19 November 2017

Books: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (2015)

“Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised. With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.”

Got to say Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a completely charming book (if not a greatly titled one). As a middle aged gay man with no kids, it might be hard for me to completely understand the teens presented here, the exploration of their daily lives (especially in the age of social media), but some things, some basic real-life tropes, are always identifiable no matter what age you are.

Simon, our main protagonist, is well developed and is presented in a very relatable sort of way. And while he’s dealing with being gay and trying to figure out how to come out to his friends and family, he’s not too much a stereotype (though author Becky Albertalli lays on the emo music love a little thick –he may look like any “normal” teenager, but his musical tastes do run in the obsessive, dark, and bit depressing route). Still, like me, he’s a bit cynical and I liked that. I saw me a little bit here and there in Simon. His family life, while a bit hyper-realistic, is finely drawn. His parents are very liberal, but also strict in some ways (and there is a tender moment when his mother sits down and talks to him about how she misses the openness of all her children –what a parent must go through when they finally realize that their once talkative children are growing up and don’t want to be around anymore). I did find the mystery of who Blue was fun, and it kept me reading. I did not guess who the boy was, so I may need to revisit the book to see if the author dropped any obvious clues. 

I did get distracted by Simon’s friend Abby, as I kept thinking about Jay Bell’s Abby from Something Like Summer. They’re two totally different characters, but they do share the same name and ethnic origin. 

Also, it did take me a little bit to get into the story, as well, as the author quickly introduced so many characters and I had trouble keeping them straight at times, but that’s only a small quibble. Also, the cover of the book is pretty horrible, but then maybe I don’t understand modern publishing towards young adults. 

There will be a motion picture version, called Love Simon, of this book coming from 20th Century Fox next spring, which is a pretty big thing. This is a major studio releasing a gay romantic comedy/drama and it’ll be interesting to see if the mainstream audience –beyond the gay community- will embrace this love story between two guys. Sure it’s directed by super producer Greg Berlanti (the entire DC line-up on the CW) and stars some well know actors, but this film may end being a test rat to see if gay themed films can break-out of the independat film world they’ve existed in for a long, long time

18 November 2017

Books: Gwendy's Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar (2017)

Stephen King and Richard Chizmar venture back to the little town of Castle Rock, Maine, the setting of many early King novels, for this novella. 

“There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974 twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside. At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.  One day, a stranger calls to Gwendy:  ‘Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.’  On a bench in the shade sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat...”

While King left Castle Rock after he published NEEDFUL THINGS, as always with this author, we know that certain places, Derry in particular, never are far away. This novella, published in book form by Cemetery Dance Publications reads like an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. A young girl is given a mysterious box with buttons on it. These buttons are powerful and very dangerous. But they also offer a life altering treat for Gwendy, and as her life is changed by possessing the box, she is also tempted by the mysterious power it does posses. 

The ultimate question is if you had the power to destroy, could you wield it? But temptation is strong, and while Gwendy takes her responsibility of safekeeping the box, she will succumb to the darkness that is emitted from it.

This is not a scary novella, but more fast-paced a thriller (read it in 90 minutes) with psychological overtones that King has employed over the last two decades. I’ve never read anything by Chizmar, so it’s hard for me to pass comment on his style. But beyond the setting of Castle Rock, it appears The Man in Black is still around –the tale is set between 1974 and 1984- so another alternate world. He goes by Richard Farris (another recurring theme, with the character’s name always –or mostly- having the same initials) here and seems more human than malevolent.

A great story to wield away a Saturday afternoon!

17 November 2017

Books: Star Wars: Aftermath: Empire's End by Chuck Wendig (2016)

“As the final showdown between the New Republic and the Empire draws near, all eyes turn to a once-isolated planet: Jakku. The Battle of Endor shattered the Empire, scattering its remaining forces across the galaxy. But the months following the Rebellion's victory have not been easy. The fledgling New Republic has suffered a devastating attack from the Imperial remnant, forcing the new democracy to escalate their hunt for the hidden enemy. For her role in the deadly ambush, Grand Admiral Sloane is the most wanted Imperial war criminal—and one-time rebel pilot Norra Wexley, back in service at Leia's urgent request, is leading the hunt. But more than just loyalty to the New Republic drives Norra forward: Her husband was turned into a murderous pawn in Sloane's assassination plot, and now she wants vengeance as much as justice. But Sloane, too, is on a furious quest: pursuing the treacherous Gallius Rax to the barren planet Jakku. As the true mastermind behind the Empire's devastating attack, Rax has led the Empire to its defining moment. The cunning strategist has gathered the powerful remnants of the Empire's war machine, preparing to execute the late Emperor Palpatine's final plan. As the Imperial fleet orbits Jakku, an armada of Republic fighters closes in to finish what began at Endor. Norra and her crew soar into the heart of an apocalyptic clash that will leave land and sky alike scorched. And the future of the galaxy will finally be decided.”

I’ve had some trepidation finishing this series (and this after struggling through Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s GOOD OMENS for the second time and finally setting that aside). Once again, Chuck Wendig’s writing style is…difficult; he’s certainly not a traditional novelist. And maybe the long-running STAR WAR series needs writers who don’t do it the way one expects. 

