Friday, August 19, 2016

Just read: Star Wars Aftermath, Pt. 2: Life Debt, plus novels Bloodline and A New Dawn

From Vicente Guerrero, Mexico (Updated in the U.S. on 8/19/16):

All of this week’s mini-reviews feature new canon Star Wars books.  See February’s post about why I’m reading the new canon Star Wars novels (link), as well as the difference between Star Wars canon and non-canon (now called “Legends”) material from the old Extended Universe.

I’m taking a short break from my usual theology and outdoor skills books.  The mini-reviews below will also be featured on my Goodreads page soon.

Star Wars: Aftermath, Pt. 2: Life Debt

by Chuck Wendig

For my review of Book #1 of the Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy, click here.

I wasn’t prepared for how thrilling Aftermath 2: Life Debt would be.  I pre-ordered a copy for delivery on release date and waited, with modest expectations.  Aftermath # 1 was a bit of letdown, even amidst the excitement of reading the sample snippet on Kindle before the film premiere of Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  That first book of the trilogy was a stylistic and narrative mess, although I gave it a generous review on my Blogspot page.  It introduced a bunch of new characters whom, despite their involvement the Battle of Endor from Return of the Jedi, I simply didn’t care about as much as I cared about Han, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, etc. from the original film trilogy.

In contrast, Aftermath 2: Life Debt may be one of the best canon Star Wars novels yet!  Is this the same Chuck Wendig who wrote Aftermath #1?  The writing flows much more smoothly, the pace is zippier, there are some crackerjack action sequences, the Star Wars humor (and emotional impact, on occasion) is right on, the story and “interludes” don’t jump all over the place, and most surprisingly… The plot and characters are tied into both the new films (including scenes on Jakku and Maz’s castle) AND the original trilogy.  Within minutes of opening the book, I literally did a double take when I realized that Han, Leia, and Chewbacca would be major characters.  Disney’s Star Wars Story Group apparently gave Wendig a longer leash this time around, since obvious spoilers for the The Force Awakens are now fair game.  And even more importantly… After starting out with a bang, it also became apparent that this sequel would have a more coherent storyline(s) than the first book.

Oh, and about that parade of new characters whom I just complained about from Aftermath #1… They are much more welcome this time around, now that they’re familiar to readers.  After all, despite the spotlight-stealing exploits of Han/Leia/Chewie, author Wendig writes from the POV of the Endor war veterans from Aftermath and makes it clear that this IS their story.

I won’t spoil the story here, other than to say that Aftermath’s main characters finally cross paths with Leia Organa, Han Solo, and Chewbacca.  Norrra, her son Temmin, Jom, ex-Imperial officer Sinjir, Jas the bounty hunter,  and Dr. Bones have been hunting down war criminals and the remaining leadership of the mostly-defeated Empire (including my new favorite character, the multi-layered Grand Admiral Rae Sloane). Leia recruits Norra and co. when Chewie gets kidnapped and Han goes missing during an attempt to liberate Kashyyyk.  And of course, the aforementioned surviving war criminals who were spared the destruction of the second Death Star are secretly hatching big plans to regroup and recapture the former glory of Palpatine’s Empire.  The rise of the military junta First Order of The Force Awakens is just around the corner.

There are too many fan-pleasing moments to count.  One of many examples include a revelation about Boba Fett’s armor, hilarious twists on classic lines from the original film trilogy, and even a swipe at George Lucas’ controversial “Special Edition” film alterations:  Jas, while calculating the odds of getting the draw on Han Solo in a barroom blaster fight, assures herself that Han would most definitely shoot first.

Not-so-hidden Easter egg: While reading Life Debt (Aftermath #2), it finally dawned on me that the Aftermath in the trilogy’s title refers to the aftermath of Return of the Jedi’s climactic Battle of Endor, which precedes this story arc.  Apparently, I’m a little slow.

Star Wars movie fans-- If you’re looking for the perfect place to jump into the new canon novels, this is it!  I literally lost sleep from the excitement of reading this book on opening week.  The Star Wars: Aftermath novel trilogy concludes on January 31, 2017 with Aftermath: Empires End.  The wait is gonna be unbearable.

Verdict: ***** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, **** for non-fans

Star Wars: Bloodline

by Claudia Gray

Though this story takes place after the Aftermath novel trilogy, this novel feels like it’s missing some key backstory from that time period.  The obvious reason: Author Gray didn’t have access to the events of Aftermath (or alternately, was forbidden by the Story Group to reference them).  The downside of this limitation is that Leia Organa, the main character, is constantly reminiscing about scenes from the Star Wars original film trilogy, as though nothing else had happened in the years that have passed.  Had I read it as a non tied-in standalone novel (or had I not started reading the Aftermath trilogy first), I would have enjoyed Bloodline more.

Another barrier I had to enjoying this book was that the plot was more political than action-oriented.  Had I known that from the start, I would’ve approached this novel with different expectations.  The action set pieces may have seemed less disappointing… Particularly the boss battle (with an unremarkable villain) clocks in at barely 2 ½ pages long.

