Book review: Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m a fan of Mary Robinette Kowal. Her books are fun, too. Her latest is “Ghost Talkers”, an alternate history set in France during World War One. Ginger Stuyvesant is an American medium helping the British Army by gathering intelligence from the dead. British soldiers have been conditioned to “report in” when they die in order to provide information that might prove beneficial.

The British have gone to great lengths to keep this unique program under wraps, but it now appears the Germans have discovered what they’re doing, and Ginger and all the other mediums may be in serious danger. Then her fiancé is murdered while investigating a possible traitor, and Ginger finds herself in a desperate race to find the traitor before more people she cares about are killed.

Kowal loves history and research. You see this in her “Glamourist Histories” series. You see it in many of her short stories. She also loves creating strong yet realistic female protagonists. “Ghost Talkers” fulfills all expectations in both areas. We also get to experience the horror of World War One, from relative safety behind the lines to the cold, muddy, brutal front. We get to see brave men and women doing their inconceivable duty. There are no superheroes here–just normal people doing extraordinary things because that’s what they have to do.

Kowal writes speculative fiction, but I got the distinct feeling she could have dropped the spiritualistic aspects and given us an equally compelling historical fiction had she chosen. And I’ve have read it just as gladly. The spiritualistic aspect provides the backbone of the story, but her characters, her settings, and her attention to detail make the story worth reading.

I do wish I could have read the ending in a single go instead of sneaking a few minutes here and there as it ended up. I’m uncertain if it was her ending being a little loose or my reading of it being too disjointed from continually dropping and picking up the threads again. The important elements were resolved admirably, but a few things seemed a little forced. It was well worth it, regardless. It was a fun escape.

I think there’s material here for at least another novel or two, but I suspect this is a one-off. Either way, I’ll more than likely be in line to pick up whatever she writes next. She’s a fun read.

Book Review: Word Puppets, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Short story collections don’t get as much attention as they used to. Most writers these days make their names for their novels as few venues for short fiction survive the post-magazine era. Having just read Mary Robinette Kowal’s anthology “Word Puppets”, I realize we may be losing something meaningful in the process.

I first became aware of Mary (It’s hard to call her by her full name, partly because it’s so long, and partly because she’s been a long-time member of the Writing Excuses podcast team, where they always refer to her as Mary. Plus I’ve met her and conversed with her on several occasions) as a guest on, and later host of, Writing Excuses and found her take on things fascinating. I read her debut novel “Shades of Milk and Honey” and became an alpha reader on “Valor and Vanity”, a later book in the same series.

Last year she was one of the Guests of Honor at LTUE and I had the opportunity to meet her in person and introduce my daughter and her friends. She was quite gracious. So when I saw her anthology of short stories a few months back I had to pick it up and see how she does with short fiction.

I love her short fiction.

I also liked how her stories were presented chronologically. For an aspiring writer like myself it’s fun to see that even the pros weren’t always as good as they are now. Some of her earliest stories, while not by any measure “bad”, were simply not as strong as her later ones. Some were simply entertaining. But many of her stories resonated with me in various ways that were like brief bursts of flavor, like a piece of rich chocolate or a bite of juicy orange. They weren’t the full meals that novels are, certainly, but they were delicious snacks–and many rose above “mere snackitude” to achieve “experience” status.

I also feel like I learned a few things along the way, such as wine-making from “Waiting for Rain” or epicureanism from “The White Phoenix Feather”, and even some puppetry in “Body Language”. She explores themes of aging and of relationships. She plays with alternate histories. She reimagines fairy tales and Sherlock Holmes. She plays with your mind while exploring the problems of cloning. She explores the whimsy of playroom toys conspiring against one another. Some stories are suspenseful and action-packed. Others are slow and poignant. Some are brief and whimsical. She covers a lot of ground and a wide range.

It was much more fun than I expected. I read another anthology late last year, but found this a much more enjoyable experience. This was something akin to reading Ray Bradbury’s short story collections. She’s no Ray Bradbury, but only Bradbury wrote like Bradbury. I enjoy her style, her perspective, and the variety of subject matter she addresses. I even enjoy reliving the joy of punch cards, and if she continues to write more stories in that universe (I count three so far) we may have to coin the term “keypunch-punk” for it. (I hope she does write more, mind you, and not just for the morbidly satisfying idea of someone crashing an asteroid into Washington DC early in the Cold War.)

