLain's Circling The Sun. Like her previous bestseller The Paris Wife, McLain takes on another notable yet overlooked woman from the past,Beryl Markham, who was a renowned aviatrix well before Amelia Earheart made her mark upon the skies.

Beryl was raised in Kenya by her father and thus was an independent woman that was unafraid to embrace her love of nature,especially horses. Along the way, she met up with Denys Finch Hatton(who was also the lover of Isek Dineson, aka Karen Blixen who wrote Out of Africa) and their relationship lead to a deeper love for airplanes, one that outstripped her romantic ties in the long run.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Paris Wife(which inspired my Year with Hemingway project) and eager to climb on board this flight of fiction to see more of Beryl's world:

 Adding on more books is a bit of a vice for me but at least it's a reasonably healthy one. Summer reading can be daunting but if you allow yourself some flexibility, you should do fine. Reading during this time of year is intended to be entertaining and enlightening, so with a good balance of both, getting into reading shape should be as easy as turning a page:

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Settling into summer with some relaxing reads

Although the calendar says that we're still a few days away from the official start of summer, for most of us, summer is already here and unpacking plenty of good books to read.

I've already made a good start on my summertime reading and would like to highlight three of those books, two of which I am still in the midst of. First up is Sunshine Beach by Wendy Wax, in which a trio of gal pals are looking for the next redesign project to focus their energies on.

Avery,Maddie and Nikki all became friends due to being mutual victims of a Ponzi scheme that wiped out their life savings. Pooling their talents together, they were able to get a reality series about home makeovers called Do Over, that started out well but ended with a very catty portrayal of their efforts.

Burnt from that experience, the ladies want to try again but only with more control over the viewpoint of the show. When Maddie's daughter Kyra(along with her adorable young son Dustin) comes across an abandoned hotel on the beach, it feels like the ideal place to renew their creative spirits. However, the owners of the property are reluctant to allow them in, due to a past tragedy that haunts them still.

Sunshine Beach is the latest chapter in a series known as Ten Beach Road for Wendy Wax and while I haven't read any of those earlier books(I was first introduced to Wax via her lovely novel While We Were Watching Downton Abbey), there is more than enough back story catch-up to make this one easy to get into. The book before this was The House on Mermaid Point and I do intend to read that as soon as can be. In the meantime, I'm enjoying my time at Sunshine Beach(which will be on sale by June 21):

Thanks to winning an advance copy from Library Thing, I was able to complete the new Terry McMillan novel, I Almost Forgot About You. Our leading lady here is Dr. Georgia Young, who has a successful eye care practice and two adult daughters, not to mention a very feisty mother with her own love life.

Upon learning of the passing of a former love, Georgia decides to make a few changes in her own situation and part of that evolving plan includes looking up a few past lovers.  Georgia's ex-husbands are also added to that mix, which offers a few complications but not as many as the ones that both of her girls suddenly decide to drop at her door step.

It's been a long while since I read McMillan and this novel reminds you of the heartfelt warmth and emotional strengths of her characters that made her a popular writer in the first place. IAFAY was such a welcome delight that I got myself a copy of How Stella Got Her Groove Back to further enhance my summer reading time. Reading about women who call upon their inner resources when things get tough is a true tonic for my world weary soul these days:

While we sadly don't have a new Maeve Binchy novel to look forward, she did leave a good number of them to enjoy. One of those that I hadn't read yet was Whitethorn Woods, which is in a favorite format of hers, the interconnected set of short stories about an Irish small town.

The woods of the title are home to a local shrine known as St. Ann's Well that has become a bit of a sensation, due to claims that prayers are truly answered there. That shrine is in danger of destruction as plans for a new roadway threaten to cut into the woods, which wouldn't upset the parish priest Fr.Flynn too much as the citizens of Rossmore give it more credence than the church.

Others, however, feel a debt to St. Ann's Well in one way or another, such as Ned, a plain spoken fellow whose down to earth sense is not as foolish as many think, and Vera, whose singles cruise has an awkward start but soon turns into the best decision of the heart she's made in a long while. I think they are plenty of writers out there who could take a page or two out of Binchy's playbook about what makes a good simple story worth listening to and so far, this book is a good example of just that:

 I have much more to read this season, including my Year with Hemingway selections, but I would recommend these three as a fine start towards relaxing with a good book in the summer shade. At the very least, one or two of them should provide a nice respite from the cycle of manic Mondays that  most of us are trudging through and make every day a Sunday fun day:

Monday, June 13, 2016

Bob Proehl introduces us to A Hundred Thousand Worlds of pop culture possibilites

Novels about comic book fans and creators are now becoming a regular part of the literary landscape yet many of them are not simply cookie cutter plot points that many would expect them to be. A good number of these books are explorations of love and imagination such as this debut novel by Bob Proehl that I just finished reading this very day.

