Sunday, December 25, 2016

Go, tell it on the mountain (summits)

Instagram photo from a climb I led in August

I’ve led more than a dozen scrambles, climbs, and hikes (and no more for 2016)...

...Though I’ve already 
posted a New Year’s coastal hike for next week (RSVP for free HERE!).

A photo posted by Garth Hamilton (@garth_hamilton) on

Climbing Mount Hood again, last week
(uncropped Instagram Story pic)

I’ve traveled to my final overseas country of the year…

...Though another international friends-visiting trip is in the works for January.

Switzerland, Italy, France, Iceland (pictured), and Mexico were among the list
(Previously unseen pic from my Instagram Story)

I’ve concluded my teaching series for youth group…

...Though I’ll be speaking at the Portland area all-night youth party this week.

Most of my outings and expeditions have been wrapped up for 2016...

...But the dearest adventure to my heart will never end:

Family time with those adorable Ls!

Merry Christmas, from our family to yours!!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Just Read: Star Wars: Catalyst (A Rogue One Novel); Comic #3: Rebel Jail; The Rebellion; Tales... Vol. 1: Aliens

Release date! (Photo from my daily Instagram Story)

These book reviews will also be featured on my Goodreads page soon.

For my review of the outstanding Star Wars Aftermath: Life Debt, Book 2 of the Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy, click here.  Also, check out my link about why I’m reading the new canon Star Wars novels.

Star Wars: Catalyst (A Rogue One novel)

By James Luceno

With the upcoming Star Wars film Rogue One opening in theaters tomorrow (!!), I was looking forward to last month's prequel novel, Catalyst.  I pre-ordered my copy from Amazon to arrive exactly on the release date, November 15.

So, was it worth the wait?  Absolutely… With one caveat:  It’s a slow starter that doesn’t kick into high gear until over 100 pages in.  But when it’s hot, it’s hot.

Taking place between the films Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope, the novel Star Wars: Catalyst provides the tense backstory for this Friday’s Rogue One film about the Rebel Alliance’s brave efforts to steal the plans for the original Death Star.

My summary of the plot:  At this earlier point in the Star Wars saga, the original Death Star is still in the planning stages.  And it’s missing its key component:  A massive super weapon that will be capable of destroying an entire planet (And to Princess Leia’s dismay, we original film trilogy fans know how that’s gonna turn out).  Scientist Galen Erso is researching the power of the Kyber crystals which power the Jedi’s lightsabers.  Imperial mucky muck Orson Krennic wants to weaponize the Kybers’ power to produce a superlaser to mount onto the parabolic focusing dish of the yet-to-be-built Death Star.  In order to one-up Grand Moff “Governor” Tarkin on his own Death Star construction project and also become Emperor Palpatine’s right hand man, Krennic tricks Erso into believing that his research will be used for development of clean, renewable energy.

Honestly, it was initially tough to stick with this book.  Pointless subplots involving side characters like Has Orbit and Saw Gerrera feel like a waste of time.  And it’s front loaded with backstory and sci-fi technical jargon, withholding even the first minor action scene until page 61.  Fortunately, the earlier sections also feature cool bits of insight into the construction of the Death Star, the Jedi’s complex relationship with Kyber crystals, and the effect of the Force on non-Jedi who happen to be “Force sensitive” (A term not used in this book).  Cool stuff for Star Wars fans!

The story really gets cooking after this long opening stretch, as husband and wife Erso and Lyra are seemingly pitted against each other to discover the truth about Krennic’s intentions.  I won’t spoil the tension… Other than to say that this novel finally stops feeling like overstretched short story as it transitions into an effective family-in-jeopardy thriller, with fascinating political implications for the Star Wars universe.

Speculative spoiler for the upcoming Rogue One film:  Given the chronology of the Star Wars timeline, Erso and Lyra’s baby daughter Jyn should be of age when the movie takes place.  I’m avoiding most of the movie trailers, but I’m guessing Jyn will be a key member of the “Rogue” squadron who tries to steal the plans for the Death Star (Maybe even the girl on the movie poster?).  If she’s not, then why the cutesy baby/young girl subplot in this novel?  There’s gotta be a payoff.