That being said, this book won me over by the final chapters. I naturally started caring more about the fate of the characters when it finally dawned on me that this is more of a character-driven novel than an action yarn. And Leia’s political motivations for concealing her true heritage (read: secretly being the daughter of the deceased Darth Vader) made for some engaging reading.

This story certainly has its moments.  My motivation to resume reading my Kindle copy of Christie Golden’s previous Star Wars novel, Lost Stars, has been restored.

Parental advisory: In addition to a higher volume of PG rated language than I’m accustomed to in Star Wars novels, Bloodline depicts more alcohol consumption than any book in recent memory.  Not that this would offend many people, but it’s excessive to the point of seeming lazily repetitive.  For what it’s worth.

Verdict: **** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, *** for non-fans

Star Wars: A New Dawn

by John Jackson Miller, Narrated by Marc Thompson

This review is primarily of the reading/production of the audio version only, not the book itself.

As an audio book, A New Dawn is top notch.  The story is less impressive, though a decent diversion.  Fans of Kanan and Hera from the Star Wars Rebels TV show on Disney XD will especially love this.

Narrator Marc Thompson has quite a knack for making a merely okay story engaging, and also at creating a sense of urgency and excitement during the action scenes.  He is a genius at making each character come alive.  The voice renderings of Count Vidian and Zeluna are a little over the top and a bit annoying, respectively, but the other characters are unique in a good way.

The action sequences are enhanced with occasional flourishes of John Williams’ orchestrated Star Wars musical themes and realistic sound effects.  The zip-lining scene is one of many standouts.

The best part of the story for me is the introduction of a young Rae Sloane, my favorite character/villain (so far) of the Aftermath novel trilogy.  The to-be Grand Admiral Sloane even references Count Vidian’s “Forget the old way” line during an introspective moment of Aftermath: Life Debt.  If anything, this book may be worth a read/listen if only to learn more about Sloane’s early military career.

This isn’t a solid recommendation.  But overall, this audiobook makes for an entertaining listen.

Verdict: *** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, *** for non-fans

Star Wars: Obi-Wan and Anakin

By Charles Soule, and illustrated by Marco Checchetto

Other than the beautifully illustrated long shots, there are few reasons to pick up this pre-Episode III, standalone graphic novel.  The main story is of little consequence.  The Anakin/Palpatine flashbacks are a bit more interesting, but they don’t add anything significant to Anakin’s backstory than what we already know from the films.

And I realize that this is a comic book, but it’s too comic-booky for my taste.  For example… It’s downright bizarre to see recognizable Star Wars film characters like Jar Jar Binks and that albino horn-scarf dude from Jabba’s palace wandering aimlessly around a seedy bar in “Coruscant, Sub-Surface Level 2685,” like a bunch of distracting background extras.

Verdict: This isn’t the Obi-Wan comic you’re looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.

 ** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, * for non-fans

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Just read: Star Wars: Before the Awakening, PLUS... Star Wars canon comics roundup!

Breaking news:  The all-new Star Wars novel Aftermath: Life Debt was finally released today, and it arrived in my mailbox this afternoon!  But this week’s mini-reviews are all either of Star Wars graphic novels or two of the “junior” literature that I’ve read to my kids Lena and Levi.  I’m taking a short break from my usual theology and outdoor skills books.


See February’s post about why I’m reading the new canon Star Wars novels (link), in which I also explain the difference between new Star Wars canon and non-canon (now called "Legends") material from the old Extended Universe.  All titles below are officially classified as new Star Wars canon, unless specified otherwise as non-canon, or "Legends."

The mini-reviews below will also be featured on my Goodreads page soon.

By Elizabeth Schaefer

Although slightly over my 4 year-old’s head, this sanitized junior novelization of Star Wars- Episode VII: The Force Awakens is told entirely from Rey’s point of view.  It tells less, not more, than what is shown in the film.  I suppose this could be a useful entry point into the Star Wars universe for young readers, or for ADHD people who struggled to follow along with the actual film.

Verdict: *** ½ (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, *** for non-fans

Much more useful than “Rey’s Story,” this still wouldn’t qualify as necessary Star Wars reading, either.  But it's a worthwhile prequel anthology to The Force Awakens film, featuring the three backstories of Finn (FN-2187), Rey, and Poe Dameron.