But in the end, the entire AFTERMATH series problems for me were it introduced a bunch of meaningless subplots that ruin the pacing and took me out of the main narrative. As I wrote before, I can’t figure out why Wendig (or DINESY/LUCASFILM) chose to expand the new canon series this way. Part of me thought that maybe other writers would pick-up some of these stray stories that don’t figure into the main plot. Then I thought Wendig was being clever, showing us glimpses of action in other parts of the galaxy (stuff, another words, we don’t ever see in books or movies). But in the end, I just figured Wendig was given creative license –he was mandated what he needed to tell and then went off in many wild directions, which allowed what should’ve been a 300 page book to be bloated into close to 500 pages. 

There are some plot points that fill in the gaps that STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS does not get into. It is revealed that Emperor Palaptine had a contingency plan just in case the Rebellion proved successful and that the planet of Jakku –isolated, dirty, and out in the uncharted region of space- would be a perfect place to hide the remnants of the Empire. Still no idea whom Rey is, but it explains why Jakku is part of the new movie trilogy. 

But along with a distracting political subplot, there was a bunch of interludes that all seemed forced, and all unnecessary, and baffling to boot. This was part of the reason I stopped reading the STAR WARS books that were part of the original Expanded Universe years ago, as I found most of the books sort of pointless. 

I was hoping –and still am- that this new unified canon would put an end to these futile looks into the “other” areas of the STAR WARS universe. But I guess to get the good, you got to put up with a few lesser tomes.

10 October 2017

RIVERDALE Fails to Thrill

After catching up with RIVDERDALE on Netflix, I’m not so sure I want to continue on watching it week to week for season two. While the show seemed once to be billed as DAWSON'S CREEK meets TWIN PEAKS, it never approached anything supernatural or weirdly odd –the things that David Lynch’s legendary series actually did. It offered only warm retreads, in the end.

While the underbelly of small town life is a trope we’ve seen for decades in TV soaps, not many shows have been able to pull it off and make it look natural, organic in nature. Fiction writers like Stephen King have a knack for creating towns that are often hardscrabble, filled with plain spoken people, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, designed to cover the dysfunction and malice that lives just below the surface of those towns.

RIVERDALE lives and breathes at the corner of convenience and coincidence, which I admit is something all soaps need, but  –and I guess I’m naive to believe it was going to be anything else – this is just another teen soap featuring actors who all look way beyond their teen years. No one, and I mean no one, on this show could pass as teenager. Even star KJ Apa at 19 (when he filmed the first season) did not look like he belonged in high school. Maybe his tricked out body made him look older, or something else, but I felt no connection to his version of Archie. 

Everything is just wrapped up with one impossible scenario after another, and after a while, it seemed even the central murder mystery arc was going to take second fiddle to the schemes and plans of the 1%. 

Performances range from your typical scene chewing found in this genre to plain TV acting okay; I mean some actors can handle the cheesy dialogue with great panache, while others (including more than a few or the regulars and recurring one) only deliver their discourse like a blunt instruments. 

However, in a surprising turn, veteran Disney child actor Cole Sprouse is remarkably good here, making the comic book version of  Jughead a rather complex character than the weird kid trope he’s been assigned (and the doofus version in the funny pages). There were many times as I watched these thirteen episodes that I wished the show revolved around Jughead (and Skeet Ulrich played his Dad, so that was neat) than Archie and his luckless Dad. Fortuitously, Sprouse also has some great chemistry the New Zealand born actor Apa, and this bromance (both on screen and off) with him (I find him forgettable a lot of the time, and I don’t know why) elevated the torpid drama presented on my monitor screen.

The other thing that bothered me was the whole Who Shot Jason Bloom arc, scion of Bloom Maple fortune. While the plot line played out over the first few episodes, it eventually takes a back burner to love triangles, mean girls, and betrayals before circling back. And while they kids do some investigating of their own (and Jughead has his own Wall of Clues) there really is no full blown Scooby gang going on here. And like all whodunits of the last few decades, no one actually puts the puzzle pieces together to figure out who killed Bloom. In the end, the killer is always caught by making a careless mistake, or a slip of the tongue, or in this case, a flash drive found in the lining of Jason’s letterman jacket that contains a video of his brutal murder –and the person who did it. Convenient, right?

Blah. Not sure if I would call that lazy writing, a TV series that knows its audience is a few tacos short of a combination platter, or they’ve never just read an Agatha Christie novel. 

Maybe it’s all three.

Ultimately, it is not as odd and dark as I remember it being advertised. It’s a teen-soap that relies too much on what has come before and while it features a supporting cast of veteran 80’s & 90’s actors (hi Molly Ringwald), it’s only really purpose is designed to appeal to the older audience members who have no idea who these young actors are. 

For me, the only worthy character is Jughead, and that all has to do with Sprouse’s layered acting.

As season two approaches, there is one thing I am curious about: Betty's dark rage. Will the show break into the TWIN PEAKS universe with whatever is driving young Betty to hold in whatever darkness is wanting to breakout? This seed, which was well planted through out season one, might keep me watching, along with Cole Sprouse's Jughead Jones.