Mary makes a strong case for the continued life of the short story genre. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but I’m glad I took the trip.

Book Review: Pretty Little Dead Girls, by Mercedes M. Yardley

If I had to summarize “Pretty Little Dead Girls” it would be one of the best books to ever survive torpedoing itself. But let me back up.

“Pretty Little Dead Girls” is a novel that transcends genre. It’s horror told in a whimsical, romantic style, as if the narrator is a slightly eccentric middle-aged woman telling you dark stories while serving you tea and lemon cake in the sunshine of her veranda–and you feel no reason to distrust either the tea or the lemon cake. The subject is truly horrible, but bathed in a delightful golden light.

The story centers around Bryony Adams, a woman who, from her earliest years, has been marked for death. Everyone can see it in her eyes. She will die, die soon, and die horribly. And yet she hasn’t–so far. Her ill-fated fragility draws those who want to protect her. And Death itself seems to have bad aim, continually missing her and killing people around her. Sooner or later, however, Death will not miss…

Let me say straight out that Yardley’s use of language and tone in this novel is magical. I nearly felt guilty for taking such delight in such darkness. I loved this book, or I wouldn’t be reviewing it at all. It’s a compelling story that draws you in and pulls you along.

And yet there were enough typos and editing mistakes–at least in the POD format–that I got thrown out of the story several times and am still a little irritated about that. I can endure a few typos–I find those even in big publisher releases–but the errors were too many and too large to ignore. It could have been so much better a book if only I could have just read onward without being interrupted by the novel itself.

If you’re one who is not bothered by such things you’ll likely love this book. Perhaps it’s cleaner in other formats, such as the ebook. There are ample 4- and 5-star reviews on Amazon, and none of the ones I read mentioned the editing. So it’s entirely possible other formats are just fine, or I’m just too picky.

In any case, if you’re interested in a different sort of novel; a quirky, magical experience that somehow bestows an airy quality to the darkest of subjects; this is one worth trying out. I understand why it’s reviewed so favorably. It’s worth reading around the editing problems. Also, aside from the dark subject matter, there is nothing else to disqualify this book. There is no bad language, there is no sex. The violence is only moderately, poetically graphic–and I have to admit it’s probably better with it, as otherwise it would be easy to accuse this book of sugar-coating. Horrible things happen in this book, and we should be shocked by it, however briefly. Whatever genre it may be, it is at least horror.

I might never have picked this novel up if not for my recent forays into horror. This is probably the best non-horror-horror novel I’ve ever read. I just wish I could make a few quick clean-up edits.

Book Review: The Devil’s Only Friend, by Dan Wells

“The Devil’s Only Friend” is the latest installment in Dan Wells’ John Cleaver series that began with “I Am Not a Serial Killer”, and nearly ended with “I Don’t Want to Kill You.” After several years and some other projects, Wells is back, and so is John, our troubled sociopathic teenager (no, that’s not being redundant, and if you read the series you’ll understand why a lot better) who studies serial killers with the specific goal of not becoming one of them. He created his own set of rules to live by to keep himself from going down that path.

The problem is, all that study also equipped him with the tools to identify other serial killers, so when a series of murders occurred in his small home town he was the first to understand what they were up against–or so he thought. He was right, but very wrong at the same time. This killer was something supernatural–a demon, for lack of a better word. Suddenly John was in over his head and having to bend or even break his own rules in order to protect his town.

Had that been the only one, he would have been fine. But the subsequent books revealed there are many demons, or “Withered” or “Cursed”, among us, and some of them didn’t take kindly to John’s killing one of their own. He was forced to fight others to protect his town, and each time the personal cost to John increased. After losing his mother and the only girl he truly loved he’s got nothing more to hold him to his home town. In the beginning of “The Devil’s Only Friend” we find he has been recruited by a special FBI team tasked with hunting down these demons. His ability to understand the Withered and identify their weaknesses is invaluable, but the team tends to keep him at arms length and out of the main action, which provides him with little outlet for his sociopathic urges.