In A Hundred Thousand Worlds, Proehl has his characters take their own emotional journeys on the road as they follow the Comic Con circuit. The leading lady of this story happens to have been a famous leading lady at one point in pop culture time.

 Valerie Torrey was once the co-star of a popular sci-fi TV series called Anomaly and at one time, deeply in love with Andrew Rhoades, who played the Mulder to her Scully. Years after that show ended abruptly due to a stunning tragedy, Valerie is living in New York with her nine year old son Alex, who only has seen his father on the  sleazy Showtime cable series that he's in.

As Valerie makes her way through the convention route as one of the celebrity stars, she's also preparing to give up Alex to his father, who has forced her hand in allowing him some custody time. Their reunion is set to coincide with a L.A. appearance at a panel discussion of Anomaly, a show that may be long gone but is still a strong part of all of their lives:

Along the way, Valerie and Alex run into a number of comic book related folks such as Brett, an indie illustrator who is rebounding from a bad romantic break-up and close to a professional break-up with his writing partner Fred, and Gail Pope, a frustrated writer who resents being the token female at the mainstream comic book company she works for.

Brett winds up bonding with Alex, who asks for his help in writing his own comic book adventure. Gail finds herself giving emotional support to Valerie while trying to figure out how to get better control over her work life.

 A chorus of superheroine clad women(hired by the convention) also offers their moral support and influence throughout the comic con road, which will lead them all to the place that they need to be in order to embrace the changes lying in wait for them up ahead.

Like many of the adventures that these folks work at to make for others, there's a good amount of misunderstanding and things unspoken that need to be, with new bonds forming to help them adjust to the strange new worlds they find themselves in:

 Proehl's deft hand at bringing comic con players to life clearly shows his depth of  knowledge in this field and while you can spot the real world basis for some of the major characters, he takes enough original twists and turns with them that give each one a true life of their own.

The heart of AHTW belongs to Alex, a smarter than he should be yet completely innocent creative soul who uses both the stories that he reads and the one that he's making up along the way to discover his place in the world. Valerie's emotional arch is strongly tied to him but you do want her to be able to seek true peace for herself as well.

One of the reoccurring pauses in the book are sections that give the origin story of some of the fictional superheroes that are featured at the cons like The Blue Torch, The Astounding Family and Outerman, a thematic rhythm that also extends to the real world characters at times. Those set pieces are vividly engaging, making you wish that some of these super powered folk really did have comics that you could enjoy:

This is not some cut and paste pop culture production here, folks. Proehl showcases what we love best about this entertainment realm that we sometimes take for granted.

 It's not just fueled by money making concerns and pandering to certain audiences, the life blood of comics and other fantastical genre is the desire to share a piece of our collective artistic heart with other and vice versa, in order to make sense from the everyday chaos all around us. In times like these, we need to keep that spirit strong and perhaps this book can be a small step in that right direction.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds is set to be released on June 28th and whether or not you're a comic book fan or sci-fi/fantasy follower, anyone in need of a good story should check this out. Keeping that special spark of childhood wonder is the key to any true fan love and Proehl's debut displays that deep magic well indeed:

Friday, June 10, 2016

Having a Hamilton party at the Tonys

The Tony Awards are set to air this Sunday and there's no use in pretending that any other musical is going to sweep the show than Hamilton, the brilliant biopic written by Lin-Manuel Miranda,who also performs the title role.

This musical has broken so many boundaries in such wonderful ways, by using the hip-hop and rap genre as well as a diverse cast to make the story of this particular Founding Father come alive off of the pages of history.

Yes, it helped that Miranda did base his facts upon Ron Chernow's renowned and award winning biography(Chernow was also a consultant for the production) but it was his creative drive to do something completely different with such well worn material that turned this show into the pop culture phenomenon that it has become:

Even though the difficulty of getting tickets for Hamilton is now a regular running joke, so many people have tuned into it via the soundtrack(which I bought for my birthday and still need to finish listening to) and the companion book that is still a big bestseller.

One of many reasons that the fanbase is growing is due to the generous nature of the cast, who put on mini-performances for folks waiting in line for a chance at discounted tickets. Known as "Ham4Ham", these surprise numbers sometimes include special guests like the cast of the musical Fun Home and a certain sci-fi director(yes, there is a Hamilton/Star Wars connection,folks!):

Hamilton has also inspired at least two or more book tags, with many of the literary lovers on YouTube following along,not to mention plenty of reviews for the bound play book(aka "Hamiltome").