  1. Finn’s backstory was the most interesting, revealing not only the Stormtroopers’ elimination-style tactical training, but also the compassion and selflessness in Finn that would continue to arouse the suspicion of Captain Phasma in Episode VII.  His loyalty to the Empire as a Stormtrooper would ultimately be tested as Phasma gives him “one last chance…to decide his fate.”  The events in this story provide the precedent for Finn refraining from murdering the villagers in the opening scene of The Force Awakens film.
  2. Rey’s backstory provides little information that isn’t already implied by the film.  It’s just one of her scavenger missions on Jakku, with a double-cross thrown in for good measure.  Some surface level religious info on the Teedo’s belief in their god R’iia is briefly mentioned.
  3. Poe Dameron’s backstory is notable for both introducing BB-8 as his X-wing’s astromech, as well as establishing his legacy as being the child of two Rebel Alliance fighters who fought against the second Death Star in the Battle of Endor before settling in a colony on Yavin 4 (Poe’s parents’ story is reportedly told in a canon book that isn’t yet available at my public library).

At the risk of sounding ignorant, I’ll just throw this out there:  There’s a line when Poe replies to General Leia Organa’s comment about flyboys being all the same with, “Some of us are fly girls.”  Although he’s probably referencing Captain Kun or Arana, my mind kept bouncing back to those internet rumors about Poe’s sexual orientation.  Moving on…

The ending of Before the Awakening perfectly sets up the opening of The Force Awakens film with a mission to find Lor San Tekka and/or Luke Skywalker:  Our only hope.  Nice touch.

Verdict: **** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, *** for non-fans

And now, for the comic books...  In my April blog post which reviewed Star Wars novels Aftermath, Darth Plagueis, and Dark Disciple, I also reviewed the Star Wars Omnibus: Quinlan Vos comics collection (It’s now classified as “Legends,” the official term for non-canon, old Extended Universe literature).  Here are a few other Star Wars graphic novels that I’ve checked out from the Beaverton library recently, sorted by descending order of interest (Best to worst):

by Jason Aaron, John Cassaday, and Laura Martin

Pure gold.  THIS is the comic book to read for fans of the original Star Wars film trilogy.  The fun tone, the action, the humor, the artwork, the storyline (set immediately after the destruction of the Death Star in Episode IV: A New Hope), and, most importantly… the beloved classic characters all come alive in this premiere issue.  Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2, C3PO, and even Darth Vader are on hand to kick off this series the right way.  The old gang is back together, and this feels almost EXACTLY like an unreleased classic Star Wars movie that we never saw.

Buy this immediately!

Verdict: ***** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, **** (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

By Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca

Chronologically, this tale runs somewhat parallel to Star Wars: Volume 1, told from Darth Vader’s perspective.   The actual crossover moment riffs on the brilliant climactic image (which I won’t spoil here) from that other comic that I reviewed above.  Chilling, and effective.

There are so many never-before-seen things in here for Darth Vader fans:  Vader is consumed in his quest to find out who is son is (And we find out exactly how it happens…Not revealed in a movie, but right here in a canon comic book!).  Vader restrains himself while being constantly belittled by Emperor Palpatine, his superior (ha!) Tagge, and the middle man clerk who was sent to replace him (Things can’t end well for that guy).  Vader is forced to negotiate with a Hutt.  Vader is made to look incompetent for letting Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star.  Vader fights Luke in person.  And most touchingly, we get to see rare flashbacks of Anakin's life before and after becoming Vader:  Kissing Padme on Geonosis and other moments, his personal tragedy on Tatooine, Palpatine’s deception, and a general sense of longing for those memories of being Anakin Skywalker.

Boba Fett and a wookie bounty hunter are the standout supporting players.  But Doctor Aphra, ludicrously sadistic C-3PO lookalike Triple Zero, and BT the assassin astromech are a bit too strange to fully appreciate, though they don’t detract from this powerful story.

The rich artwork, strong opening, flashbacks from both film trilogies, and continuity with Star Wars: Volume 1 make this essential reading for any Star Wars fan.

Freaking buy this book.

Verdict: ***** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, **** (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

By Jason Aaron, Stuart Immonen, and Simone Bianchi

While watching the old and new film trilogies, have you ever wondered how Obi Wan Kenobi stopped being a Jedi Knight and General Kenobi to simply become “Ben”?  The Book I portion of this graphic novel fills in the gaps between Episode III and Episode IV using Obi Wan’s newly discovered journal as a plot device.  In his journal, we discover why he has hung up his lightsaber, even to the point of neglecting to help a poor moisture farmer who is being shaken down by Jabba the Hutt’s cronies.  The first book of this collection has it all:  A pint sized Luke Skywalker, Jedi mind tricks, and dreamily gazing up at Tatooine’s twin suns with a glimmer of hope.

Book II and the rest of this graphic novel continues the story from Star Wars: Volume I.  Sana Solo claims to be Han Solo’s wife and tries to bring him home, and Luke’s blue lightsaber is stolen by Grakkus the Hutt’s henchmen.  Highlights include Grakkus the Hutt’s efforts to open a Jedi holocron containing the teachings of Master Phin-Law Wo of the Jedi temple on Vrogas, an aerial dogfight between Sana, Han, and Leia vs. an imperial destroyer and X Wing fighters, and Luke Skywalker fighting Kongo the Disemboweler in the staged “Last Stand of the Jedi.”

