08 February 2016

Books: Moving Target by Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry (2015)

Star Wars: Moving Target by Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry is the last volume that made up the first part of Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And like the previous two books in this series, the story is framed as flashback. We open prior to the events of the new movie, with General Leia Organa wrestling with her duties to the Resistance and how she must balance those responsibilities with her own personal wishes. Which reminds her of a story from St Olaf…wait, that’s not right.

Well a little bit. This loose trilogy of books has all been about the same thing, how Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie are thrown into leadership roles against their better wishes (except for the princess of course, she’s been fighting the Empire in one way or another since she was a child) and how their desire to end the Imperial rule allows other people to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. And it’s apparent, after fighting for thirty plus years, no one thought of recording Leia’s thoughts about what it all means. But now on the eve of her sending Dameron Poe to Jakku, she agrees to begin setting the record straight so to speak, and she unwinds a tale set just before the events of Return of the Jedi.

The mission of this story revolves around Leia taking a small group on a recruiting mission along some outer rim systems that is actually meant to draw imperial attention away from the actual fleet gathering at Sullust to attack the incomplete second Death Star. The group jumps around, setting an electronic bread crumb trail for the Empire to follow, all while Leia wrestles with truth that she is setting up outlier rebels to prevent the Imperial forces from discovering the rebel fleets true location.

The plot is your basic mismatched group heroes with certain abilities that must work together to achieve a goal (it’s Gun on Ice Planet Zero for the original Battlestar Galactica). And like Smuggler’s Run, the interaction between the characters makes this YA title work. We get some good speeches about what the rebels are really fighting for and why some would give up their own lives to achieve the goals of Resistance. 

One the things that really stopped me from reading the original Expanded Universe books after a few years in the 1990s was, as it happens here, that threats the Imperials make on heroes always rang hollow with me. You always knew that if a stormtrooper, or some other Imperial villain pointed a blaster at the head of Leia, Han, Luke, Chewie, or threatened the destruction of C3PO or R2D2 the reader knew they would not die, would not be destroyed. Leia getting captured was an easy trope to do in those books, and happens here again. It’s these things that made me sort of start not wanting to read them (and this includes the Star Trek books as well). I know that the hero always wins, but that’s TV and movies for you. Sometimes, in these series books, I wish a writer would be able to break out of the formula. But even as I write, I know it’s the formula that readers apparently want and are dictated by the publisher. 

There is a lot of good things about these books –mostly the loss of subplots- so even Leia getting captured is not that annoying. I enjoyed them. Now the question is do I go and start reading the handful of other titles in this new Expanded Universe that Disney has created?

07 February 2016

Books: Star Wars: Smuggler's Run By Greg Rucka (2015)

It probably does not matter if I read Star Wars: Smuggler’s Run second, rather than first, and read Star Wars: Weapon of a Jedi first than second, as neither impact each other. But like the Luke Skywalker tale, this Han Solo and Chewbacca story opens with a prologue set just before The Force Awakens. We have a much older Han Solo sitting in a cantina listening to a bunch of smugglers talk about fast ships. Soon, of course, Han must talk to them about the fastest ship in the galaxy, the Millennium Falcon, which then leads into a tale set just after the events of A New Hope

The destruction of the Death Star has put a dent in the Imperial war machine, but the Rebellion has no time to savor its victory. The evil Galactic Empire has recognized the threat the rebels pose, and is now searching the galaxy for any and all information that will lead to the final destruction of the freedom fighters. And Han wants to pay off his debt to Jabba. But before he and Chewie can leave Yavin IV, Leia comes to Han to ask him for another favor: a special-ops crew of Rebels, responsible for safeguarding the secret of the current and next Rebel base, has been discovered and five of six of them killed. She needs him to pick up that agent, Ematt before the Empire gets a hold him. Of course, the planet the rebel is on is in the Outer Rim, a lawless world by the name of Cyrkon. While Han still refuses, it’s Chewie who eventually convinces him that they need to save the young man (a good, well written part, by the way). Meanwhile, Ematt is trying to evade the clutches of Alecia Beck, a Commander in the Imperial Security Bureau. She is ruthless and very competent warrior with a scar and a cybernetic eye to show just how coldblooded she really is. She is also the personification of the brutality of what the Empire truly is: she sees everyone, including those under her, as mere fodder for the advancement of the Imperial fist. After their arrival on Cyrkon, Han and Chewie need to find Ematt, elude Imperial forces and four bounty hunters who’ve come to the planet in search of what will eventually be Jabba’s prize statue.