The sincerest form of flattery for Hamilton is of course the parodies. There are plentiful to be sure, with some either focusing on one song or tapping into the current state of our election cycle right now.

My personal favorite of these mock tributes is Batlexander Manilton, which morphs the saga of the Dark Knight seamlessly into this Broadway style. It would probably make for a great full fledged musical, certainly way better than Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark was,that's for sure:

 No doubt, there are some who are already sick of hearing about Hamilton and that's perfectly understandable. Sometimes a great book, movie or play can be over hyped to the point of exhaustion which can turn people off to even checking it out for themselves.

However, I do hope that Hamilton goes on to lead to bigger and better things for musical theater,inspiring more and more breaks from tradition to bring Broadway into more of the modern age.

There's nothing wrong with the old school style but with so many musicals being remakes of films and/or revivals these days, it is good to see an original production take hold of the pop culture consciousness like this.

 The Tony Awards should have amazing ratings this year, not just for Hamilton but with Late,Late Show's James Corden doing the hosting honors this time around as well. Yes, this will be a Hamilton party but as Corden's newest Carpool Karaoke shows, the music of Broadway is an invitation for all to sing along:

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Summing up my Sci-Fi Summer experience

Seasons of Reading finished up their first Sci-Fi Summer readathon yesterday and I think  that it went off pretty well.

 Many of the people who signed up chose a wide variety of current and past science fiction writers, ranging from Asimov to Ernest Cline and there were a few fantasy titles that made their presence known to boot.

As for me, I managed to complete two out of the three books that I selected for this challenge, which is par for the course with me. The best one that I read during this week was Station Eleven, a novel that was beautifully woven together as a sad yet hopeful tribute to the power of art to motivate humanity during the worst of times.

The structure of the story goes from past to present yet it's solid core is Arthur Leander, an actor who dies on stage one night just as the incredibly fatal Georgia Flu begins to spread across the world. Kristen Raymonde was a child actress in that production of King Lear and her few memories of that long ago time are connected to Leander.

 Kristen is still an actress, part of a troop of musicians and performers who call themselves The Traveling Symphony, that go from town to town to play music and perform the works of Shakespeare.

During one stop at a place named St. Deborah by the Water, a local prophet and his band of followers make it clear that their stay should be brief at best. Upon their leaving,however, a young stowaway causes the prophet and his crew to go after them. That extra bit of danger is heightened by unknown connections from Leander's personal legacy, which includes Kristen as well.

Part of the beauty of this book is how art in all of it's forms is seen as worthy of being remembered. The Station Eleven of the title refers to a comic book series that one of Arthur Leander's wives worked on, with the first two issues being given to Kristen by him as a child. She still holds on to them, hoping to find more or at least learn more about them somehow.

Part of the inspiration for those comics comes from Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes series, in particular his Spaceman Spiff strips. Other pop culture references include Star Trek, video games and of course, Shakespeare.

These small touches illuminate the deeper loss of society and civilization in this post plague world, adding more nuance to what could have easily been just another standard dystopian drama. All of the praise that I heard for this book was certainly well earned indeed:

Most of my time was taken up with Stephen King's The Tommyknockers, which was a reread, and I had forgotten just how bogged down in distractions this story was.

The start is simple enough; writer of Westerns Roberta "Bobbi" Anderson stumbles across a buried object on her property in the township of Haven,Mass and begins to dig up what turns out to be a flying saucer.

The emanations that come off this ancient star cruiser begin to have strange effects on Bobbi and then the rest of the residents of Haven, with only people who have metal implants such as Jim Gardner(a former lover of Bobbi's with a bad drinking problem) being able to resist the unearthly makeover.

King does like science fiction but he's not the best at writing about it, at least not back then. I think of this book as a necessary stepping stone towards other sci-fi fiction that King has done long after that such as Under The Dome and 11/23/63 that turned out much better.

 A lot of the book tends to wander from one theme to another, with fear of nuclear power(some of the side effects of space ship exposure are similar to radiation fall out), distrust of government and how folks are too quick to relay on technology they don't quite understand to make things better for them rattling around in this novel.

That last one still holds up today, with our reliance on websites, smart phones and biotech, and if he had kept steady with one or two of those threads, the story might have been way less cluttered. There are some good parts, such as the deadly mischief that some of the Haven folks get up to with their gadgets(the urge to invent things such as telepathic typewriters and soda machines that can hover off the ground are part of the "Tommyknocker" influence) but you do feel as tired as Bobbi and Gardener do as they continue to dig up the ship towards the end of the novel.