Fun, and worth reading.

Verdict: **** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, *** (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

By Kieron Gillen

In this decent follow-up to Vol. 1: Vader, Darth Vader returns to his home planet Tatooine to visit Luke’s homestead.  Vader then gets mixed up in a plot to recover a shipment of the Son-Tuul Pride’s fortunes that was highjacked by the Plasma Devils en route to an Imperial vault in Anthan Prime.

There are some interesting relationship dynamics involving Vader and his uneasy alliance with boldly defiant Imperial traitor Aphra, as well as the tension between Vader and his hyper-critical superiors: Grand General Tagge, Tulon, and even Vader’s replacement, Inspector Thanoth.  There are also some introspective moments when Vader realizes that he was duped by Obi Wan, who hid Luke on Tatooine because it was the one place he would never return to.  The ending sets up Vader Down, which will apparently feature Vader pursuing Luke to Vrogas Vas.

Verdict: **** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, *** (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

By Charles Soule and Alex Maleev

Suave ladies’ man Lando Calrissian was a memorable supporting character in the films Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and I was happy to read this admittedly inconsequential Star Wars spin-off story.  Lando teams up with his buddy Lobot (Lando’s silent, bald cyclops partner from the films) to clear his debt with gangster Papa Toren by stealing a yacht from an Imperial shipyard.  Improbably, the yacht turns out to be Emperor Palpatine’s pleasure craft, containing a priceless collection of Sith artifacts.

Nothing is essential to Star Wars canon here, but I enjoyed this book more than most readers I've talked to.  The highlights are not only Lando revealing his life-long “bluff” (I won’t spoil it), but also seeing the Emperor’s red-robed guards in action, fighting Aleskin and Paval, a.k.a. the Twins.  The relationship between Lando and Lobot also features some nice elements of friendship and sacrifice... Setting the stage for a redemptive character arc for Lando that foreshadows a use of his charisma for good, rather than living for himself.

A note about homosexual characters: To contradict myself in a previous blog post, I'll point out that Star Wars: Lando is also notable for having the first same sex relationship (that I know of) in the new official canon Star Wars universe.  Not 100% sure, though.  In my review of Star Wars: Afermath earlier this year, I incorrectly asserted that distinction to the first Aftermath novel.

Oh, and did I mention that my opening day copy of Star Wars Aftermath: Life Debt arrived in the mail today?

Verdict: *** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, ** (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

By Gerry Duggan

Though I’m a sucker for reading about any of the main characters from the original Star Wars film trilogy, this book is silly.  Chewbacca doesn’t talk, Zarro the sidekick tomboy character is annoying, and the plot is very minor.  In spite of Chewbacca trying to save Zarro’s planet from being subjugated to the Empire by Imperial henchman Jaum…the stakes are still pretty low in this story.

Fun moments include Chewbacca playing Sabacc and various characters riffing on “There is a saying about wookies…” jokes.  And it’s irresistably goofy to read Chewbacca’s gutteral screams spelled out as “HRAARAH!”  and “WHRAARAAAH WRAHAAAHG.”  It doesn’t help, though, that “WHAAARA WHRA!” is uncannily reminiscent of “Wah Wuh.”

Hey Chewie, use your words!

Verdict: *** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, ** (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

Star Wars Ewoks: Shadows of Endor  (Lengends/ non-canon)
By Zack Giallongo

This non-canon Ewok tale was a surprise find, and fun to read to my kids.  Set before the film Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the stormtrooper occupation of Endor has begun.  The Ewoks are trying to save the Dulok tribe from the toothy monster Griagh, and energy from the mystical “Sunstar” may be the key to victory.

Though a bit too scary and dark for my kids, they enjoyed seeing their beloved furry Ewoks from ROTJ and the “Ewok Adventures” 80s TV movies come to life in this short story. And fans of the Return of the Jedi film will have HUGE grins (at least I did) when they read the final panels of this book.  That epilogue alone makes this worth a library lend, for us original film trilogy junkies.

Verdict: *** 1/2 (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, * (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

(Legends/ non-canon)
By John Jackson Miller

For fans of the video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (I briefly dabbled in the Playstation 2 port for Android, on my Note 4 phone), this story takes place in the vastly popular Old Republic era.  Jedi Padawan Zayne Carrick is framed by his Jedi masters for the brutal slaughter of his Jedi-in-training peers.  Zayne goes on the lam on the planet Taris to find out why, in this non-canon action/mystery.  Zayne is a cool character, and the plot was definitely intriguing enough to make me want to continue reading what he discovers in Volume 2.

But eh, it’s not canon anyway.  So I'll pass on Vol. 2.

Verdict: *** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, ** (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

By Alessandro Ferrari

It feels like a money grab to release a straightforward retelling of the original Star Wars film trilogy, with so-so artwork.  George Lucas’ special editions of the films are represented here:   For example, the Wampa gets his close-up, and Greedo shoots first.

