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Category Archives: Book Reviews

Ghostbusters: The Return (A Novel Review!)

There will never be a third Ghostbusters film featuring the original characters.  However, there have been many continuations such as in cartoons, video games, and comics.  However, there is one continuation that most people and fans probably never heard of: the 2004 novel Ghostbusters: The Return.

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Written by Sholly Fisch, The Return picks up a few years after Ghostbusters II.  The team has a more-or-less sustainable business, and the Ghostbusters themselves are fairly popular with the citizens of New York City – mostly due to the implied regularity of major supernatural threats.  Due to their status, a political party recruits Peter to run for the mayor of New York City (with Winston as his deputy mayor).  Peter sees this as a way to the good life despite not knowing anything about politics and since he becomes focused more and more on the election, his ghostbuster duties slack.  Not surprisingly, this puts strain on his friendship with Egon and Ray.  And, of course, a new supernatural threat chooses now to come to New York.

There is a lot of good about The Return.  Even though the book is at a standard 300 pages, it is an incredibly quick read.  The narrative moves and it keeps you invested.  It was also nice to read a new Ghostbusters story – something that I am surprised that the market hasn’t really had to any mainstream effect.

There are a couple of competing story lines such as Peter’s election run, Ray and Egon’s investigation into the supernatural threat, and the villain’s rise.  Some of these work better than others. Peter running for mayor is a brilliant story arc.  I can see this idea play out over the course of a possible Ghostbusters movie.  Of all the characters to go this route, Peter is the one that would.  It proves enough of a comedic idea and pushes the Ghostbusters story into new areas.  It also provides some much needed conflict and drama.

In the films, the Ghostbusters never really have any sort of arcs or character growth.  They are pretty much the same characters at the beginning of the movies and at the end.  I liked how Fisch tried to humanize the characters by giving them conflict.  Peter is looking for a quick buck, essentially, by running for mayor and discovers that he is in over his head.  It’s also causing problems with Ray and Egon because he can’t focus on his ghostbusting duties.  The Return really fleshes out Peter and gives him a fairly good arc as he matures throughout the novel.  It is fairly obvious where everything is going to end up, but you can enjoy the ride.

The villain, on the other hand, is somewhat lackluster and underwritten.  Xanthador is a demon who is trying to get more fear out of people by giving life to urban legends.  This will give him power to do something.  I don’t know.  The book doesn’t really go into it.  It works as a basic threat, but nothing really makes sense of what his motivations are.  The hook with this villain is that he is using urban legends, but I feel Fisch doesn’t really take full advantage of it.  As such, it feels wasted.  But that is really minor.  Ghostbusters are not known for their villainous plots.

Where the book doesn’t work for me is that even though I was reading about what Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston are doing and saying, I could never actually picture the actual characters from the films in this.  Something about the dialogue or inner thoughts just seemed to be somewhat…off.  Peter is the biggest offender in this case.  Peter, in the movies, was always a bit immature and a jerk, but would usually wise up with the situation called for it.  Here, however, he just seems much more goofy and borderline cartoony when he interacts with others.  It felt more like this was the character as featured in the Ghostbusters cartoon from the late 80s.

In fact, the entire book had much more of a cartoony feel to it when compared to the original films (especially the first one).  Overall, I enjoyed The Return, but there was the occasional odd characterization that pulled me out of the book.

If you are a fan of Ghostbusters and you want to read a new Ghostbusters story, then I would recommend Ghostbusters: The Return.  It is a fun, fast read – a good diversion for a plane ride.  At least check it out for some of the obscurity of it.  If you are not a Ghostbusters fan, then this book isn’t for you.

Here is the bad part: the book was released in 2004 in limited copies and is now long out of print.  It is nearly impossible to get a hard copy unless you want to pay insane prices on eBay.  However, if you do some Google-Fu, you might be able to find a PDF of it on a certain SPOOKy and CENTRALized Ghostbusters website ready for download.  Not that I advocate such things.  I’m just pointing out that such things exist.

~N

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Enemies & Allies – A Superman/Batman Team-Up For Everyone

Looking for an alternate Batman/Superman team-up to Dawn of Justice?  Then look no further than the 2009 novel Enemies & Allies by Kevin J. Anderson.  The story centers itself with Superman meeting Batman for the first time.  But, it is with a twist: it takes place in the late 1950s amidst the Red Scare, the rise in interest of the UFO phenomena, and nuclear tension.  And because of that, the book is an incredibly fun read.

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I originally read Enemies & Allies when it first came out, but the recent release of Dawn of Justice (which I haven’t actually seen yet – nor do I have a dire desire to) made me want to revisit it.  In it, we find our heroes towards the beginning of their careers, trying to find their places in their costumed identities.  Batman is still considered a criminal by the Gotham Police Department, and people are openly skeptical if Superman really is an alien from another planet.