But while on assignment in another town John and the rest of the team suddenly find themselves up against a rapidly growing number of Withered, and it appears the hunters are becoming the hunted in an all-out war. John must operate at his best if they’re to survive–and yet increasingly working as a team only gets in his way and puts lives at risk. And to further complicate things, Brooke, a girl he used to have a crush on, and who got caught in the middle of one of his previous demon hunts, is part of the team and his only remaining link to his former life. It’s going to be hard enough to keep himself alive, but he’s got to try to save her, too.

This fourth installment is very much in line with the previous novels, though most akin to “I Don’t Want To Kill You”. But since John is now part of a professional team, it’s pretty clear that Wells is going to have to “up the stakes”, too. The body count (and body parts) rises rapidly in this one, and though Wells tries not to be gratuitous, he doesn’t shrink from description, either. Gore is not the main focus, but it’s there. Language is kept minimal, and there’s no sex to speak of. For suspense/horror, it’s tame enough I can handle it. The real suspense comes from unraveling the clues and riding the twists and turns in the plot–of which there are plenty. Though Wells gives you hints at the twists, I seldom figured them out too far beforehand, and though I picked up on several, there were many more that I didn’t. Not that it mattered. I mainly enjoyed following along and feeling the cold thrill of those “Oh-my-heck-this-changes-things!” moments.

Wells keep the pacing taught enough to keep you turning pages, but not to the point of wearing you out. My only regret was that I was unable to read the last seventy pages without interruption, so the final showdown and payoffs didn’t have the impact for me it could have. I would recommend you save the ending until you have the time to finish uninterrupted.

In general I’m a fan of Wells’ style, though not all of his books have had the same appeal for me. His Serial Killer series, however, continues to deliver. It’s not a genre I generally follow, but Wells does it well enough I gladly keep coming along for the ride.

Book Review: Pack Dynamics, by Julie Frost

It’s become a tradition of sorts; every year at LTUE I buy a book to support a new author. This year it was Julie Frost. I met her in the dealers room where she was sitting at the WordFire Press table working on her laptop with a sign in front of her saying “Please disturb the writer!” So I disturbed her, and we had a great conversation. And in the process I picked up her debut novel Pack Dynamics, even though I suspected it wasn’t really “my thing.”

Pack Dynamics is a paranormal/urban fantasy, though you could also argue some sci-fi elements as well. In short, it’s about werewolves and vampires and nanotech, and a veteran with PTSD who has a very bad, no good, really awful couple of weeks. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t all no good. But it starts off with him being tased, abducted, interrogated and dumped in the street, and it’s mostly downhill from there. Caught up in the middle of industrial espionage and powerful people with dark secrets, he’s in for one doozy of a ride.

I can’t say I’ve ever been that interested in the fur, fangs, and claws genre–never read Twilight and probably never will–so this was a bit of departure for me. But I do try to broaden my horizons from time to time. I have no idea if this novel was typical of the genre, but perhaps I’ll find out at some later date. (Come to think of it, Monster Hunters International was in the same vein (no pun intended), so perhaps I’m not such a stranger to the genre as I thought.)

The focus of the book is on action, and the interpersonal relationships between the characters, which is probably why I enjoyed it. It didn’t dwell on backgrounds, ancient curses, or even a lot of character backstory, but just gave enough of a skeleton to hang the plotline on. It’s a lean book, so those who like a lot of exposition, background, explanations, etc., will likely be disappointed. But I found it an entertaining read that kept me coming back until I finished it. I enjoyed the character arcs of two of the main characters (the other two don’t really have an arc, really, which is okay). There weren’t a lot of amazing twists, but that also doesn’t bother me. Far too often writers throw in twists just to show how clever they are. If the plot is engaging and fun without a twist, I’m fine with that. Nor does every plot have to be world-threatening. This one is primarily character-threatening, and that’s good enough for me.

Pack Dynamics took me in some new directions, with some interesting characters. It didn’t come with a lot of gravitas, nor was it intended to. Frost, I believe, was trying to write a fun, entertaining story, and for me she succeeded. I look forward to seeing what she come out with next.