The worst offense is that the events of the films are intact, but the humor and charm of these films are mostly either missing or lost in translation.  Also, not to belabor the artwork, but the characters look like lame Mad Magazine versions of the real life actors.  This is particularly disappointing in light of the top notch artwork and humor of the Star Wars and Darth Vader comic series reviewed above.  On that note, the cartoonish rendering of Darth Vader couldn’t be less menacing.  It’s less reminiscent of Darth Vader and more like Dark Helmet.

I never thought I'd never utter the following words in ANY context, but… Skip the book, and watch the films instead.

Verdict: ** 1/2 (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, * (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

(Legends/ non-canon)
By Kevin J. Anderson, Dario Carrasco

Apart from the distinction of being the most chronologically ancient story in Star Wars’ old Extended Universe (read: non-canon “Legends”), there’s not much reason to read this.  It takes place 5,000 years before Luke Skywalker fought in the Battle of Yavin, against the first Death Star.  Yes, it’s mildly interesting to see how the Sign of the Sith is received.  And more intriguing is a non-canon flashback to an even earlier era, when the Sith and the Jedi were both “mighty Jedi of the Republic, brothers of the Force.”

Oh, and I got a kick out of the line, “I’ve got a good feeling about this one!”  Just don’t apply that sentiment to your expectations for this book.

Verdict: ** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, * (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

(Legends/ non-canon)
By Tom Veitch

Dark Horse Comics made some great stuff, but this silly rubbish is an embarrassment to Star Wars fans everywhere.  It may have been passable in the era before Disney took over and insisted on quality control, but it’s an atrocity by today’s standards of Star Wars canon.  Why did I even bother finishing this nonsense before returning it to the library?  Sadomasochism.

Verdict:  Lamer than the notorious Star Wars Christmas TV special

* (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, * (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

So sad.  But let’s end on a happy note.  Here’s a list of Lena and Levi’s top three Star Wars children’s books I've read to them over the past few months:

3.  Star Wars Rebels: Ezra’s Wookie Storybook
2.  Star Wars Clone Wars: Meet Ahsoka Tano
1.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens read-along-storybook

Now, if you'll excuse me... I need to get some rest before I binge-read Star Wars Aftermath: Life Debt tomorrow.  But I don't have a problem.  I swear.  I can quit Star Wars any time.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Just Read: "The Eagle Tree," and George R. R. Martin's "A Clash of Swords" and "A Feast for Crows"

These mini-book reviews will also be featured on my Goodreads page soon.  And several new canon Star Wars books and comic books will be reviewed here next time!

The Eagle Tree (Available for pre-order now, or for purchase on July 5, 2016)

By Ned Hayes

In light of Autism Awareness Month, I read The Eagle Tree in its entirety on my string of flights home from my brief trip to Paris (link) in March/April.

Disclaimer: I selected this title as my free book for March from Amazon’s Kindle First program.  Regardless of its promotional freebie status, this book by Northwest resident author Ned Heyes is worth a purchase when it is released next month.

Readers with a personal concern for environmental preservation, autism, and/or good storytelling in general will adore this novel about a 14 year old boy on the autistic spectrum who has a love affair with knowing about and climbing trees.

The plot setup is simple, and I won’t spoil anything here.  Protagonist and narrator (unreliable narrator, if that’s the correct use of that term?) Peter “March” Wong is obsessed with climbing the Eagle Tree, the tallest tree he’s ever seen.  But the emphasis is less about plot and more about the unique lens in which this autistic child sees the world around him:  Relationships, logic, religion, physical injuries, his educational/learning struggles… and of course, climbing trees.

The climbing “action scenes” have a unique mental breakdown that echoed the sample I’ve read of Andy Kirkpatrick's rock climbing bio Psychovertical (on my list of Kindle books to borrow from Katya), which details an unrelated learning disability of climber … which also turns out to be a gift in disguise.  For March, the potential advancement or danger of each succession of climbing moves is plotted out in advance, like a chess game or a puzzle to be solved.

Don’t be fooled by the short length and uncomplicated plot.  Author Hayes transforms seemingly small stakes into something of surprising suspense and ecological significance.  By the time the climax rolls around, you’ll be holding your breath to find out whether or not March will achieve his unlikely dream.

My rating: **** out of 5 stars

Since I haven't seen much of HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series, I can’t say how that show compares to these books.  But in the case of A Storm of Swords, the books keep getting more and more engrossing... even considering the occasional graphic content.  Complex relationships, political maneuvering, family loyalty (and disloyalty), and the overall struggle for power are some of the major themes in this shockingly unpredictable story.

Martin has created a fictional world reminiscent of medieval Britain (circa the second century), where every action, good or bad, has the potential for tragic consequences.  No deed goes unanswered.  Marriage serves political purposes only, so the consequences of a certain marriage on the basis of "honor" are heartbreaking.  And even the most horrific actions make sense from the characters’ points of view, though many of those choices require morality to be completely disregarded.

