Monday, November 12, 2012
I haven’t read a Star Wars book in years, but this one sounded like too much fun to pass up: Star Wars: Scoundrels, a novel by fan favorite author Timothy Zahn that essentially stars Han Solo as Danny Ocean in Ocean’s Eleven. Due out in early January 2013, Scoundrels takes place between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, bringing together Han, Chewie, Lando, and a new cast of characters going after a score so big it will solve Han’s little Jabba problem forever, if only they can pull it off.
As is often the case with con/heist stories, at times the plan is so convoluted that I couldn’t quite tell what was going on, but to be honest that didn’t really bother me. I was impressed with Zahn’s ability to give the eight new characters on Han’s temporary “team” disparate enough personalities that I didn’t need to refer to the dramatis personae list at the front of the book – and that’s in addition to the villains, who are equally distinctive. While it didn’t seem entirely natural to watch Han trusting people, having the patience for the long con, and advising people to get some sleep and turn out the lights on the way to bed, this book somehow works just fine. It also doesn’t hurt to have a Star Wars novel with familiar faces, set in this time period instead of decades later, when apparently almost every character has developed Jedi abilities and has temporarily turned to the Dark Side of the Force. I understand additional “standalone” novels in this timeframe are forthcoming.
Minor spoilers below....
There are some slight missteps that might have been caught in editing (and since I read a galley, maybe they still will be). “Chance cubes” are “chance cubes” except for the one time they’re referred to as dice. There’s a reference to “middle grade children” that throws me out of the Star Wars 'verse and back into suburban America, as well as extensive use of dumbwaiters during the heist. While I can buy that alien cultures might invent convenient “elevators” to move food and supplies from one story of a residential building to another, it seems a bit odd that they would also name theirs after mute food service personnel. There’s even a football metaphor. Who knew that in a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, they not only have Earth sports, but 20th century American sports? As said, these lapses are minor, but they do briefly interrupt the mood, and give the effect of slight carelessness.
On the plus side? There are some fun inside jokes, including an entire scene that pays homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a funny paragraph in which Han sums up his role in A New Hope as only he can, and an amusing poke at scriptwriters who like to use turbolifts as the ideal spot for heroes to break free from their captors. Heck, I even enjoyed constructing a little chart that might help a writer deal with Chewie’s dialogue, for which there’s apparently a “no direct translation” rule. We never know what he actually says, only that there is a limited number of iterations in which he growls/rumbles/warbles his agreement/assent/question/objection. (To be fair, I think the “no direct translation” rule is probably the right way to go, but the limitations thereof are still amusing.) I liked the use of “kriffing” – not as good as frakking or frelling, but not bad.
And there’s a direct poke at the “who shot first” question – not that it’s really a question, in my opinion. It doesn’t go quite in the direction I’d have chosen, or as far as I’d like, but it’s still cute, and there’s only so much you can sneak through the approval process, I’m sure.
Overall verdict: if you find the shelves upon shelves of Star Wars books at the bookstore too much to contemplate, with their complicated storylines that sometimes seem to be spinning their wheels, this is the book that will let you get back to basics and have a lot of fun while you're doing it. Besides, who can resist that cover? Read more!
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
It's been a while since I've posted, although I'm still reading pretty steadily. So instead of one long review, I'm going to ease back in with short notes on some recent reads.
First up, I read the first two delightful books in the series The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. In the first book, The Mysterious Howling, 15-year-old Penelope Lumley takes her first governess position upon leaving the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. In the second book, Penelope and the children visit London for the first time. (The cover of the second book is to die for!) I love Penelope's poetic-yet-no-nonsense soul, and the charm of these children who end words in tapered-off howls, such as when they call Ms. Lumley "Lumawoo-oo." These books aren't the slightest bit realistic, and they don't have the amount of closure that I normally want in books, but they're so wonderful that I just don't care.
Another recent read was Thicker than Water, the fourth book in Mike Carey's Felix Castor series about a hard-boiled exorcist trying to keep it together while both his personal life and London-in-general continue to detereorate in terms of undead activity. This isn't your standard approach to zombies and werewolves, however; some of them are practically upright citizens, or at least don't particularly want to cause madness and mayhem. In any case, this fourth book bogged down a bit in the middle, and I'd almost made up my mind not to seek out the fifth book, but then this ended on a big reveal and a big bad development, so now I'm going to have to keep on with it. I hope the fifth book has the closure I'm looking for since there is no sign of a sixth book.
Around Christmas, I like to read a few Christmas-related books. This year I tried I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley, a Flavia de Luce cozy mystery. I was intrigued by the Tennyson-inspired title, and I thought the feisty 11-year-old heroine might be spunky like Theodosia Throckmorton or Kat Stephenson. And Flavia was spunky, but she was also riddled with contradictions: she's an 11-year-old who plays with explosive chemicals and Bunsen burners, but she still believes in Santa Claus, and her attempts to chemically catch Santa in the act are silly and serve little other purpose than to put Flavia on the roof at a key point in the plot. A big mystery in Flavia's past in hinted at; considering that this is the fourth book in the series, the author is being pretty stingy with information (although to be fair, I haven't read the first three books). My guess (possible spoiler if I'm correct) is simply that Flavia's mother died giving birth to her, or gave up her life in some other way to protect her baby, and this is what causes the sibling tension in the house. It's definitely not enough to keep me interested, I'm afraid.