There is language, some gore, and some allusion to “offstage” sex. I’d probably be okay with my fifteen year old reading it, but perhaps not my eleven year old just yet.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Second thoughts

Spoiler Alert: If you still haven’t seen SW:TFA and don’t want it spoiled, don’t read on.

I finally watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the second time, on video at home. My initial analysis remains unchanged. But I noticed a few things this time around, and in the light of several months’ distance and discussion–not to mention having seen the trailer for Star Wars: Rogue One (or Rouge One, as it seems to be trending on Twitter) earlier that day.

Much of my secondary reaction was nit-picking. For example: Luke had better have a darn good explanation for sitting out the destruction of The Republic and nearly the Resistance. Who does he think he is, Yoda? Seriously, why wait until all your resources are gone to try and do something about an evil that even manages to out-evil the Empire? Second: If Rey is such an awesome mechanic and pilot, and even worked for/with the junkyard master to fix up the Millennium Falcon, why does she have to scavenge? Also, why do tie fighters only have a rear gunner when Finn is flying in one?

The First Order has got to be one of the most incompetent organizations around; they even make the Empire look efficient. If you’re trying to capture a droid intact, why on earth would your first resort always be air strikes? And I know they have to look evil, but what is the point of slaughtering everyone at every camp you raid? If people realize they have nothing to lose by resisting, then you’ll always meet resistance. Why not instead give people the reassurance that surrender and cooperation is a valid option, and then reward those who truly cooperate and help you get what you want?

And why are they so afraid of The Republic? They had what, four planets? The New Order clearly has enough resources to build a planet of their own, implying that they have a lot of planets under their control, so how did The Republic manage to stand up against them for so long?

Don’t even get me started on Starkiller Base. There are so many things wrong with that concept that I don’t want to go there.

But in spite of all that (and many other things) I still liked it. I still like Rey, Finn, and Poe. It was good to see Han, Chewie, and Leia in action again. Though the bit about Han always wanting to borrow Chewie’s bowcaster got old fast the second time around. They’ve been together how long? And he’s just now realizing how cool it is? Is there some reason why he can’t get one of his own?

But in light of some of the recent commentary around both this movie and the upcoming Rogue One, there’s something else I want to look at: Rey as the feminist hero some people have been waiting for.

There is no denying that she’s a strong female character who can look out for herself. They maybe even tip their hand a bit too much trying to point that out, though their turning some tropes on their heads was fun. And while she gets much–if not most–of the screen time among all the characters, she’s not the hero of this movie in any measurable sense. She and Finn really share the credit for getting BB-8 back to the Resistance. Both of them look the future in the face and try to run. But that’s where the similarities end.

Sure, she’s the one in love with the idea of the Resistance. She’s the one who initially saves BB-8 (but it’s Finn who knows its value and what to do with it). And she is clearly quite disappointed when Finn decides he’s had enough and wants to get out. She tries to talk him out of it. And not five minutes later, when Rey finds out she has some great destiny, she runs too. And though in running she helps BB-8 avoid capture, she effectively takes herself out of the rest of the conflict. Sure, she escapes on her own and eventually rescues Finn. Yes, she learns to embrace her Force-user destiny, but mainly for self-preservation. And while she is clearly a strong candidate to be a Jedi, it’s never really explained why it’s her that goes to find Luke Skywalker–or at least, why her alone. At that point she has done nothing to directly aid the Resistance and has only proven herself someone who gets captured.

Finn, on the other hand, when he sees people in danger, continually runs to help, even when he’s trying to get away from it. He comes back when the First Order attacks Maz’s complex, hoping to warn people. He fights (though his duel with the storm trooper was entirely unnecessary and rather dumb). And though he’s supposedly deathly afraid of the First Order, he volunteers to help the Resistance attack Starkiller Base in order to get a chance to rescue Rey. He’s the one with knowledge and experience that makes it possible for the Resistance to defeat the First Order and stay alive to continue fighting. If there’s a hero to the movie, it’s Finn. Rey may be the Resistance’s hope for the future, but it’s Finn that keeps that hope alive for now. And he’s the one who stands up to Kylo Ren long enough for Rey to recover–and injures and weakens Kylo Ren further in the process.