This third book in the Song of Ice and Fire series is easily the best so far.

My rating: **** out of 5 stars

This is the fourth book (of 5 written so far, out of 7) in the Song of Ice and Fire series.  Martin delivers here on many levels:  I loved the characterizations of the inner demon-battling Queen Cersei Lannister, Brienne of Tarth (A rare heroine of complete integrity in this morally ambiguous world), political pawn Sansa Stark, killing machine-in-the-making Arya Stark, and freakishly… Catelyn Stark.  The unexpectedly redemptive path of Jaime is surprisingly engaging.  Also, introducing the parallel Dorne storylines provides a somewhat interesting change of setting.

However, the overall saga’s pace slows and Martin’s writing style is becoming even more repetitive and pointlessly descriptive as the series progresses.  The heart thumping action set pieces of the past three books are absent in this volume.  And most frustrating of all is having to wade through a 753 page book about secondary characters and STILL not learn anything significant about the fates of Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Bran Stark, or Daenerys Targaryen.  After all those cliffhangers from Book Three, why are we readers still left dangling?

And yet, I continue reading.  My copy of A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book Five) is already on order from the Beaverton Library, along with my request for the Kindle copy from Overdrive.  I’m anxious to see where these stories are headed.

My rating: *** out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Paris: The French Connection

5/4/16:  Happy Star Wars Day!  In case you missed it last month, check out the link to my "Just read" mini reviews of the latest Star Wars books (and other books), and also my earlier post about why I'm reading the latest Star Wars "canon" novels.

From the Loft Boutique Hostel Paris, last Thursday:

Merely an hour before my connection flight to Seoul, Korea left Seattle yesterday, I had a change of heart.  I had just flown standby in Business Elite class to from Portland-Seattle, and another Business class seat was all but guaranteed for the Seattle-Seoul leg as well.  The problem was that the return flights from South Korea to the U.S. were 95% full for days.  As a Delta standby traveler, I tend to play it safe.

I had mapped out some enticing hiking/scrambling trails near Seoul.  But this wasn't the first time that I had abandoned plans to hike in South Korea.  See the link to my previous post, South Korea: The Bumpy Road to Seoul... And also the sequel, The Netherlands: Bicycling to Haarlem.

Fortunately, there was a Seattle flight to Paris only one gate away.  55 minutes prior to departure, I changed my listing.

En route to Paris, the Business Elite flight attendants were flawless.  The food was exquisite.  But for whatever reason, I landed in Paris with a splitting headache and a barely manageable fever.

Flying over France

Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport

Nursing my headache for a spell in the CDG airport arrival lounge helped get me back on my feet.  I set off for the Loft Boutique Hostel Paris using the RER train to connect with the blue Metro line.  From the Belleville stop on the Metro, the Loft Boutique Hostel was a five minute walk down the street.

On the way to drop off my backpack at the hostel, I stopped by the Englise Notre Dame de la Croix... Not to be confused with its more famous cousin, Paris' iconic Notre Dame cathedral.

A photo posted by Garth Hamilton (@garth_hamilton) on

As soon as I upload this quickie blog post from Loft Boutique Hostel, I'll dash over to the Louvre museum and (of course) the Eiffel Tower.

I've visited Paris countless times... How have I not yet toured the Louvre?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Just read: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, A Clash of Kings, and Star Wars novels: Aftermath, Dark Disciple, and Darth Plagueis

See last month’s post about why I’m reading the new canon Star Wars novels (link).  I’m taking a short break from my usual theology and outdoor skills books.  The min-reviews below will also be featured on my Goodreads page soon.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

by Seth Grahame-Smith, Jane Austin, Tony Lee, and Cliff Richards

Stay with me here:  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a graphic novel adaption of a zombified bestseller spoof/tribute novel of Jane Austin’s romance classic Pride and Prejudice, which has also recently been adapted as a horror/comedy film.  The story itself is essentially an abridged version of Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice,” with zombie references thrown in at every possible opportunity.  Britain is overrun by zombies, Lizzy, Jane, and Lydia are zombie slayers, etc.  The artwork is not great. The concept is occasionally amusing, though I’m unsure whether Jane Austin fans will be laughing, recoiling, or ambivalent.  I have not seen the 2015 film adaption, nor do I plan to.

Verdict: *** (Out of 5 stars)

A Clash of Kings (Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2)
by George R. R. Martin

My friends are constantly tweeting about HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series.  For those of us who don’t subscribe to HBO, reading library copies of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire high fantasy book series may be the closest we’ll get to seeing what all the fuss is about.  Like Book 1, Game of Thrones, this one is a rough read.  Brutal violence, ludicrously lusty behavior, and general unpleasantness must be waded through to appreciate the rich storyline.

And what a story.  Martin’s ability to weave together so many complex characters, motivations, and separate plot threads is unparalleled.  Sadly, I’m hooked.