The Tommyknockers is strongly inspired at times by 1950s sci-fi, with a heavy dose of Invasion of the Body Snatchers(or Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters) thrown into the mix. In the end, The Tommyknockers is much like many of those movies-a solid first act that loses it's way but still has some entertainment value to offer:

I'm afraid that I didn't get too far with Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union(the blame for that I'm laying at the door of The Tommyknockers) but I did mange to read about a hundred pages and will probably keep at it for awhile longer.

The plot is set in an alternative world history, with Alaska becoming the new homeland for Jewish refugees after WWII. Sixty years later, the agreement that set up this arrangement is due to be reverted, turning that portion of state back to American led Alaskan control.

This sense of unease is part of the motivation for cynical police detective Meyer Landsman to focus on the murder of a man who was shot down in the motel that they both happen to live in. With changes in the department coming fast and furious, this particular case is encouraged by the new captain(who happens to be Meyer's ex-wife) to be quickly swept under the rug. However, that order only spurs Meyer and his partner(who is also his cousin) Berko to step up their investigation.

The tone of inevitable despair that the story has is classic for the detective noir genre,plus with the level of uncertainty that the upcoming Reversion is giving to all involved, does make this off beat tale worth staying with and I'll most likely keep this book in the mix of my regular reading for this season. It may take some time but then again, a good thing really shouldn't be rushed:

This initial literary outing for  Sci-Fi Summer was a good one and much thanks to Michelle Miller of Seasons of Reading for adding this to her readathon roster. I hope that everyone else who took part had a great time with their book choices and that we all come back to this same time next year to do this again. Maybe we can make this genre specific readathon as fun and funky as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 viewing, what do you say, folks?:

Monday, June 06, 2016

Shaking my head at a sorry slate of summer shows

With the regular TV season behind us, looking forward to the limited series that summer has to offer can be quite a hit or miss affair. So far, all I'm seeing is miss.

Sure, we still have Game of Thrones, Preacher and Outlander on but those series will finish their runs most likely before July 4th and frankly, the options for new programming just don't look that promising to me. Here's a handful of upcoming summer shows that I find myself shrugging at:

BRAIN DEAD: This about to begin CBS show stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel,a  newly hired Capitol Hill staff member who discovers that her bosses are having their brains eaten by space bugs(not kidding at all on that one). The tone of this series appears to be dark comedy mixed with political thriller, which can work well in the right circumstances but this take seems to be as wobbly as Laurel is on her high heels.

 Since this series was put together by the folks who created The Good Wife,it's not surprising that this is some sort of a sci-fi political satire. Only trouble is, the political wackiness that's currently going on in the real world right now makes this premise actually look like a welcome alternative rather that a stinging indictment of government game playing:

WRECKED: This TBS comedy follows a group of passengers and staff who survive an airplane crash and have to learn to make do on a deserted island. I suppose it's a twisted take on Lost as well as Gilligan's Island but the humor, even in the promos, feels very forced indeed.

While they do have a few good comedians in cast such as Rhys Darby and Zach Cregger, that's not enough to make a weak premise stretch out long enough for several episodes. We've seen this type of set-up in numerous comedy skits but I truly don't believe that this is going to be any better than those SNL bits that don't know when to quit:

DEAD OF SUMMER: The former ABC Family, which now calls itself Freeform, has a new aimed at teens series that takes place at a summer camp in the 1980s. And what usually happens to teenagers at such a remote location in that time period?

Yes, it's slasher time! I'm sorry but even the younger than me audience who this is targeted for can catch on to the cliches of this story line pretty quickly. I know that MTV is doing well enough with their adaptation of the Scream movies to give it a second season(which is probably why this show got greenlit) but can't we offer this section of  viewers something a little less derivative?:

MATCH GAME: As much as I like the idea of ABC reviving classic game shows like The 100,000 Pyramid, To Tell The Truth as well as setting up Celebrity Family Feud, why did they have to ruin Match Game by hiring Alex Baldwin as the host?

That guy is obnoxious personified, to the point where he is no longer simply being a caricature of a pompous creep but just being himself. With all of the good comedians out there(not to mention Ru Paul, who does a fabulous parody of the series as a regular challenge on Drag Race), why pick this played out hack? Perhaps the price was right in that regard but it may prove to not pay off in the long run there:

I could be very wrong about any or all of these shows(except for Match Game and Alex Baldwin, that I will not relent on) and if anyone does enjoy them, that's cool with me. These are short lived series, after all, and with any luck, the worst of them will not return next year.

In the meanwhile, it might be best for me to catch up on series that I missed the first time around. Lately, that has been Breaking Bad and I'm now up to Season Three, where things get more intense than they have been up to now.

Seeing the complete run of a renowned show long after it's finished can be a rewarding experience, not to mention a true oasis of entertainment in pop culture drought periods like this(spoilers up ahead in this video, you have been warned!):