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.

26 January 2016

Books: Star Wars: The Force of Awakens by Alan Dean Foster (2015)

As noted, Alan Dean Foster wrote the original Star Wars novelization back in 1977, even though the book was credited to franchise creator George Lucas. But with no knowledge of what the success of this film was to become, Foster fleshed out Lucas’ script so much, expanding the backstory of planets, races, the history, and technology with such detail, that they became canonical to the movies and books that would follow. In 1978, the author released Splinter in the Mind’s Eye, one of the first (though not known at the time) stories that became known as the Expanded Universe.  Foster's novel relied heavily on abandoned concepts (that were originally intended as a cheap-to-make-sequel had Star Wars bombed at the box-office) that appeared in Lucas's early treatments for the first film, although a lot of what happened in that book –like the bits dealing with some romantic energy between Luke and Leia- would be later contradicted by later movies. 

And while the prolific author has written well over seventy novels of his own, edited a bunch of anthologies, he’s also made a career out of the novelizations of movies, including the Star Trek Universe, the Alien Universe, Alien Nation Universe, Transformers, and Terminator franchise among others; he’s written well over fourteen other stand-alone film adaptations, including Pale Rider, Starman, The Black Hole, and Clash of the Titians.

But since Splinter, the author has written only one other book set in the Star Wars universe, 2002’s The Approaching Storm, a story set between Episode I and II of the film franchise. Now he’s been given a chance to expand the Star Wars universe again with this adaptation of The Force Awakens.

But I suspect, unlike back when writing the original novel, Alan Dean Foster was limited to what he could expand on in the script. But the book does give many answers that fans asked about after seeing the film, including (I hope) more scenes with the critically underused Leia. I’m hoping these scenes that appear here are ones written in the script and just deleted for time and flow. Abrams admits that a lot was filmed, and a good percentage will end up in the deleted scene section on the DVD/Blu ray. But there are no revelations here, but I do think that Rey is probably the granddaughter of Obi Wan (though my wild theory is she really is the reincarnation of Anakin Skywalker). Foster makes no direct correlation to Rey’s heritage (and does very little to expand on her past, though that was written about in Before the Awakening book), but there is an vague, sort of implied but not by dialogue, that Kylo Ren may know whom Rey truly is (because my belief is that when he probed her mind earlier in the film, he would’ve discovered if she had some familial aspects).

23 January 2016

Steven Moffat to Exit "Doctor Who"

 In what is probably not a huge surprise (and for some, a relief), Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat announced his departure from the series after season 10. Chris Chibnall, who has written for series since 2007 and who has also penned episodes in the spin-off series, Torchwood, and who is also the creator of Broadchurch, will assume the mantle of showrunner for the series 11th season. 

News also broke that the long-running series will take a gap year in 2016 and will not fully return until the spring of 2017. There will be, however, a traditional Christmas episode that will air this year.

BBC One Controller Charlotte Moore explained the reasons for moving the series back to the spring. “I have decided to schedule Steven’s big finale series in Spring 2017 to bring the nation together for what will be a huge event on the channel. 2016 is spoilt with national moments including the Euros and Olympics and I want to hold something big back for 2017”

Reading between the lines, Moore’s statement that 2017 series will be a “huge event” seems to allude to the notion that with Moffat’s departure, fans should expect that current Doctor, Peter Capaldi, will probably announce he's leaving sometime before the 2016 is finished, and that the 2017 series will be his last.

This is the second time since the series returned in 2005 where there will be a significant gap between full seasons. The last time was in 2009, when tenth Doctor David Tennant was doing Shakespeare, though the BBC did air three “special” episodes during the year -one that lead into the regeneration of actor Tennant into Matt Smith. 

The announcement that Chibnall assuming the reins as showrunner was met with some satisfaction from the fans. The writer has penned the Who episodes 42, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and The Power of Three. But for a lot of fans, it was his superior writing on the spin-off show Torchwood that makes them excited for his new job making Doctor Who. Episodes he wrote include Day One, Cyberwoman, Countycide, End of Days, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Adrift, Fragments, and Exit Wounds.

Of course, Chibnall created Broadchurch, the popular procedural that starred former Doctor Who actor David Tennant. The first season was a huge hit in England, and lead to FOX to produce an American version called Gracepoint, that also starred Tennant. A second series aired a year ago, and a third and final series will film this summer, to air in early 2017. Then it’s on to making season 11 of the long-runner science fiction show.

Based on the episodes he’s written for Doctor Who, it’s a good bet Chibnall will take the show in a different direction than Moffat, whose whimsy, lightness, and his difficulty in writing female characters has shown through his later tales. It very possible the show with go a more darker route, but that will also depend on who will be playing the Time Lord when the show returns in 2018 for that eleventh season, as I fully expect the tenth season to be Peter Capaldi’s last.

Is there a chance that the Doctor can change genders, now? Or will the BBC stay with the tried and true format of a male (though sticking with a male, could the Doctor be black or Asian) and female companion?