 Verdict: *** (Out of 5 stars)

Here are a few Star Wars novels I’ve read recently, sorted by descending order of interest:

Star Wars: Aftermath

by Chuck Wendig

There are two reasons that Aftermath is #1 on this month’s Star Wars list, and neither quality nor broad appeal are necessarily either of them.

  1. It's the first Star Wars book that I’ve ever read.  That’s right… Although I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was a little kid, I’ve never read a Star Wars novel prior to 2016.
  2. It's the first “canon” Star Wars story to take place in the time period after the film Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and before Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  Of course, this distinction was a LOT more buzzworthy before The Force Awakens was released in December 2015, which dispelled a few of the mysteries surrounding that era of Star Wars history.

For the two reasons above, I admittedly was so excited to read Aftermath that I was not examining it critically.  As such, I was able to overlook Wendig’s unconventional writing style that so many other readers loathed.  It’s written in present tense, from a third person point of view.  The prose didn’t flow as smoothly as the next Star Wars novel I would read, Dark Disciple (mini review below).

However, this story of the New Republic’s uprising was engrossing enough to warrant a read for Star Wars fans looking for Easter eggs that tie in to the story of The Force Awakens film [SPOILER: The “Taris” interlude has a potential origin story for the Knights of Ren.  Kubaz sells a red lightsaber which allegedly belonged to Darth Vader to three strangers, who claim they plan to destroy it].  As in the Taris mini-story referenced in the spoiler above, there are also several short, hit-or-miss “Interlude” segments that feature concurrent events from other locations around the Star Wars galaxy.

As a huge fan of the original Star Wars film trilogy, there were many elements that floated my boat:

  • The climactic events of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi were recalled from the new characters’ POV:  Norra had flown with her squadron inside the Death Star to destroy it, bounty hunter Jas Emari had targeted a wounded Princess Leia from a tree on Endor, and Sinjir Rath Velus (who randomly comes out of the closet as a homosexual for no apparent reason, plot-wise) had been hiding in the Endorian bushes as the Ewoks celebrated the Rebel Aliance’s victory.
  • B-list fan favorites from the films such as Admiral “It’s a trap!” Ackbar, Wedge Antilles, and Mon Mothma play crucial roles in the story. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Lando Calrissian are mentioned and even appear in holographic form (in Leia’s case).  Even Boba Fett is referenced [Spoiler: It’s revealed that Boba’s suit may still exist and can be worn by anyone… so who exactly WAS that who got swallowed by the Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi?]
  •  Characters mock some of the sillier elements of the Star Wars film prequel trilogy era (fanboy points for the hilarious smack talking of George Lucas’ lame “Roger roger” battle droids).
  • Most excitingly… [Minor spoiler- Han Solo and Chewbacca get their own interlude, setting up a Solo adventure (pun intended) to free the Wookies of Kashyyyk]
·         [7/28/16 Update:  After reading Aftermath: Life Debt, I learned I was dead wrong about the following, which I originally included as a speculative "bonus spoiler"]:  Could Admiral Rae Sloane’s mysterious boss at the very, very end of the novel be the legendary (these Star Wars EU puns keep getting worse) Grand Admiral Thrawn from the enduringly popular but now non-canon Thrawn book trilogy?  Just a theory.

Verdict:  **** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, *** (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

Star Wars: Dark Disciple

by Christie Golden

Dark Disciple, the second Star Wars canon novel I’ve ever read, was a pleasant surprise.  Prior to reading, very little of what I knew about this book appealed to me: The cartoonish cover, the Clone Wars TV show reject origins, etc.  But THIS is the book I should’ve read as an introduction to Star Wars lit.

Golden’s writing style is engaging, and she invites readers to truly empathize with the budding romantic relationship between the rebellious Jedi Knight Quinlan Vos and former evil foe/Nightsister/assassin Asajj Ventress.  Even non-Star Wars fans may find themselves caring about the fate of these two.

The storyline pairs unlikely duo Vos and Ventress in a secret mission by the Jedi Council (Obi Wan, Yoda, and the rest) to assassinate Ventress’ former master, Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus.  Most readers have seen Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and already know whether or not Count Dooku survives the assassination attempt.  However, there is still plenty of excitement and suspense surrounding the action set pieces.  Characters’ meditations on the potential power of Jedis leveraging the Dark Side of the Force to save the lives of millions blur the line between good and evil in interesting ways. And the will they or won’t they? developments provide a nice emotional grounding to the plot.

There are a couple of gaping plot holes that are necessary to maintain continuity with the films (no specific spoilers… but let’s just say that our two flawed heroes go out of their way to NOT accomplish a couple of key objectives, with at least two memorably flimsy excuses spelled out).  These illogical but necessary concessions to Star Wars canon barely diminish the storyline at all.

Highly recommended, albeit unexpectedly.