While the plot is a pretty standard find-the-hunted-man-before-the-villains-do narrative, what makes the book (despite being a Young Adult tale) good is author Greg Rucka’s wonderful, often hilarious relationship between Han and Chewie, as you sort of end up laughing out loud with the back-and-forth dialogue between them. You also kind of end up sort of respecting the villain somewhat as well. She’s very three dimensional here, which is something I like in this new unified canon –everyone seems to be drawn very carefully.

While these books are slim, they are well paced. The elimination of many sub-plots that would’ve filled out a much longer book, helped the keep the story focused, fun and exciting.

Like Weapon of a Jedi, another book in Disney’s Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there is a slim connection to the film, which are the bounty hunters themselves. Han mentions several of them, including the ones who board his freighter in the film. After years of annoying them, is it any reason those dudes took such drastic action against the famous smuggler?

05 February 2016

Books: Star Wars: The Weapon of a Jedi By Jason Fry (2015)

My exploration of the new Expanded Star Wars Universe continues...

Timeline ways, we’re not given the exact date as to when this prologue opens, though Threepio has his red arm we all saw I the movie. So speculation on my part, this begins just before the events of The Force Awakens.

Anyways, Star Wars: The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry opens with a Resistance X-Wing pilot named Jessika Pava who meets C-3PO in a hangar and realizes who he is and what kinds of stories he can tell. 3PO’s mention of Luke prompts her to inquire about a Luke story not as well known as his other heroic exploits. So, in his own unique way, the protocol droid begins telling her a story set shortly after events of A New Hope, when Luke, 3PO and R2D2 go on a data retrieval mission. But the simple journey goes a bit awry, when they encounter some Imperial entanglements. This leads Luke to land on Devaron for repairs, which also coincides with recent visions he’s been having. It seems the Force is directing him there. In the town of Tikaroo, Luke requests a guide to take him to what is called the Eedit ruins; the place the Force wants him to go. But the remains, he is told, are off limits, mostly by Imperial edict (whom also has perimeter alarms around the temples), but also because the place is thought to be haunted. Eventually, Luke he ends up hiring a scavenger named Sarco Plank to take him into the forest. Plank is an eyeless insectoid member of the Melitto species, who is also a amoral scavenger, bounty hunter and arms dealer. After Luke’s visions help him locate a hidden cave entrance that gets him past the Imperial perimeter, he uncovers 3 training remotes and trains for a few days at the temple before the Imperials catch up with him and the time comes to put his training to use. 

There are some distant ties to The Force Awakens here, especially the notion of the Jedi Order temples we hear Han Solo talk about briefly in the film. While this is new to the movies, if memory serves me right, the Jedi temples were first mentioned in The Clone Wars animated series (unified canon, baby). And Sarco Plank appears on Jakku, but is given no real mention there. 

Also, it’s an easy read (well, it is for the 9-14 range), but for fans, this gives a wider look into the new timeline created, especially since these books are now considered canon. 

Not sure if it matters, but this YA title, Star Wars: Weapon of a Jedi is the second book in this Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens series. I was unsure if there was a certain order to them, so I started with the Luke Skywalker one first.

04 February 2016

Books: The Buried Giant By Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)

I have never read a Kazuo Ishiguro novel before. I know his books are deep, thoughtful tomes on the human condition. I also know that to get what he’s trying to say, sometimes it requires a reader to restart from the beginning because he chooses to hide meaning and action under a cloud of beautiful prose. My decision to read this book, however, came about mostly because of its theme, the elements of fantasy I've been reading for three decades.

But while The Buried Giant is extraordinarily well written, it can be boring as well. Even as well read as I think I am, I can't help wonder if I missed some hushed imagery within the book. The story unfolds in a rather straightforward way, at times the characters seem emotionally detached from each other, despite the fact that the two main characters, Axl and Beatrice do love each other unconditionally. Is the author aiming this book –along with his other six- at group of smarter people who can comprehend some deeper meaning from the story?