Meanwhile, evil businessman Lex Luthor is conspiring with rogue elements of Soviet Russia to push the world into an even heightened state of fear and paranoia where he will come out on top.  Not surprisingly, his plan indirectly involves Superman and Batman’s alter ego of Bruce Wayne – ultimately bringing the two heroes together for the first time.

What I liked about Enemies & Allies is that it really takes its time to develop the relationship between Batman and Superman.  The two are not the quickest of friends considering their different methods and the uncertainty they have about each other.  This is a common trope of the many retellings of the first Batman/Superman meeting, but it works well here.  Much of the book keeps these two characters apart from one another.  They weave in and out of each other’s story but are mostly doing their own thing (until the last third where all the plot threads start to converge).

The reason why this works is that it gives time for both Batman and Superman to consider the other and gradually develop an understanding and respect for one another.  It doesn’t go the easy knee-jerk route a writer might having of them teaming for the entire book without any development of them becoming a team.

What separates this story from the other Batman/Superman first-meetings is that it places it squarely during the height of the Cold War.  It gives it a certain flavor and style that makes it stand apart.  Placing it in and fully utilizing the 1950s setting is a brilliant move.  Using real world history in a Batman/Superman story kind of gives it a more naturalistic feel to it than one might get from a story set in the present day.  It is this novel’s retro setting is the “hook” and it works incredibly well.

Author Kevin J. Anderson has a very light, breezy feel to his writing.  It moves quickly and one can probably move through the book at a fast pace.  I don’t want to oversell the book.  Enemies & Allies is not a piece of “high art”, but it isn’t meant to be.  It is a real fun read – good for summertime.  I totally recommend it.

Trek Tuesday: Planet X

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The final part of the Star Trek/X-Men crossover wasn’t a comic.  Instead, it was a novel titled Planet X.  Picking up from “Second Contact”, the X-Men find themselves in the 24th Century and working again with Captain Picard and his crew.  This novel was written by Michael Jan Friedman, a veteran Star Trek and comic book scribe, so you would think he would create a product that perfectly fuses the two properties together.  Unfortunately, the story is not that good.  It’s really kind of terrible.

The biggest problem is that the story was either sloppily written or sloppily edited with spelling errors and character names switching around.  Planet X came out an approximately a month after the second cross-over comic.  I almost wonder if this novel was a rush job to get it out there when the comic was relevant.  That really is the only explanation for an author like Friedman to release something so amateurish.

But, if that was the only problem, then we’d be okay.  The bigger issue is that the story is just dull.  Nothing really happens of any consequence.  In it, a planet within the Federation discovers that some of its people are developing alarming powers.  The USS Enterprise is sent in to investigate.  Along the way, they happen to encounter the X-Men who have mysteriously found themselves in the 24th Century.  Teaming together, they attempt to find out what is happening on this world.

At its core, this sounds like a good idea, but the execution is just boring.  The first half of the novel has the Enterprise crew and the X-Men just sitting around and talking and/or humorously getting on each other’s nerves.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s just not interesting.  While that is going on, we see the lives of the aliens who are transforming on the remote planet.  There seems to be leaders arising from this group not unlike Professor X and Magneto.  But, this is all dropped the minute the Enterprise arrives.  There is really no pay off to what was happening here.

Once the Enterprise and the X-Men get to the planet, a whole other story occurs.  Apparently some other aliens are at the planet and are trying to round up the transformed.  Why?  Well, the book doesn’t really give much of a reason.  While the story does feature some good action and neat uses of the X-Men’s powers, the latter half is nothing but punching and fighting.  There is little substance.

Again, none of that is bad, but it made for a very uninteresting read.  That’s a shame, really.  You have this, admittingly silly crossover, but nothing is really done with it to justify its existence (beyond money).  I really wish I could have liked this more, but as it is, Planet X is a lackluster, dull novel.  Read it only if you really want to see the two teams meet again.

~N

Story Adaptation: The Adjustment Bureau (‘11) & Adjustment Team (’54)

In 2011, The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt was released. I never got around to seeing it when it came out because it seemed like just another thriller like Bourne Identity. And on top of that, I don’t really like Matt Damon these days. It wasn’t until a month or so ago that I realized it is based off a short story from my favorite science fiction author, Philip K. Dick. After that I immediately became interested and pursued my local video rental store, Mokena Video.

