11 March 2019

Books: The Beast of Nightfall Lodge by S.A. Sidor (2019)

“When Egyptologist Rom Hardy receives a strange letter from his old friend, the bounty-hunting sniper Rex McTroy, he finds himself drawn into a chilling mystery. In the mountains of New Mexico, a bloodthirsty creature is on the loose, leaving a trail of bodies in its wake. Now, a wealthy big game hunter has offered a staggering reward for its capture, and Rom’s patron – the headstrong and brilliant Evangeline Waterston – has signed the team up for the challenge. Awaiting them are blizzards, cold-blooded trappers, remorseless hunters, a mad doctor, wild animals and a monster so fearsome and terrifying, it must be a legend come to life.”

The Beast of Nightfall Lodge is S.A. Sidor’s follow up to Fury From the Tomb and retains much of the tone and pacing of the first book. It’s less an Indiana Jones/The Mummy adventure as Fury was and more a homage to Lovecraftian horror and typical Western tropes thrown in for good measure. But what is retained is the easily acceptance of the supernatural in 1890 (and while I know the era was not that enlightened, but it was still a time of great belief in religion and it seems a lot of people don't blink an eye at what is going on in a small town in New Mexico) and a narrator who continues to be more of a killjoy than even a hero. I mean Rom Hardy can be good, even fun, but he can also be an annoyingly boring character who might’ve been serviced better if the book was not told from a first-person perspective. Then again, had Sidor wrote the book in that narrative format, Hardy could’ve come off as bumbling oaf - a know it all nerd who could give Steve Urkel a run for his money). So, it’s a fine line here, and while the books stumbles with him (and why was Evangeline regulated to a supporting character?), the rest is a kind of fun, dark Scooby Doo adventure (does the dog really talk, or does Rom imagine it?), with a somewhat predictable plot and a sad ending.

07 March 2019

My Pointless Review: The Umbrella Academy

There was a lot I liked about The Umbrella Academy, but I found myself a bit perturb by the lack of answers to the many questions the 10-episode first season unraveled. 

The performances were uniformly great, though, with Mary J. Blige, Robert Sheehan, and young Aidan Gallagher being particular standouts for me. The show did not reinvent the dysfunctional family trope and, at times, sort of doubled-down on them that it became distracting. Nevertheless, there was enough dark humor and much likeability of the main characters that one can forgive them treading over the same themes other shows have done over the years
I did find it odd that the character of Leonard, who becomes romantically involved with Vanya, would start out creepy from his first episode. He never comes off as the typical White Knight someone like Vanya might need considering how her father and siblings treated her as child and later as an adult (though those themes would be explored in later episodes), what the viewer might expect him to be. While that upsets the apple cart of typical storytelling metaphors, I felt it odd that this production made it so obvious early on that Leonard had a few loose screws. 

As series goes on, we the audience learn that Leonard (or Harold Jenkins) does have a beef with The Umbrella Academy –as well as serving jail time for killing his father, whom was physically and verbally abusing him when he was a child- so this explains his motives. And yes, Allison seems suspicious of Leonard early on as well, but again, the audience already knows something’s off about the man, so Allison’s investigation into his past just seems like some clumsy and sloppy exposition and offers no real surprises. 

But the biggest issue with the show for me deals with the lack of answers to the many questions it unfurls. Now as limited graphic novel book series, the writers can easily plop down a lot of plot information, world building and end it the way they did –hey, the world blows up. This gives them a Get Out of Jail Free Card in explaining anything, and for some people, maybe the ones who enjoy the comic book world, are fine with this. 

However, a TV viewing audience really does like some explanations. Maybe the producers, writers, directors don’t have to answer everything, but after 10 episodes (which may in itself be restrictive to the creative process), nothing is really revealed, no explanations to some the most basic issues presented here. And while the makers assume its audience are not idiots, I did expect some explanation to what is being presented on screen.

Again, not everything needs to be explained, but…

Are we really on Earth, or is this some sort of alternate timeline created by the seven Hargreeves adults who’ve failed again and again to stop the destruction of the planet? Does this mean they’re stuck in some sort of time loop (which means any of the deaths that occurred here won’t stick, so there is that) or a variation on Groundhogs Day, with number Five knowing more than anyone else?

And what year is it? Because it’s not 2019 as no one uses a computer, a mobile phone, or drive a modern car. This would give credence to idea that all of what we saw has all happened before, that Five has tried again and again to prevent the annihilation of Earth, only each time he does, whatever timeline they end up in, or alternate Earth for that matter, becomes more and more corrupted and further away from ours.

As it has pointed out in the opening narration: “On one day in 1989, 43 infants are inexplicably born to random, unconnected women who showed no signs of pregnancy the day before.” Reginald Hargreeves adopts seven of them, but what happened to the other thirty-six? Now this plot point does not need real answers in season one, but I was surprised how quickly this aspect was dropped and forgotten, so I’m curious if this will be ever addressed as the show enters season two -as well as how these seven got their extraordinary powers.