The Buried Giant is set after the end of a war between Saxons and Britons; they now live alongside each other, but warily. A widespread historical amnesia grips the populace, erasing both recent and distant memory. Axl and Beatrice, two elderly married Britons, call this forgetting “the mist.” Even memories only a month or two old fade away. Axl and Beatrice once had a son, who disappeared, but neither can quite remember him, or why he left them. They embark on a journey to visit him, a quest that occupies the rest of the novel. In the course of the journey, they encounter two knights: Wistan, a young Saxon warrior, and Sir Gawain, an elderly and slightly buffoonish nephew of King Arthur. There are adventures and battles with ogres, pixies, dragons, and menacing soldiers. There are some sinister monks. Along the way, Beatrice and Axl discover that “the mist” is actually the breath of a tyrannical she-dragon named Querig, and that the only way to restore the country’s stolen memory will be to kill Querig.”

The exploration of this memory loss over the land and especially with Axl and Beatrice becomes repetitive and annoying after a while, along with Axl calling Beatrice “princess” again and again. It was as if the author’s story was already too short of an idea, so he filled out the book with repeated notions that both were off to see this son (whom ultimately becomes the MacGuffin) that went away for some reason, that they both could not remember their arguments (or why they could not have a candle), and that Beatrice had some sort of limp, but it was no bother.

The book starts out well, and along the way the reader think this is a sly Arthurian themed tome, but the book quickly becomes sluggish and too repetitive to really enjoy and recommend. It’s not fantasy, though it contains fantasy elements, and readers of his previous six novels might be turned off by the idea that it could be a fantasy.

I appreciate authors whom can do something different in their writing, though. And while the author likes fantasy novels, when writer Ursula Le Guin wondered if his long-time readers appreciate this adventure, he said “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

That answer lies with them.

29 January 2016

Books: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards By Kristopher Jansma (2013)

One of things that I lost with Borders Books closing was discovering new authors. Sure, B&N has an area just for that, though it’s always set away from New Releases, which seems to me to bit short-sighted. Yes, it is hard (very hard) to get readers to try new authors. Most are very set in their ways, only wanting to read what’s on the best-seller list and their regular cadre of predictable tales that are never that complex, and are all solved by the final page. There are also some authors, say like Gillian Flynn, whom broke out of the basement of hidden talent with Gone Girl. While I’ve yet to read that book, I read her two previous ones and found them to be disturbing, nihilistic, and (frequently) unbelievable. But I will admit that those two books are worthy reads mostly because they’re dark, filled with unrepentant and unlikable characters. It takes a great talent to write books that feature these people, because the reader wants and needs a creature to identify with.

Still, Twitter has been my salvation though. After Borders closed, I began to subscribing to a lot of publishers and writers. So while many of my friends and families are following celebrities (well mine are writers), along with family and friends, I went with Twitter page of almost every publisher I can follow.

That, in a way, is how I found this book, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. Someone had done a review of the writer’s newest book, Why We Came to the City, and posted a link to his page. That story got re-Twitted by the publisher and then the author. I read that review and so I decided to find the authors first book.

There is a saying in writing: write what you know. So it’s not a huge surprise when authors create characters that are also writers. In his debut novel, Kristopher Jansma tells a sort of Russian nesting doll tale of two long-time writer friends, whom are also each other’s chief rivals. There is also Evelyn, whom our unnamed narrator harbors an unrequited love for.  The tale, which spans more than decade, has our hopelessly unreliable speaker travel “from the jazz clubs of Manhattan to the villages of Sri Lanka”, always, it seems never far away from the gravitational pull of his said rival, one Julian McGann. The narrator lives in a world built on house of cards, unraveling a web of fact and fiction wherever he goes, quickly assuming new identities and telling stories and then shedding them as fast as waiters in a restaurant come and go. It has an unusual structure, reading like set of short stories along with a novella, more than a true novel, which then kind of morphs into a short story that exists within the novella within a novel (it sounds more complicated than it is). 

All of this, I guess, can considered a contrivance, as the narrator does have a tendency to run into people all over the world whom are somehow connected to McGann. But the prose is so great, with beautifully constructed sentences, and thoughts, and the dry, disarming humor so much fun, you can forgive the writer for using such a device.

It’s a strong first novel that now wants me to read his newest book. And thanks to Twitter, I hope to find a whole horde of new writers penning glorious and thoughtful literature.