I can't go into much detail on this next book since I was contracted to write a lengthy essay on it, but I do highly recommend 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami if you're in the mood for something different. At almost 1,000 pages, this is no quick read, but rather a slow yet fascinating examination of an alternate 1984 in Tokyo and how it affects the two main characters.
Finally, a nod to an absolutely adorable picture book that I've already bought for one nephew and plan to buy for another in the future: Shark vs. Train, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. This book is about two little boys who go to the toybox and pull out a shark and a train, which they then pit against each other in a series of escalating silly contests, like which would be better at jumping off a high dive, which would be better at basketball, and so on. The shark and the train smack talk each other throughout, making this a witty book that parents won't mind reading more than once. Read more!
Monday, May 23, 2011
Recently I received James Howe's Addie on the Inside to review for VOYA. I had been aware of Howe's Bunnicula series but had never read anything by him. In any case, the front cover of Addie calls the book a "companion" to The Misfits, and then I found out that another book called Totally Joe fit in there somewhere.
Let's just say I like to be thorough! Which naturally means that I felt compelled to start at the beginning with The Misfits. Narrated by Bobby Goodspeed, a thoughtful 12-year-old who is part of the four-member "Gang of Five", The Misfits is a quiet little story about how Bobby learns to speak up, not only for himself but for others. Bobby had been bumbling along with his fellow misfit friends, but finds within himself unexpected strength and leadership qualities. Overall, I quite enjoyed this book, in spite of a few parts that I found a little tedious (such as the word-for-word transcripts that Addie insists on keeping each time the Gang of Five gets together). The ending was unexpectedly moving, however, and pretty much won me over to the series, so I was happy enough to proceed to Totally Joe.
And wow! Just wow. This novel is narrated by Joe Bunch, another of the group's misfits who just happens to be a 12-year-old gay boy (technically, at 12 he's not a teen yet). Joe is working on an English assignment, which is to write, over several months, an "alphabiography" of his life from A to Z. I was initially worried that this book would simply recap the events of The Misfits, but was pleased to find that the plot does actually advance chronologically -- not too far but just enough to satisfy -- from the prior book.
This was an incredibly touching book, and I was very impressed by Howe's ability to significantly change up both the format and voice from The Misfits, yet undeniably retain the spirit of that book. I was particularly moved by trying to imagine what it must be like to be a boy young enough that you still think kissing is gross, yet old and self-aware enough to know that you like boys, not girls. If you don't feel something while reading this book, then in my opinion you just don't feel much at all.
When I finally got to Addie on the Inside, I was surprised to find that it is told entirely in verse, yet another complete change in format and voice. I was skeptical, but now I'm just really impressed with Howe's scope and talent. I won't say more about Addie here since I just submitted my review to VOYA, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend this entire series.
And I can't wait to see what format and previously unexplored depths Howe comes up with for the fourth member of the Gang of Five, Skeezie. Read more!
Thursday, August 12, 2010
A slightly different version of the following review was first posted in a "Writing Children's Literature" online course I recently took from Western New Mexico University.
Ice by Sarah Beth Durst is a young adult fantasy novel consisting of a modern-day retelling of the fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” There is also a fair amount of “Beauty and the Beast” mixed into the story. Cassie loves her life as the daughter of an Arctic researcher and has no desire to experience everyday “civilization.” Her only complaint is that she misses the mother she believes to be dead. On her fateful 18th birthday, Cassie learns that she has a magical birthright, and that the Polar Bear King has come for her hand in marriage.
Major spoilers follow.
Cassie quickly decides to marry Bear in exchange for his arranging to free her mother from the trolls. Cassie soon comes to love Bear, and learns that he is a munaqsri, or magical creature that shepherds souls during birth and death. Shortly after learning she is pregnant, she unwittingly breaks Bear’s bargain with the trolls by looking upon his human face, and he must leave her to marry the troll princess. Cassie swears that she will rescue Bear and bring him home.
I absolutely loved the first part of this book, when Cassie explores the Arctic, goes to live with Bear, and falls in love with him. I did not enjoy the middle of the book as much, when Cassie treks alone across all sorts of terrains and meets several munaqsri in her quest to find Bear. To me, this part of the book felt a bit like a D&D quest: go here, see this creature, set a new goal and go there, see that creature, and so on. It felt a little bit as though pages needed to be filled up the first section and the conclusion, and also because the pregnancy needed to be at a certain point at a certain time in the plot. To be fair, though, I don’t know how I would have done this differently if I’d written it.
Regardless, I’m happy to say that I found the ending quite satisfying, and I loved that Cassie took action in such a determined way. I felt that this story truly achieved a modern update to a fairy tale (or two). It was somewhat unconventional; in most fairy tales, the “happily ever after” comes before the relationship is consummated, but in this case Cassie marries Bear and becomes pregnant in the first half of the book. It is important to note that there is no hint of rape -- Bear makes perfectly clear that sexual relations are not a condition of the marriage. I found the progression of Cassie and Bear’s relationship refreshing in comparison to the usual wispy, dreamy “happily ever after” trope.
I chose to read this book because I love stories about Arctic environments, polar bears, and survival. (I also admit that I just love that cover!) I’m glad I read it, because the writing is good; I enjoyed the insertion of Cassie’s modern-day sensibilities into the unusual settings; and I especially loved the way Cassie decided to mix human scientific research with munaqsri magic.