Verdict: ***** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, **** (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

Star Wars Omnibus: Quinlan Vos: Jedi in Darkness

After reading Star Wars: Dark Disciple, I checked out this Quinlan Vos graphic novel compilation for a little more background on this complicated and morally flexible Jedi Knight.  There are some very cool revelations about Order 66 (Palpatine’s largely successful plan to slaughter of the Jedi in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith).  Other than that, this collection is mostly for Quinlan Vos completists.  And it’s “Legends” now, not canon.

Verdict:  *** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, ** (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

Star Wars: Darth Plagueis

by James Luceno

The non-canon (I’m pretty sure this novel is now downgraded to “Legends” status) Darth Plagueis novel provides a deeper backstory for the tale that Palpatine tells Anakin Skywalker in 3rd person about his former Sith master in the film Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.  As dry as George Lucas’ scripts for the film prequels were, hearing this story told onscreen via straight up exposition was somehow more intriguing than reading this often boring book.

The prologue starts out in fascinating fashion as we learn about the fate of Darth Plagueis’ master, Darth Tenebrous.  Disappointingly, the momentum screeches to halt by Chapter 2.  And later, when the spotlight switches to Palpatine, the proceedings devolve even further to become mired in the political superfluity that made the prequel film trilogy so dull.

On the plus side, there are appearances by Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn, Count Dooku, and Sifo-Dyas.  And Star Wars fans can get their fill of Sith history dating back to the Old Republic, the dismantling of Darth Bane’s “Rule of Two,” a cool lightsaber fight with Darth Venamis, and occasionally cool insight on the nature of the Dark Side of the Force.  Whether or not this “Legends” novel’s worthwhile contributions to Star Wars lore will be preserved in an upcoming canon novel or film remains to be seen.

Verdict: *** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, * (Out of 5 stars) for non-fans

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Flying home from hiking in Switzerland

Written last weekend, from Switzerland’s Zurich airport:

Ice climbing in Iceland (to prep for my Mont Blanc climb in France this June with Aaron, Fleur, and Manu and my Mount Hood climbs in March) got pushed back a bit.

The reason:  It turns out Delta’s inaugural New York-Reykjavik flight wasn’t scheduled to launch until last Thursday… Not enough time to make it home for my work shift tomorrow.  Another family visit to South Africa was ruled out, as well.

Zurich:  Me and Bo, after climbing the stairs up to the south steeple of Grossmunster cathedral

Rather than hang around the house for 6 ½ days, my dad and I flew to Switzerland for a few days.  Apologies to my buddies in Italy and Switzerland who have been asking about getting together while I’m in the region.  Next time!

Bo and I flew standby and got Delta's Business Elite cabin seats on the overseas flight from New York to Switzerland, hiked and toured the snowy Zurich area, and are now about to fly back home to the U.S. in Business Elite seats again!

A photo posted by Garth Hamilton (@garth_hamilton) on

I’ll Instagram some Switzerland photos and share some stories on Garth’s Blog when we get back to the States.  I also penned a few upcoming adventure blog posts while we‘ve been overseas, with pics to be added.

Next time we’re in the region, little Lena and Levi are gonna love feasting on the Alps!

Up next…

“Just Read” book reviews of:

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” “Star Wars: Aftermath,” and other new canon Star Wars novels!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Why I'm reading the new "canon" Star Wars novels

From our overseas flight from Switzerland to New York:

Wanna know the reason I started reading the new Star Wars novels this year? Besides the fact that I’ve freaking LOVED the original Star Wars film trilogy since I was a little kid?  After years of infamous inconsistency, the novels and side projects will all finally have harmonious continuity with the films.

Before Disney announced that they were reigning in the Star Wars Extended Universe in April 2015, the franchise was a free-for-all of disjointed novels and graphic novels.  Now, Disney's Star Wars Story Group has wiped the slate clean and made an official distinction between the newer “canon” stories (which are promised to gel together and be in continuity with the Star Wars films and TV shows, like Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels)…

...And the older, contradiction-ridden “Legends” stories of varying quality (select elements of which the Story Group reserves the right to validate in its upcoming canon stories).

Star Wars: Aftermath, the first "Canon" novel that takes place after "Ep. VI: Return of the Jedi"

Disney’s controversial move has been bitterly protested by fans of the old Extended Universe. But for me, the casual Star Wars fan, it makes the new novels seem more accessible.  No offense to those hardcore EU fans, but there’s no way I’m gonna sort through that old stuff that is now relegated to the “Legends” dust bin.

A similar commitment to franchise continuity arguably made the Marvel Cinematic Universe more appealing, and I’ve been curious to find out if the new canon Star Wars novels can pull off something equally consistent with those Marvel superhero films and TV spin-offs.  Either way, my daughter Lena and I look forward to checking out some of these new canon books and graphic novels together!

Why this post?  Consider this fair warning that a few Star Wars novels will be featured prominently in the next few “Just Read” Garth’s Blog book reviews, sprinkled in with my usual travel and outdoor adventure posts.

Up Next...

Coming home from Switzerland!