28 December 2016

Reading Rainbow: Books Read in 2016

UPDATE:  Finished one more book for 63 total read books in 2016.

So as we are a few days from closing the door on 2016, I post my annual “Books Read in…” I’ve always wanted to read 52 books for 52 weeks but time, tide, and other things prevented me from doing it. Even when I started a new cycle this year, I did not set a goal of accomplishing this goal. In the end, it just sort of happened. I got through 62 books. It even amazes me.

I still love my sci-fi/fantasy novels, though read a few standard fiction titles.

Anyways, the elimination of cable probably helped. Since I've time-shifted what few TV shows I do watch to Netflix and Hulu, it's freed up some more hours to read. I’ve also stopped seeing movies, for the most part, which saved me money and time. Money, as always, was a factor as well. Even though I got a promotion at Goodwill to Team Lead, the money bump was not significant to get me out the hole I got myself into.

Plus, as always, when not reading, I was posting crap on my FB page about this years election.

But I don’t think I’ll repeat this feat in 2017. Part of it is because I don’t think we’ll all be around once Trump takes office on January 20. My dreams and nightmares are full of Death, with him and his Neo-Nazi cohorts leading the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

But at least I lived long enough to see my beloved Cubs win the World Series -which may be the only bright spot for me in this horrible year of loss. 

I do plan on re-reading the Harry Potter novels and Stephen King's Dark Tower series because it's been so long and I just want to do it. Still, I got five books already lined up and two awaiting arrival at the library, so I'm not sure when I'll begin those.  

The best book I read this year, hands down, was The Hike by Drew Magary. It's a great, very odd, very original read. The one the filled me with the most disappointment was The Buried Giant By Kazuo Ishiguro.

That is, if you were wondering...

01. Saturn Run By John Sandford & Ctein

02. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman

03. Career of Evil By Robert Galbraith

04. Star Wars: Aftermath By Chuck Wendig

05. Star Wars: Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka

06. Star Wars: The Force Awakens By Alan Dean Foster

07. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards By Kristopher Jansma

08. The Buried Giant By Kazuo Ishiguro

09. Star Wars: The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry

10. Star Wars: Smuggler’s Run By Greg Rucka

11. Star Wars: Moving Target By Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry

12. The Universe Versus Alex Woods By Gavin Extence

13. Midnight Riot By Ben Aaronovitch

14. Morning Star By Pierce Brown

15. Arcadia By Iain Pears

16. Medusa’s Web By Tim Powers

17. Why We Came To The City By Kristopher Jansma

18. Me Before You By Jojo Moyes

19. A Darker Shade of Magic By V.E. Schwab

20. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green

21. The Pirates of Perilous by John DeChancie

22. A Gathering of Shadows By V.E. Schwab

23. The Crown Tower By Michael J. Sullivan

24. The Crown Conspiracy By Michael J. Sullivan

25. Uprooted By Naomi Novik

26. Boy’s Life By Robert McCammon

27. HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

28. Chicago By Brian Doyle

29. Nobody’s Fool By Richard Russo

30. Star Trek: Elusive Salvation By Dayton Ward

31. A Wrinkle in Time By Madeleine L’Engle

32. The Fireman By Joe Hill

33. Star Wars: Bloodline By Claudia Gray

34. Everybody’s Fool By Richard Russo

35. End of Watch By Stephen King
36. Britt-Marie Was Here By Fredrik Backman

37. Assassin’s Apprentice By Robin Hobb

38. Star Trek: Legacies: Captain to Captain by Greg Cox

39. Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt By Chuck Wendig

40. Dark Run By Mike Brooks

41. One Damned Thing After Another By Jodi Taylor

42. The Hike By Drew Magary

43. Stiletto By Daniel O’Malley 

44. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child By Jack Thorne, JK Rowling, John Tiffany