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

Star Wars #3: Rebel Jail

 By Jason Aaron, Kieron Gillen, and Angel Unzueta

Of the three stories collected in this volume, I found the closing young Ben Kenobi/ Luke Skywalker tale to be the most fun.  Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi is secretly watching after Luke Skywalker on Tatooine as Biggs and Luke’s other kid friends cheer him on as he tries to fly through Beggar’s Canyon.  Ben saves Luke behind the scenes from various scraps, and has a run in with a bitter Uncle Owen who blames Ben for his brother Anakin’s death.

Even the often lame film prequel trilogy gets some thoughtful love from Ben:  “There’s still hope, Master Qui-Gon.  You thought Anakin was the chosen one.  Perhaps in a way, he was.  If his son shows the same abilities, then just maybe…

The first two stories in this annual collection are also worthwhile.  Story #1 is about the unglamorous life of Rebel spy Eneb Ray in Coruscant, who needs to be a heartless jerk to his “subjects” for fear of blowing his cover if the Imperials discover his true identity.

Story #2, the Rebel Jail title story, is a fun female empowerment yarn set in Sunspot Prison.  Princess Leia, Doctor Aphra, and Sana open up a can of whoop on the villains… just so that Han Solo and Luke Skywalker can show up to cockily “save the day” for the women after the dust settles.  Haha, go patriarchy!

There are plenty of other funny gags.  C-3PO tries his hand at “fisticuffs.” Han plays backseat driver while Luke learns how to fly the Millennium Falcon.  And they actually get to herd some nerfs!  Hilarious stuff.

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

By John Wagner, Paul Alden, Randy Stradley, Darko Macan, Cam Kennedy, Raul Trevino, David Fabbri, and Dave Gibbons

“Epic” is an overstatement.  While this graphic novel compilation is better than much of the Legends (read: older, non canon stories) material I’ve read, it falls short of the artwork, characterization, and continuity of the new canon stuff.  That being said, I enjoyed reading these earlier conceptions about the events that went down immediately after the film Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope.  And we get more Boba Fett.  Who can argue with that?

The standout by far is In the Shadow of Yavin, an extended comic book series which offers a glimpse behind the scenes of the construction of the second Death Star, above the planet Endor.

And all the Ewoks said… “Yub nub!”

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

by Landry Q. Walker

This one gets an enthusiastic “meh” from me.  While officially canon, it's six short stories featuring side characters from the film Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  If you like aliens as main characters (I do not), this is your bag.

The main hurdle that these short stories try to overcome is that few of the protagonists are memorable characters from The Force Awakens, even for fans.  It’s also challenging to acquire much investment in these characters, due to the short length of these stories.  Some chapters are barely a single page.
For what it’s worth, the best stories are “All Creatures Great and Small” and the really good “The Crimson Corsair and the Lost Treasure of Count Dooku.”  Also, “A Recipe for Death” is notable for a cool fight scene in zero gravity.

As a non sci-fi fan who has loved Star Wars since my childhood, critter stories are a tough sell for me.  But fortunately, the Star Wars universe also has enough mythology and human stories to keep me hooked.

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Finish What Ya Started

C'mon, baby! Van Halen's got nothing on me.  I am the king of unfinished blog posts. I start a new blog post (with gobs of beautiful photos) nearly every time I:
  1. Lead a hike, climb, or scrambling expedition for NW Wilderness
  2. Spend a weekend or daytrip away with my kids Lena and Levi (the Ls)
  3. Fly overseas for a day or two, to visit my international buddies

Last month's Iceland travel photo from my daily Instagram Story

Also, many posts have been drafted but not released about spiritual and social issues which I feel need to be addressed. Those entries usually end up on my personal blog. But the travel and outdoors posts... I have no excuse. I just need to battle my short attention span and finish what I start.