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The Adjustment Team, a short story published in 1954 and reprinted many years after that, is very similar to the movie. I love reading all of Dick’s works for many reasons: the prominent philosophical and religious ideas, the idea that there exists another dimension- a sort of hope or desperation, man and humanity, and much more. The story is much shorter than the movie. I love short stories because they are dense, and I have hard time staying focused on longer novels unless I’m REALLY into it. Regardless, I read the short story first and was intrigued and pleased.

Illustration from Orbit Science Fiction, where the original story was published in '54

Illustration from Orbit Science Fiction, where the original story was published in ’54

To us, there is the past, the present, and the future, but in the short story and in this movie, the whole time-and-space continuum is changeable. There’s a top-secret agency that can alter what is going to happen. The short story starts with an area of city that is meant to be “adjusted” by Clerks, including all people within it,  according to some God figures “plans”. I’m trying to make this as easy to understand, so I apologize if I’m diminishing the story’s value.

A man, Ed, is meant to be included in the area but a Clerk, responsible for the adjustment, fails to summon him to the area on time, thus preventing him from being adjusted. Similar to the butterfly affect, the small daily decisions affect the entire world at potentially drastic levels. Every little decision matters. Except in this case and important decisions, Clerks set up scenarios favoring certain decisions. Anyway, Ed then careens into the adjusted area, while it is being worked on, exposing the agents in the middle of their scheme, and he’s immediately seized in terror. To the Clerks, this is a total red alert and they need to pursue and silence. No one’s supposed to know about the adjustments, you see.  The main character realizes that there are higher forces at work in our world, making changes and adjusting decisions. Upon this realization, he flees and notifies his wife. She attempts to calm him down, set him straight on his path to work. Soon, he’s brought to the “Old Man” (a God figure) via a supernatural doorway by one of the Clerks. Ed is told to never speak of this knowledge since these higher-ups make changes for the betterment of mankind. The Old Man exposes that the adjustment being made will allow a new nationwide scientific community to prosper without political or ill will. The Old Man clarifies that though they modify life, it will make life better for all.  Ed agrees to never speak of this newfound knowledge and after a trial from his wife trying to pry the truth out, the story ends. It is short, succinct, and sweet. I loved it and it is very Dickian: an altered reality, an overpowering body, and that what we know isn’t all that is there.

The men in hats, also referred to as Clerks or possibly "angels".

The men in hats, also referred to as Clerks or possibly “angels”.

Hesitant, but also open-minded, I thought The Adjustment Bureau (the movie) was going to be a bash on free-will, destiny, and the role of fate with a stupid love story thrown in for Hollywood satiation.  The movie follows a  very similar premise to Dick’s story. A male politican running for senator, Matt Damon, is on track to win an election until a tabloid publishes an disparaging photo. His chances of victory are eliminated, and he stumbles upon Emily Blunt in which their encounter provokes him to make the most down-to-earth political speech which then, after a notification from the Clerks, catapults him into a future presidential campaign. The Clerks have big plans for him, and the God-figure or “Chairman” who decides that Damon will be a great political figure, reaching the presidency. The conflict that gives rise to the story is that he falls in love with Blunt’s character when they were only meant to meet once, but due to what appears to be a chance encounter they see each other again. This breaks apart the predestined fate and alarms the Chairman, setting in motion a required correction.  The Clerks repeatedly threaten Damon and attempt to interrupt his encounters with the girl, saying that he is not to speak with her anymore or they’ll erase his mind. He continues to pursue her because he loves her and something else draws them together.

The director of the film, George Nolfi, set out to ask and provoke questions, not to show his opinions or feelings. He did an accomplished job, collectively taking a bias-free opinion. Different motions in the film sway the viewer to believing that it is wrong to blindly follow fate, whatever it may be, and then swiftly changing the mood making us believe that fate brings us the most happiness.

Regardless, the movie was great. It followed the rules set in the novel. It didn’t belittle or get any points wrong, and thus, showed respect for our hero Philip K. Dick who brought us many ideas of alternate realities. During the movie I was really hoping the director wouldn’t take any jabs at the faults of fate or predestination. I’ll make my own decisions, you just present the scenario. Just from the trailer I thought it was simply the couple yelling at these higher ups or Clerks claiming “I don’t care what’s fate. I like her and she likes me and I want us to be together dammit!”. That wasn’t the case and possibly the result of my apathy for the trailer.

The late great science fiction author, Philip K. Dick.

The late great science fiction author, Philip K. Dick.

I find the abbreviation of the short story allowing for more imaginative and vague ideas. The reader decides the implications and Dick is simply setting forth a hypothetical idea (or perhaps a truly believed world in Dick’s mind) that the reader can explore on his own. On the other hand, the movie proposes questions, provides intriguing evidence for each decision, and ultimately voids the questions, saying that true love can break fate and that no party of thought may be best. All in all, both the short story and movie are fantastic. They are both truly science fiction with extraordinary ideas. I enjoyed the out-there ideas, the possibility of alternate realities, supposed angels, and the hope for a different world exposed. I highly recommend both, as they both explore these ideas thoroughly while providing a great source of entertainment.