So Rey gets more attention in the movie, but her actual contribution is negligible. Sure, she’s strong and capable. She’s loyal. She’s got Force powers, and she’s able to learn quickly “on the job”. She has a lot of potential as a character. And she even still gets to maintain her femininity. But she’s not the hero of this movie in any real plot sense. Her value comes more from what she doesn’t do. She doesn’t sell BB-8. She doesn’t completely abandon everyone in her headlong flight from destiny. She doesn’t give Kylo Ren what he wants. She doesn’t let him turn her or kill her. And she doesn’t turn down the invitation to go find Luke. But she could have done all of that and the Resistance still would have been wiped out.

Finn’s contribution was absolutely essential in the critical path of the movie. He rescued Poe Dameron, who later proved instrumental in destroying Starkiller Base. He had important knowledge about Starkiller Base that provided the Resistance with a chance. He recognized and capitalized on the opportunity to use Captain Phasma to get the shield down. Anything else he did after that was icing on the cake. He single-handedly saved the Resistance.

I certainly don’t object to Rey’s character. I think a strong female character in an action movie is just fine, so long as it makes sense (River Tam punching guys twice her size and making them fly backward ten feet doesn’t make sense). It may even be overdue. And it may be that over the run of the plot arc Rey ends up being more critical to their overall success than Finn. If not, and she only plays her part in the ensemble effort I’m absolutely cool with that. I’m fine with her character.

And it’s because of what she doesn’t do in the movie that I’m inclined to give the writers the benefit of the doubt that she wasn’t meant to be some over-the-top feminist icon or that the movie wasn’t supposed to send a strong feminist message. That would have been if she’d singlehandedly saved the day without Finn or Poe. And that wouldn’t have been Star Wars, either, because Star Wars was always about the ensemble solving problems through their own contributions.

Now it looks like Rogue One will have a female main character who will be the hero. But that could be premature, too, as we do see an ensemble of characters forming around her. Will Rogue One take the next step toward being the Feminist Star Wars movie? Who knows? I think it would be a mistake if they do, but if it simply includes a diversity of characters because “why not?” and in order to appeal to a broader viewer base…well, what’s wrong with that?

If every one of the new Star Wars franchise movies focuses on a female main character I think that, too, will get old fast, and probably reveal an underlying Message that may turn people off. But simply having strong female characters is nothing new to Star Wars. Leia was always in there kicking butt alongside the men, even if she wasn’t the main focus. Padme had her moments.

So I think the “too many women!” crowd are over-reacting, just like the “Huh?! A black stormtrooper!” crowd was wrong, too. And one movie does not a precedence make. Let’s actually see Rogue One before we decide what they are or aren’t trying to do.

But in the mean time, there’s a clear winner in The Force Awakens that I haven’t mentioned yet and should: The special effects and visuals. We saw a lot of space opera settings in a short amount of time, and every one of them felt right. The tech had the right Star Wars feel. The sets felt like home, even when they were places we’d never seen before. The battle scenes had a realistic feel and weren’t incomprehensible or overwhelming. It’s no accident that, with few exceptions, people are debating over the characters rather than whether or not this felt like Star Wars. Abrams nailed the setting. There were a few questionable choices, but on the whole, I didn’t question what I was seeing, not even the second time around. If anything, I think I liked the settings more than I did with the prequels.

I could have done with less action, but it is what it is. This is a movie of its time, and therefore subject to current prejudices. But yes, I’ll probably be in line to watch the next two movies–to see what they do with Rogue One, and to see where they go next with Rey, Finn, and Poe.

 

Book Review: The Death of Dulgath, by Michael J. Sullivan

I spoke about this book a fair bit last year–you know, the one that was the subject of one of the top most successful Kickstarter literature campaigns ever? Well, I finally got it, and I finally got a chance to read it. Is it good? Yes! Is it $150 good? (the amount I pledged on Kickstarter.) Probably not, but I’m not sure how any book could be. It wasn’t the book alone I was pledging that amount for. Some writers deserve to be encouraged.