Lots of cool adventure posts are on the way! In the meantime, I'll keep writing my "Just Read" posts about the books I read. Hopefully those book reviews are entertaining enough diversions to distract y'all from my lack of getting things done.

And speaking of distractions... How could I get anything done with these adorable Ls hanging around?

Photo from my daily Instagram Story

Monday, November 14, 2016

Just Read: Rage, A Dance with Dragons, Star Wars: Vader #3, and the Special Power of Restoring Lost Things

The brand new Star Wars novel, Catalyst: A Rogue One Story finally drops tomorrow!  I pre-ordered my copy from Amazon so it would arrive on the release date.  It’s a prequel story to the upcoming film, Star Wars: Rogue One.  I’m unreasonably excited to tear into it, after I'm done leading my next NW Wilderness hike on Thursday!

My world traveling posts, as well as trip reports from the recent hikes and climbs I’ve led, will resume soon.  And the mini-reviews below will also be featured on my Goodreads page at some point.

By Zygmunt Miloszewski

Translated from Polish, this crime melodrama centers on a justice/rules obsessed prosecutor Teodor Szacki who is investigating a series of grisly murders which may be targeting domestic abusers.  The slow burning “rage” depicted in Szacki’s characterization eventually pays off big time, more cleverly than I expected.  And there are at least two or three truly memorable moments, including a chilling scene involving a mother and infant in peril that haunted me for days (And I was on a Mexico mission trip!).

Other than those standout moments, this novel was a bit slow paced for my taste.  Also, some of the graphic sexual depictions and gruesome CSI-type investigation details seemed a little excessive.
After realizing that this is the final book of a trilogy, I surmised that faithful readers of author Miloszewski would find the conclusion of Szacki’s character arc to be quite dramatic indeed.  The mystery elements of the plot are interesting, yet this novel works best as a character study.

Note: This was a pre-release book, but it’s now available.  I selected this title for free from Amazon’s Prime’s “Kindle First” offerings of August 2016.

Verdict: *** ½ out of *****

By George R. R. Martin

Since I don’t have HBO, I can’t say how this book compares to the latest season of the hugely popular Game of Thrones.  However, this book is a slight improvement over A Feast for Crows, the fourth and previous book in the Song of Ice and Fire high fantasy book series.  It’s set at the same time period of Feast, which means that the events take place immediately after A Storm of Swords, the third book.  The main characters whom were mostly neglected in Feast return to the spotlight here: Tyrion Lanister, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Bran Stark, Arya Stark, Theon Greyjoy/Reek, Stannis Baratheon, and others.

Was it worth the wait?  Not particularly.  We should have been reading about these characters in the fourth book, which spent most of the time in King’s Landing, the Iron Islands, and Dorne.  But it was nice to finally return to the characters at Castle Black, beyond the Wall, and Pentos and Slaver’s Bay across the narrow sea.

Disturbingly misogynist sexual content, meandering prose, and excessive length mar this book just as much as the previous books.  And the wait for the long overdue Book 7, The Winds of Winter, has dragged out for years.  But how could we readers quit the Song of Ice and Fire series now?  We’re so invested in the characters.  George R. R. Martin isn’t on the hook.  We are.

Verdict: *** ½ out of *****

The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things

By Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

Listed under Kindle's “Literature” genre, I expected this pre-release to be a substantive read about coping with grief.  It wasn’t what I anticipated.  However, this tale of a devastated family living in the aftermath of a daughter’s disappearance is an acceptably brief diversion.

The storyline (which isn’t the focal point anyway) is somewhat engaging, the characters draw sympathy, and theological matters are occasionally addressed.  The book’s most effective hook is illustrating how unbearable it would be to live through the disappearance of a daughter/sister.

Note: This was a pre-release book, but it’s now available.  I selected this title for free from Amazon’s Prime’s “Kindle First” offerings of September 2016.