45. Star Trek: Legacies: Best Defense By David Mack

46. The Nix By Nathan Hill

47. Star Trek: Legacies: Purgatory’s Key By Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore

48. Another Day, Another Dungeon by Greg Costikyan

49. The Tripods: The White Mountains By John Christopher

50. The Tripods: The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher

51. The Tripods: The Pool of Fire by John Christopher

52. The Flying Sorcerers by David Gerrold & Larry Niven

53. The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey

54. Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square by William Sutton

55. The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

56. The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood

57. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

58. The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes

59.  The Shadows of What Was Lost by James Islington

60. Moonglow By Michael Chabon

61.  Star Wars: Catalyst by James Luceno

62. Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey

63. Girl Waits With Gun By Amy Stewart

27 December 2016

Books: Babylon's Ashes By James S.A. Corey (2016)

“The Free Navy – a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships – has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them. James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinante for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network. But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny, and betrayal may be the least of the Rocinante’s problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity.”

I generally enjoy this series of books by James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), because it’s pure escapism and, at times, fun. The real science of space travel (and the magical realities created by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchise and other space operas become more evident) sometimes is difficult to slog through, but I enjoy the characters of the Rocinante because they’re three-dimensional. But the problem this book series has had is the villains are generally weak, mostly one-dimensional mustache twirlers. That includes Marcos Inaros, who appears to be a surrogate for a certain presidential-elect and comes across as a narcissistic sociopath who gained his power by convincing a lot of people that all their problems can be blamed on others. True, some with in his inner circle come to the conclusion that while the ‘Belters need representation between Earth, Mars, and the gates created by the protomolecule, Inaros is not the leader to make this happen, and break away, but it’s surprising (though maybe not) that many still follow him. Of course, like any good self-important leader, controlling the narrative is paramount. But maybe the point that the authors are trying to make is that not all bad guys are evil –they just do horrible things in pursuant of their goals. 

Meanwhile, as a general rule, what this series does well is having a self-contained story that concentrates on the human element rather than the alien. So while the last book went very dark with Inaros’ near destruction of Earth, with Babylon’s Ashes deals with the fallout –though indirectly. Most of the book delves much into what it is best at: political intrigue, military strategy, and the fight for survival in space –though it could also be an allegory for those struggling on Earth.

Also, this sixth volume in The Expanse series sort of feels like a conclusion to an arc and there is some obvious foreshadowing for future volumes. And while the protomolecule continues to be the series McGuffin, I do wonder if we’ll get any explanation of whom or what sent it to the sol system. While I’m sure the writers can come up a number of storylines that are analogies, metaphors, and parables to our modern life that can fill numerous other volumes, I wonder if we’ll still be here to read them once America’s new thinned skinned, self-important president is installed on January 20th?

15 December 2016

Books: Star Wars: Catalyst By James Luceno (2016)

It’s been well established that the novels that make up the Star Wars (AKA Expanded Universe) have always been non-conical. Only the novelizations of movies are the true tales. But since Disney acquired Lucasfilm and has created a completely new universe timeline (and thus making those old novels null and void, even though they will remain in-print), the Mouse House has gone out of its way to start making the books connected to newest movie trilogy. But besides those novels, two animated TV series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and latest Star Wars: Rebels have been folded in as well. Which means those shows are now considered canon and have subtle ties to the movies.

Same has come with the books, which is clever in two ways. First it re-introduces the books as a viable resource for fans and non-fans that wait the two years between films in latest iteration of Skywalker saga. Plus for both new and old fans, the books are constructed in way that tells readers there always going to be hints and back stories to ideas and characters appearing in the newest trilogy. 

And while this year we get what is to the first in potentially many stand-alone films, Star Wars: Rogue One, let’s not fool ourselves. Yes, it’s a film detailing how rebel spies acquired the plans to Death Star that Luke Skywalker help destroy in the 1977 film, but this movie has a few potential storylines that will probably intersect with Episode VIII and IX. And this prequel novel to a prequel film, Star Wars: Catalyst begins to set them up.