So, the novel. The Death of Dulgath is a Riyria Chronicles book, which means while it happens in a specific time in relation to all the other novels, it’s not dependent on any of them. I actually haven’t read The Crown Tower or The Rose and Thorn yet, and it didn’t matter. I don’t think it would even have mattered if I hadn’t read any or all of the Riyria Revelations books yet. It’s intended to be a stand-alone book, and as that it does just fine.

The story picks up with Royce and Hadrian, two rogues-for-hire who have been commissioned to travel to the remote land of Dulgath and advise on how to protect Lady Dulgath, the heiress-to-be. But not everyone wishes Lady Dulgath well, and even fewer wish Royce and Hadrian well. Before long our heroes find themselves up to their necks in intrigue.

This is not a mystery, mind you. You know who is evil and what they are planning well in advance. It’s action-adventure, so instead the book focuses in on how our protagonists get themselves through it all in one piece.

Sullivan delivers the goods. His lush descriptions, fun characters, humor, action, twists and turns–they’re all there. The Death of Dulgath doesn’t break new ground or reveal any earth-shattering information. It can’t. He’s somewhat hemmed himself in on where he can go with his prequels. But that’s not the point. What we’re offered is more fun with Royce and Hadrian, and that’s what we get. It’s a great set-piece novel that further develops how Riyria came to be who they are at the beginning of Revelations without undermining that series in any way.

Also worth the time is the short story Sullivan included at the end of the book. As part of the Kickstarter he wanted to give an undiscovered writer some exposure. Over 700 writers submitted entries. Perhaps twenty made the first cut (I was one of them). T. C. Powell won, with his short story The Methuselah Treatment. He deserved to win. It’s a good story.

Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens

Spoiler alert – If you’d rather not know, read no further.

 

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my kids during the holiday break. They were very impressed. I was less so. I enjoyed it, certainly, but I think I let all the hype get to me. There was much to like, but it wasn’t enough. Or too much. I’m not sure.

The number one problem I had with the movie–and I had it during the movie, which is generally not a good sign–was that they essentially dressed up the plot of Star Wars: A New Hope and made us pay to see it again. I don’t think this was due to a lack of creative talent. This is Disney, for heaven sake. Unless they got the writing team behind all the Old-classics-flipped like “Maleficent” and forgot to tell them it wasn’t a “re-envisioned” movie they should have been able to come up with something more unique than what we got.

No, I think this was a calculated decision. They wanted to get us used to new characters in the familiar setting, so they figured the best way to do that was to give us these new characters doing something we’d subconsciously connect with the original movies. Except it wasn’t so well disguised as that. I was very conscious of it early on, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a writer, experienced at breaking down plots.

But let’s face it, it’s the same story. A rebel spy mission uncovers information vital to the survival of the resistance, but the evil empire intervenes. A droid carrying important information and a trooper carrying important information escape to the nearby desert planet where they are taken in by a local youth who longs to leave but is held there by family obligations. But when the evil empire comes looking for what they’ve lost they are able to escape and encounter a wise, old warrior who takes them under his wing and gets them to a wretched hive of scum and villainy where they can find passage to the resistance.

Meanwhile the evil empire uses their new super-weapon to destroy the chief supporters of the resistance, and hope to use it to destroy the resistance as well. Meanwhile the heroes sneak aboard the super-weapon where they rescue the girl, but the wise, old warrior is killed by his protégé, leaving our heroes to fend for themselves. The resistance launches their attack on the super-weapon, but it’s not so easy. But the girl from the desert planet is able to resist the evil protégé long enough that the hot-shot pilot is able to slip in and blow up the super-weapon.

Really about all that changes is that they broke up some of the roles into separate characters (Finn and BB-8 are both R2-D2, and Rey and Poe are both Luke. Han Solo is Obi Wan and Han Solo both) and shifted some events around in time (the rescue and escape from the Death Star happens at the same time as the Rebel attack).

Is it a terminal problem? No, not really. It’s different enough that I don’t care that much. It’s just annoying they couldn’t come up with something different.