Books: Star Wars: Before the Awakening By Greg Rucka (2015)

Back in September, three YA titles that came under the moniker “Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, were released. Each short novel featured an adventure with one of the three main characters from the original trilogy. Each story (which I’ve yet to read, but will probably eventually get to) is set during those times, and each was supposed to have some tidbit that was going to tie into the new movie series. 

As noted before, one of the reasons Disney did away with the original Expanded Universe books was so they could create what they called a “unified canon” for novels released now and into the future, and would in some way tie-into the newest trilogy. Greg Rucka’s Star Wars: Before the Awakening (which was released on December 18th to coincide with the films release) is designed to give us some background information on the three new main characters, Finn, Rey, and Poe. Information, however opaque, that would give viewers a better insight into these folks. And, I assumed, the reason it was released then was not to provide spoilers.

But I noticed two problems. If this book is considered canon –and that was the idea- then between the writing of this book and the release of the movie, some things were altered. Finn’s story, and the first one of the three in this volume, gives us a new dimension, a new fold to the film character. You see Finn as a leader, a man destined to rise above everyone else. But, as we see in the movie (and described vaguely here) Finn has a conscious, and is disturbed by what he’s being requested to do. We saw that unfold in The Force Awakens. But Captain Phasma (who is in serious need of a back story) seems to have doubts about Finn in this short story, issues she talked about with General Hux. But in the film, as both Hux and Phasma are reviewing Finn’s (or FN-2187) record, she seems to imply that Finn was an exemplary solider and nothing in his record seemed to indicate his eventual actions. 

I know that things change on film sets, that dialogue and action can be altered on the whim. This book, probably months in writing, is different. Plus, I’m guessing, Rucka was given certain criteria when writing these tales; another words, his wiggle room was probably very tight. 

The next discrepancy is in the second tale, the one focusing on Rey. In the movie, when she and Finn fly the Millennium Falcon, she seems shocked (as is Finn) that she’s able to do what she did. There is some subtle indication in the film that she is a pilot, but like many viewers of the film, we all questioned how she could maneuver the Falcon like she did. In her tale, however, there is some explanation. As we see in the film, Rey is living in a collapsed AT-AT. In the story by Rucka, Rey finds what amounts to video games within the walker; flight programs were she can learn how to pilot any ship in the universe. And because she is bored and has a lot of time on her hands, she’s eventually masters all the different spaceship programs. 

Again, things seemed to change in the film. They decided to make Rey’s background even more unclear, which is fine. But the whole point of this “unified canon” idea was to make the novels, well… canon, something the original Expanded Universe never was. 

The last story, focusing on Poe, gives us some idea about how the character became the best pilot in the Resistance. There is also a little bit of the allusion that the New Republic seems to tolerate and even covertly support the Resistance, as Poe and a few of his comrades were in the Republic military. It also sets up the opening of new film, where General Solo sends the pilot to Jakku in search of Lor San Tekka, who holds the partial key to finding the whereabouts of her brother, Luke Skywalker.

As a Young Adult tale, the book reads very fast. Again, while writing stories in a universe like Star Wars, a writer has strict guidelines as to what he or she can and not do. Rucka does a fine job here, but if Disney is going to make these books fit snugly with the new film series, tying them into the new canon, then someone better keep a better eye on what is being printed on paper and what unfolds on the silver screen. 

I’m onto the novelization next, so it will be interesting to see if there are any contradictions in Alan Dean Fosters tale when set next to Greg Rucka’s.

21 January 2016

Books: Star Wars: Aftermath By Chuck Wendig (2015)

I have some trepidation about returning to the new Star Wars Expanded Universe. When Bantam began the original EU back in 1991, Heir to the Empire was only the second Star Wars novel set outside the original trilogy. The first, of course, was 1978’s Splinter in the Mind’s Eye, which was –more or less- story ideas cobbled together from George Lucas’ notes on a potential sequel to his original movie (and compensation, I guess, for writer Alan Dean Foster whom ghostwrote the novelization of Star Wars). And a lot of things that happened in that book, certain ideas and what not, would be eventually be contradicted by both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. So in many ways, Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy could be considered the first real novel in what would eventually be called the Expanded Universe.

 I began reading these Star War novels, enjoying some, and disliking others. And as much as I like Star Wars, much like the Star Trek novels, so many came out so fast and furious, I was quickly falling behind in other books I wanted to read. And while I know some people who just read exclusively every Star Wars novel that came out between 1991 and 2012, I could not devote my time to just one genre, to just one series. So I gave up. Not sure when exactly, but it was probably around 1995-96 that I finally came to the conclusion that I needed to part ways with the EU. And that restriction continued, even as the prequel trilogy began. 

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and began work on this newest trilogy of films, they also made the decision to abandon the twenty-one year old EU book line. Though the books would remain in print, they would be labeled “Legend”, and none of the stories, characters, and other aspects would be considered canon in this new universe (but they never were to begin with). Then again, no novel in the Star Trek universe was ever considered canon, either. Still, with Disney tossing those novels aside, many long-time fans felt this was a bad idea. Yes, there were certain books that could be forgotten, but the EU did have some cohesiveness to them, that they appeared well planned out and that all the books were connected by some massive continuity. 