Verdict: *** out of *****

By Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca, Leinil Andrews, and Kaare Andrews

Taking place between the films Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, the dramatic continuity of the previously excellent Darth Vader graphic novel series makes no sense.  No spoilers here, but did that thrilling, revelatory moment with Boba Fett in Volume 1 never happen?

That’s a relevant gripe, making this feel more like a standalone story than a continuation of Darth Vader’s character arc.  His relationship with Grand Admiral Tagge still provides dramatic tension, though, especially with the added conflict of Dr. Cylo being assigned to make Vader look bad.  Unfortunately, as with previous volumes, Vader’s ludicrously sadistic droid Triple Zero and blastomech BT-1 (the Tobey Maguire/Spiderman 3-esque bad-guy versions of C-3PO and R2-D2) are too silly to bear.  For that matter, MOST of the supporting characters are drastically less intriguing than Vader himself.

As a fan of the new Star Wars canon, I’m reluctant to say that I also noticed a potential contradiction between Vader #3’s account of the remains of Leia’s home planet Aldaraan and the account given in the latest Star Wars novel, Life Debt: Aftermath #2.  But I REALLY want to believe that Disney’s Story Group has a firm grasp on the continuity of the new Star Wars canon.  Don’t let me down, guys!

On the bright side, Darth Vader #3 is not boring.  But let’s hope that Vader doesn’t continue to be a co-star in his own Star Wars spin-off comic series.

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Venting about the U.S. Presidential election

Photo from my Instagram Story last night:  My Jeep at the polls

America voted yesterday.  Despite Hillary Clinton winning more popular votes, Donald Trump won the electoral college... And on January 20, 2017, Trump will be inaugurated as our next President of the United States.

Photo credit:

While I won't explicitly share on Garth's Blog how I voted, it's easy math: I voted for the Presidential candidate whom I thought had the best chance of stopping the LEAST MORAL/ MOST UNQUALIFIED candidate from winning (though none of the major candidates could claim much of a moral high ground).

Specifically, my conscience wouldn't allow me to vote for a man who...

...Is endorsed by the KKK, degrades women and graphically boasts about sexually assault, makes fun of disabled people, categorizes Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, pushes for a ban on Muslims, racially stereotypes POCs and inner city residents interchangeably, threatens to abolish relationships with our international allies, disregards the validity of the democratic voting process/ peaceful transfer of Presidential power, changes his position on abortion out of political convenience, wants to deport every undocumented alien without offering any hope for a path to citizenship, cited "Eye for an eye" as a favorite Bible verse, and doesn't even read books.

Note: I have sources for each of the above.  But the list goes on and on.

Continued below, after a couple of my tweets...

For me personally, last night seemed like a nightmare that I couldn't wake up from (or fall asleep to escape). I was shocked, discouraged, and depressed as the results of each state's votes were gradually reported live by the equally stunned cable news anchors. I wept for this country. I barely slept. And I continued to feel ill today, throughout my work shift at Delta Airlines.

Photo from my Instagram Story:  This morning's Delta breakroom was a mix of tears and cheers.

How could this have happened? My own loved ones may be direly affected by Trump's worldview and proposed policies. Woman and minorities may continue to be dismissed as second class citizens. And the United States may cut ourselves off from the nations that we should be reaching out to in cooperation for ending war, genocide, human trafficking, environmental neglect, hunger, and poverty.

Yet I do not look down upon nor judge any of my family and friends who voted differently than I did. We are all Americans.  Countless veterans have fought and died for our liberties, including choosing who will represent us in government.  And I am thankful for these freedoms.

Tonight in my youth group teaching, I challenged my students to support candidates whose lives look the most like Jesus Christ (Without even hinting about which Presidential candidate I voted for last night). I will be lifting up President-elect Trump in my prayers. I have hope for the future of this country, and for our world. And I am encouraged by the assurance that God still reigns on His throne.

Regardless of any election results, love and peace will ultimately win!

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