“War is tearing the galaxy apart. For years the Republic and the Separatists have battled across the stars, each building more and more deadly technology in an attempt to win the war. As a member of Chancellor Palpatine’s top secret Death Star project, Orson Krennic is determined to develop a superweapon before their enemies can. And an old friend of Krennic’s, the brilliant scientist Galen Erso, could be the key. Galen’s energy-focused research has captured the attention of both Krennic and his foes, making the scientist a crucial pawn in the galactic conflict. But after Krennic rescues Galen, his wife, Lyra, and their young daughter, Jyn, from Separatist kidnappers, the Erso family is deeply in Krennic’s debt. Krennic then offers Galen an extraordinary opportunity: to continue his scientific studies with every resource put utterly at his disposal. While Galen and Lyra believe that his energy research will be used purely in altruistic ways, Krennic has other plans that will finally make the Death Star a reality. Trapped in their benefactor’s tightening grasp, the Ersos must untangle Krennic’s web of deception to save themselves and the galaxy itself.”

James Luceno prequel novel is being labeled as “essential reading” for those planning to see Rogue One. However, I don’t think this is really true, though it does accomplish fleshing out characters and setting the stage for the film. Part of the books –and most likely the film- role is to set up (what I assume) will be further explored in Episode VIII: the introduction of kyber crystals and the Jedi Temples. 

Kyber crystals are living, Force-attuned crystals that grow randomly throughout the galaxy, and occurred in abundance in some places more than others. The crystals concentrated energy in a unique manner through the Force, resonating with it. These crystals power the Jedi’s and Sith’s lightsabers. They were first introduced in Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV series The Gathering, the sixth episode of the shows fifth season. They were officially named an episode later. The EU novels would develop these ideas further including making the connection between the crystals and the Death Star’s super laser weapon. 

While not as explored as much as the crystals, the book drops hints about the legendary Jedi Temples (something most fans of Star Wars already know will be featured in Episode VIII). One of the temples on Coruscant is being used by the Empire to further study the kyber crystals so they can be weaponized. So there is irony here.

As noted, the book fleshes out the characters of Galen Eros, his wife Lyra, and Orson Krennic, the Imperial scientist who fully understand that if he can get Galen, a known pacifist, to help the Empire create a super weapon,  his place in history is all but assured. The book is set in the waning years of The Clone Wars and continues into the rise of the Empire and Galen often reminded me of how many times scientists are portrayed in this type of fiction, where they’re so dedicated to their work, they’re blind to the realization that their work, which was suppose to supply unlimited cheap power to planets in need of it, will be used to hurt more than to save. It's not a bad trope, but one that could be better presented.

And Orson is a manipulation machine, clearly able to move Galen closer to creating the ultimate weapon for the Empire; all while dealing with Lyra, who was always suspicious of Orson’s goals, and Governor Tarkin, who clearly hates Krennic. 

There are some interesting things here as well –mostly dealing with politics. Since the election of a new president this past November, and the general dislike he has gotten from the more liberal minded folks, the politics of the Star Wars universe becomes clearer. Rogue One has already been called to be boycotted by the Alt-Right because it dare present a Star Wars movie that is inclusive and multicultural. More so, than it appears, than The Force Awakens which some tried to boycott because its leads were a woman and a black man. Of course, that film went onto to score $2 billion in ticket sales, so I guess we can those folks who tried to affect the box office totals met with a dismal failure. 

True, the first three Star Wars films were not overtly political, but the Empire was clearly designed to represent the Nazi’s. They were, in those films, presented as white supremacist and mostly human organization. Lucas chose not to hammer the point home, but his allegories and his metaphors were unmistakably present. And then they were expanded in Episodes I, II, and III.  In those films, Lucas openly wanted to show how a once multi-cultural universe can easily be torn apart by fear and xenophobia, which leads to Chancellor Palpatine’s power grab and his words to the universe “In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society which I assure you, will last for ten thousand years.” Which then leads Padme to the obvious conclusion "So this is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause." 

Say what you will, Lucas was being political. Star Wars was being political. He may have been using World War II has his metaphor, but history has and will continue to repeat itself. Catalyst does have some very relevant and often moving discussion of how far people are willing to ignore their moral codes to comply with a regime during wartime. So all of this has always been part of the Star Wars universe. It just takes on a more obvious aspect with this new trilogy and this first stand-alone film.