But like the rebooted Star Trek franchise, it was this continuity that was holding the new Star Wars movie series back. To re-launch with the The Force Awakens meant throwing away hundreds of novels and comic books released (really) since 1983 and create a new one, what they call a “unified canon”, specifically set NOT to contradict anything that would come up in this new film series and anything that will come after Episode IX in 2019. 

So now we get this New Expand Universe, which will lead to The Force Awakens. Currently (in 2016), it begins with The Clone War TV series, which became the first canon based animated show. The novel Dark Disciple is next  followed by Revenge of the Sith (I will note that there may yet be novels in the future set between Episode II and III, but this is the current  list) and then the novels Lords of the Sith, Tarkin, A New Dawn, and Rebels animated TV series. All of which then leads into A New Hope, then the novels Heir to the Jedi and Battlefront: Twilight Company. As of now, there is no new novels set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, though I expect we’ll see some in the next few years. Also note that there are some Young Adult titles, like Lost Stars, that is part of this new unified canon, but while they should be counted, most will not be read by me or (even) casual readers. Maybe the hardcore fans will?

This, of course, leads us to Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars: Aftermath, the first novel in the NEU that is set months after the events of ROJ. Much like Zahn’s Thrawn series, while the Emperor and Darth Vader, along with the second Death Star are gone, the galaxy is not as free from the grip of the Empire as some would believe. A vacuum has been created and many, both Empire loyalist and criminals, are seeking to fill that void:

“As the Empire reels from its critical defeats at the Battle of Endor, the Rebel Alliance- now a fledging New Republic- presses its advantage by hunting down the enemy's scattered forces before they can regroup and retaliate. But above the remote planet Akiva, an ominous show of the enemy's strength is unfolding. Out on a lone reconnaissance mission, Wedge Antilles watches Imperial Star Destroyers gather like birds of prey circling for a kill, but is taken captive before he can report back to the New Republic leaders. Meanwhile, on the planet's surface, former Rebel fighter Norra Wexely has returned to her native world—war weary, ready to reunite with her estranged son, and eager to build a new life in some distant place. But when Norra intercepts Wedge Antilles's urgent distress call, she realizes her time as a freedom fighter is not yet over. What she doesn't know is just how close the enemy is—or how decisive and dangerous her new mission will be. Determined to preserve the Empire's power, the surviving Imperial elite are converging on Akiva for a top-secret emergency summit—to consolidate their forces and rally for a counterstrike. But they haven't reckoned on Norra and her newfound allies—her technical genius son, a bounty hunter, and a reprobate Imperial defector—who are prepared to do whatever they must to end the Empire's oppressive reign once and for all.”

Much like Stars Lost, this book is also subtitled with “Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and because its “canon” everything revealed here is essentially background information on the new film series. We get glimpses of Han Solo and Chewbacca, whom seem still unable to take orders, and decides to divert their ordered trip to Dasoor when contacted by an old friend who claims the Chewie’s home planet of Kashyyyk is about to fall after the Empire’s rule and she could use his help. I’m guessing this is a set up for a novel down the line and another reason why Han and Leia go their separate ways (beyond other reasons) we see in the new film. We also get glimpses into the idea that most people, especially those in the Outer Rim, think both the Sith and the Jedi are myths –hell, even most of the commanders in the Empire believe this as well. This idea, as we saw, was continued in The Force Awakens. And, of course, we visit Jakku, which appears to be the ass end of the Outer Rim and makes Tattoine seem like busy Coruscant. Reading this here, explains a lot.

But while we get all of this, the book itself is a bit of a let-down, somewhat. There has been much criticism thrown at him for his writing style, and it is something that can be distracting –it is very different and will not be every ones cup of tea. Good or bad, though, Wendig is given a lot of story to set up here, and maybe his urgency style is perfect for this new trilogy. Much like the old EU, these new ones will not always focus on our main characters, and beyond Han and Cheiwe, the only other known character to appear in this book is Wedge, yet he’s regulated to merely a side role. What disappoints me is that none of the main roles in the book are that interesting, except maybe the villainous Sloane (who was introduced in Star Wars: A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller), Sinjir, the former Loyalty Officer of the Empire (and one of two gay characters in the book), and the bounty hunter Jas. Norra and her son teen son Temmin, who appears to grow up and be played by Greg Grunberg in The Force Awakens, are tropes. Yes, Temmin takes one of the silliest and easiest to defeat droids from the prequel series, the B1 Battle Droid, and turns it into a lethal bodyguard, but beyond that, they’re stock figures, with stock problems that will eventually be tied up by novels end. So no surprises there.

Perhaps I should not look at this book as novel, per se, but more of a bunch of new ideas that will be filled out in other novels and, perhaps, just added background information for the hardcore fans of Star Wars movies. This new unified canon may have irked the fan of the original Expanded Universe, but it’s very clear that at least this time, most of the novels will be forthcoming will all be connected –however tenuously- to The Force Awakens, Episode VIII, and Episode IX.