Other questions: 

If the Commission is as powerful as they say, why are they living in 1955 with that year’s technology? 

In the finale, it appears that Reginald Hargreeves is an alien (?), as we see in a background shot through some windows, many ships launching from a planet. Is it the Earth or some alien world? Also, how does Hargreeves know the world is going to an end in the first place? Was he going to reveal this information to Klaus during their Ghost Adventures conversation when Klaus became a spirit box after collapsing during the rave? How and why did Ben die? (this plot point was not answered in the graphic novel, apparently either, so we may never get that resolved) and how does Klaus channel Ben’s power in the finale? 

Too many questions, too many ideas lying around like yesterday’s cold oatmeal. Maybe we should get some of these questions answered before they unload a steamer trunk full of more for next season.

06 March 2019

Books: Fury From the Tomb by SA Sidor (2018)

“Saqqara, Egypt, 1888, and in the booby-trapped tomb of an ancient sorcerer, Rom, a young Egyptologist, makes the discovery of a lifetime: five coffins and an eerie, oversized sarcophagus. But the expedition seems cursed, for after unearthing the mummies, all but Rom die horribly. He faithfully returns to America with his disturbing cargo, continuing by train to Los Angeles, home of his reclusive sponsor. When the train is hijacked by murderous banditos in the Arizona desert, who steal the mummies and flee over the border, Rom – with his benefactor’s rebellious daughter, an orphaned Chinese busboy, and a cold-blooded gunslinger – must ride into Mexico to bring the malevolent mummies back. If only mummies were their biggest problem.”

This Indiana Jones/The Mummy hybrid where author SA Sidor (who has published four thriller under the name of Steven Sidor) adds doses of pulp-ish noir sadly never really gets out of third gear.

Still, I generally found Fury From the Tomb to be an entertaining book, filled with mummies, a giant white worm, a gunslinger, and little tomb robbing on the side. The book is also frustrating in a few things. I’ve mentioned before of not having a fondness for first person narratives –it’s a literary device that only works once in a while, and only in limited genres. But beyond that, I actually found the narrator a bit annoying –he likes the sound of his own voice and appears to know too much about everything. Being this way, he goes off on endless rants that goes on for multiple pages and that would slow the intrigue and adventure down (sort of like if Indiana Jones stopped beating on Nazi’s to offer a discourse on boot designs of the Third Reich).

I also like the dynamics of the four main characters, who Sidor breathes life into. However, it did seem weird to me that these folks of 1888 seemed completely unfazed with all the supernatural stuff going on. And the book is way too long and that may be why it took me a while to actually finish it.

However, I’ve decided to read the second book, so maybe he ironed out some of the problems from the first book?

23 February 2019

Books: Dancing Aztecs By Donald E. Westlake (1976)

A small South American republic has decided to capitalize on its national symbol: a prized gold statue of a dancing Aztec priest. The president asks a sculptor to make sixteen copies of it for sale abroad. The sculptor replaces the original with one of his fakes, and ships the real one to New York City for an under-the-table sale to a museum. The statues travel to America spread out among five crates, labeled to ensure that delivery goes as planned. But it doesn’t work. Asked to pick up the crate marked “E” at the airport, delivery man Jerry Manelli, confused by his client’s Spanish accent, takes crate “A” instead. The statue disappears into the city, leading him on a baffling chase, which—if he comes up with the wrong Aztec—could cost him his life.

After reading more up on Donald E. Westlake, many of his fans consider Dancing Aztecs to be his comic masterpiece, as we get swept up in a very intricately-plotted “mystery” tale that is really, really laugh-out load funny. There are more mix-ups, more plot twists, more odd-ball New York characters than you shake a stick at here, as well as some brilliant wry observations from not only the huge cast of characters, but Westlake’s deadpan narrative tone as well, as he inserts, here and there, some amusing and wickedly droll exposition dumps about his beloved New York City and weirdos that occupy it.

There are a few great chapter opening lectures, with one about New York (“Greater New York is in someways like a house. Manhattan is the living room, with the TV and the stereo and the good furniture, where guests are entertained. Brooklyn and Queens are the bedrooms where the family sleeps, and the Bronx is the attic, full of inflammable crap that nobody has any use for. Staten Island is the backyard, and long island is the detached garage, so filled up with paint cans, workbenches, and a motorboat that you can’t even get the car in there anymore..”) and one about the three kinds of hangovers (“There are hangovers that are green and wet and slimy…”) which ends with “Those are the three kinds of hangovers, and Pedro had all three of them."

This is a delightfully humorous novel, even if it contains some cringe worthy comments and characters like the two Black ghetto kids that are actually written in jive talk (that took me aback some). The N word also gets thrown around (to be fair, Westlake uses that word a lot in his comic novels) and gays get called the F word, but either you’re going to get offended and upset or just accept that the whole plot is very silly (and mostly unbelievable) to begin with –because, never mind that the Aztecs aren’t from South Americans or that by weight of the gold statue would tell everyone that it isn't plaster- and just know that Westlake is a skilled enough writer to get the reader past all that.