Monday, November 12, 2012

Star Wars: Scoundrels

I haven’t read a Star Wars book in years, but this one sounded like too much fun to pass up: Star Wars: Scoundrels, a novel by fan favorite author Timothy Zahn that essentially stars Han Solo as Danny Ocean in Ocean’s Eleven. Due out in early January 2013, Scoundrels takes place between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, bringing together Han, Chewie, Lando, and a new cast of characters going after a score so big it will solve Han’s little Jabba problem forever, if only they can pull it off.

As is often the case with con/heist stories, at times the plan is so convoluted that I couldn’t quite tell what was going on, but to be honest that didn’t really bother me. I was impressed with Zahn’s ability to give the eight new characters on Han’s temporary “team” disparate enough personalities that I didn’t need to refer to the dramatis personae list at the front of the book – and that’s in addition to the villains, who are equally distinctive. While it didn’t seem entirely natural to watch Han trusting people, having the patience for the long con, and advising people to get some sleep and turn out the lights on the way to bed, this book somehow works just fine. It also doesn’t hurt to have a Star Wars novel with familiar faces, set in this time period instead of decades later, when apparently almost every character has developed Jedi abilities and has temporarily turned to the Dark Side of the Force. I understand additional “standalone” novels in this timeframe are forthcoming.

Minor spoilers below....

There are some slight missteps that might have been caught in editing (and since I read a galley, maybe they still will be). “Chance cubes” are “chance cubes” except for the one time they’re referred to as dice. There’s a reference to “middle grade children” that throws me out of the Star Wars 'verse and back into suburban America, as well as extensive use of dumbwaiters during the heist. While I can buy that alien cultures might invent convenient “elevators” to move food and supplies from one story of a residential building to another, it seems a bit odd that they would also name theirs after mute food service personnel. There’s even a football metaphor. Who knew that in a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, they not only have Earth sports, but 20th century American sports? As said, these lapses are minor, but they do briefly interrupt the mood, and give the effect of slight carelessness.

On the plus side? There are some fun inside jokes, including an entire scene that pays homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a funny paragraph in which Han sums up his role in A New Hope as only he can, and an amusing poke at scriptwriters who like to use turbolifts as the ideal spot for heroes to break free from their captors. Heck, I even enjoyed constructing a little chart that might help a writer deal with Chewie’s dialogue, for which there’s apparently a “no direct translation” rule. We never know what he actually says, only that there is a limited number of iterations in which he growls/rumbles/warbles his agreement/assent/question/objection. (To be fair, I think the “no direct translation” rule is probably the right way to go, but the limitations thereof are still amusing.) I liked the use of “kriffing” – not as good as frakking or frelling, but not bad.

And there’s a direct poke at the “who shot first” question – not that it’s really a question, in my opinion. It doesn’t go quite in the direction I’d have chosen, or as far as I’d like, but it’s still cute, and there’s only so much you can sneak through the approval process, I’m sure.

Overall verdict: if you find the shelves upon shelves of Star Wars books at the bookstore too much to contemplate, with their complicated storylines that sometimes seem to be spinning their wheels, this is the book that will let you get back to basics and have a lot of fun while you're doing it. Besides, who can resist that cover?
Read more!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Easing back in with "Recently Read".....

It's been a while since I've posted, although I'm still reading pretty steadily. So instead of one long review, I'm going to ease back in with short notes on some recent reads.

First up, I read the first two delightful books in the series The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. In the first book, The Mysterious Howling, 15-year-old Penelope Lumley takes her first governess position upon leaving the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. In the second book, Penelope and the children visit London for the first time. (The cover of the second book is to die for!) I love Penelope's poetic-yet-no-nonsense soul, and the charm of these children who end words in tapered-off howls, such as when they call Ms. Lumley "Lumawoo-oo." These books aren't the slightest bit realistic, and they don't have the amount of closure that I normally want in books, but they're so wonderful that I just don't care.

Another recent read was Thicker than Water, the fourth book in Mike Carey's Felix Castor series about a hard-boiled exorcist trying to keep it together while both his personal life and London-in-general continue to detereorate in terms of undead activity. This isn't your standard approach to zombies and werewolves, however; some of them are practically upright citizens, or at least don't particularly want to cause madness and mayhem. In any case, this fourth book bogged down a bit in the middle, and I'd almost made up my mind not to seek out the fifth book, but then this ended on a big reveal and a big bad development, so now I'm going to have to keep on with it. I hope the fifth book has the closure I'm looking for since there is no sign of a sixth book.

Around Christmas, I like to read a few Christmas-related books. This year I tried I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley, a Flavia de Luce cozy mystery. I was intrigued by the Tennyson-inspired title, and I thought the feisty 11-year-old heroine might be spunky like Theodosia Throckmorton or Kat Stephenson. And Flavia was spunky, but she was also riddled with contradictions: she's an 11-year-old who plays with explosive chemicals and Bunsen burners, but she still believes in Santa Claus, and her attempts to chemically catch Santa in the act are silly and serve little other purpose than to put Flavia on the roof at a key point in the plot. A big mystery in Flavia's past in hinted at; considering that this is the fourth book in the series, the author is being pretty stingy with information (although to be fair, I haven't read the first three books). My guess (possible spoiler if I'm correct) is simply that Flavia's mother died giving birth to her, or gave up her life in some other way to protect her baby, and this is what causes the sibling tension in the house. It's definitely not enough to keep me interested, I'm afraid.

I can't go into much detail on this next book since I was contracted to write a lengthy essay on it, but I do highly recommend 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami if you're in the mood for something different. At almost 1,000 pages, this is no quick read, but rather a slow yet fascinating examination of an alternate 1984 in Tokyo and how it affects the two main characters.

Finally, a nod to an absolutely adorable picture book that I've already bought for one nephew and plan to buy for another in the future: Shark vs. Train, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. This book is about two little boys who go to the toybox and pull out a shark and a train, which they then pit against each other in a series of escalating silly contests, like which would be better at jumping off a high dive, which would be better at basketball, and so on. The shark and the train smack talk each other throughout, making this a witty book that parents won't mind reading more than once. Read more!