“Tuesdays With Morrie” Is Kinda Terrible

Ever picture a delicious Thanksgiving meal with turkey, potatoes and all the sides and trimmings?  Sounds great, right?  Ever have that meal served on the lid of a trash can some bum urinated in the night before?  No?  Well, let me tell you that was my reaction to Mitch Albom’s 1997 memoir Tuesdays with Morrie.  It has wonderful things to say, but it is presented to the reader in very poor way.  The novel chronicled Albom’s relationship with his former college professor Morrie Schwartz in the months leading up to the latter’s death due to Lou Gehrig’s disease.  During this time, Morrie and Mitch discuss life, what it means to be alive, and the acceptance of death.  For clarity’s sake, I will refer to Mitch Albom the character as “Mitch” and Mitch Albom the author as “Albom”.

morrieAs suggested earlier, I did not care much for the novel for various reasons which will be discussed below.  However, I do feel that Albom touches on several key themes which I agree with; it is how those themes are presented is what made me disappointed in the novel.

Unlike apparently thousands of others, this book had absolutely no impact on my life at all other than realizing that Tuesdays with Morrie is not as good as I thought it was.  I first read Tuesdays with Morrie in 2000, during my senior year of high school.  I remember liking it then, and I looked forward to rereading it.  Words cannot fully explain how disappointed I was with the novel after my second read through.

To begin with, Morrie was written as such a “Mary Sue”.  A “Mary Sue” is a type of character who is overly idealized, presented with few flaws, and is beloved by every other character for no apparent reason.  Morrie was presented in that fashion.  Every person in the book seems to love Morrie, and I cannot understand why.  He is likeable, but his mere presence seems to cause others to act outside his or her box.  For example, Mitch’s wife, Janine, is a singer, but refuses to sing anytime someone asks her to.  However, upon meeting Morrie for the first time, she willing agrees to sing for him.  If she did this because it was Morrie asking, then this is a perfect example of being a “Mary Sue”.  On the other hand, if she sang because he was dying, then that would seem very much in contradiction to the general theme Albom is trying to present in his novel.

It also bothered me that no one ever questioned Morrie on his views, as if Morrie spoke the absolute truth.  For example, in “The Tenth Tuesday”, Morrie discusses his view on marriage and claims that people today are too selfish to commit to a relationship and thats why people are getting married later and divorcing more.  I found this to be misguided, and Morrie comes off as being a cranky old man talking about how his generation was better.  Two-thirds of all divorces filed today are by women, because equality has reached a point to where women have much more freedom in today’s world than they did in the 1950s, when Morrie was married.  The implication here is that the divorce rate might be higher back in Morrie’s time if the social restrictions that were present then were not in place.  It is not that Morrie’s opinion is wrong, but it did not ring true that Mitch, a reporter, would easily accept the belief without question.

Albom makes the writer’s mistake of telling and not showing.  Early on in the novel, Mitch is depicted as being not very happy due to his career driven ways.  As his relationship with Morrie unfolds, it is implied that Mitch begins to rethink his ways.  However, we never learn how Mitch actually changes.  Granted, in real life, readers can learn how Mitch became the author of the most successful memoir in the United States, received a lifetime achievement award for his writing and humanitarian work, and was accused of manufacturing news stories.  However, nothing in Mitch’s life beyond Morrie’s death (other than Mitch’s occasionally mentioned brother) is explored.  There is not even a statement of how Mitch’s life is going to be different after his experience.

Considering this novel is a memoir, everything depicted in it is true.  However, considering the way everything was presented, I had to keep reminding myself that it was true.  I realized how much of a high esteem Albom holds Morrie up to, but given the way Morrie is presented in the novel, it is difficult to relate to him and see him in a very believable light.

Even though the messages in Tuesdays with Morrie are positive and upbeat (which, undoubtedly, contributed to the novel’s popularity), I felt the presentation style of those messages and the depiction of Morrie cheapened the overall narrative.  However, it is clear that Albom idolized Morrie and presented that idolized version in his work, and, even though it is a memoir, it gives the novel a feeling of false sentimentality.  This is disappointing to me as many of the messages discussed in the novel I agree with.  I suppose, if I ever have a mentor that I end up writing about, I will be sure not to repeat the mistakes that Albom did.

~N

Author’s Note: This article was adapted from a graduate paper I wrote in Spring 2010.

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