As for the characters, I can like them. I just wish we got to know more about them. We didn’t get to learn that much about any of them, really. But I get the impression it’s not because they didn’t have time. They could have taken the time. I suspect they didn’t want us to know too much too soon, because they’ve already decided that who they are is going to be a major reveal that will stun us all (TM) (ie. Luke, I am your father). Except they were so obviously hiding information from us we’ve already imagined scenarios that will make whatever they come up with seem lame. My entry in the speculation: Rey is Luke’s daughter, and Finn is Lando’s son.

Did they need to give them this background? No. Could they resist the urge? No. Rather than give us interesting new stories they’d rather rehash the same old “twists”. It’s unfortunate, but that’s Hollywood these days.

On the bright side, though there was certainly a lot of action in TFA, it did not achieve gratuitous proportions. Most of it moved the plot along, and none of it rose to the level of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” and its embarrassingly-long, overwrought action sequences. But I must be getting old, because I just don’t get excited about action as the primary plot device any more. They could have toned down the action and given us more exposition and I’d have been a happier man. And get off my lawn!

Ultimately I got the feeling that TFA was intended to be an extended trailer for the rest of the series they have planned. We get an idea of the new characters and the setting, but if we want to know details we’re going to have to go see the next movies. What happens in this movie won’t have that much bearing on the future ones because other than the very basics like “These guys are good, these guys are evil” the plot we got was mainly a process for exposing the details that will be relevant to the next movies.

Was it fun? Certainly! Did it hit all the right notes to convince us it’s the franchise’s heir? Yes. Will I park my backside in a theater chair in 2017 to see the next installment? More than likely.

Book review: The Tournament at Gorlan, by John Flanagan

I haven’t given any of the “Ranger’s Apprentice” books by John Flanagan its own review until now. For one, there’s a lot of them and I’m still catching up, and for another I’d likely find myself repeating myself. Instead I gave a blanket review for the first five books that I figured would serve for the entire series.

But I recently met John Flanagan in person and found him to be someone I’d like to further promote. And his latest book, “The Tournament at Gorlan”, is an excellent book. It’s also the start of a new “The Early Years” series set in the same world before Will was born. This book takes up with Halt and Crowley before Lord Morgarath became the nemesis of Araluen. Instead he is in the process of taking over from the inside by framing King Oswald’s son Duncan and taking Oswald prisoner under the guise of protecting him. He’s dismantled the Ranger Corps, replacing them with hand-picked, useless fops and discredited the old rangers still loyal to King Oswald.

What Morgarath didn’t take into consideration was just how formidable a single ranger can be, let alone a dozen of them when they join forces to save the king.  (By the way, did you know it’s pronounced “Mor-GAIR-uth”? It’s the Australian pronunciation, though Flanagan says the American “MOR-guh-rath” works just as well. He’s not picky. He seems to be an author who views his stories as belonging as much to the reader as to himself.)

Fans of the series will enjoy this book for its “So this is how things happened” viewpoint, but if you’ve never read a single Ranger’s Apprentice book it still won’t matter. Flanagan fills it with adventure, danger, and good-natured humor that had me and my boys almost rolling on the floor. I read it aloud to them, and I found myself as eager as they were to get back to reading it.

The one thing you won’t get here is a satisfactory ending. Like many of the other books, this one leaves the story to be continued. Whether he resolves it in one more book or spread over three or more remains to be seen. I do know we’ll be picking them up regardless of how many it takes. They’re fun books, and while my boys enjoy them a little more than I do, the point is they enjoy them. And John Flanagan seems like a really nice bloke who deserves the wads of cash we keep throwing at him. We’re looking forward to the movie that’s in the works, too.

These and his Brotherband series are aimed at middle-grade readers, and while they are perhaps not the most deep books I’ve read in that category, they are as I’ve said many times, a lot of fun. Sometimes they’re saving the world, and sometimes merely the day, but the characters are all good, honest and loyal people who care about each other and can be counted on to do the right thing. There are lessons in each story, both subtle and blatant, and as a parent I’m pleased that I don’t have to worry about what my kids are picking up from these books. John Flanagan’s welcome at my fire any time.

Book Review – Janitors: Heroes of the Dustbin, by Tyler Whitesides

The final book in Tyler Whitesides’ “Janitors” series is out. “Heroes of the Dustbin” picks up where “Strike of the Sweepers” left off, with Spencer, Daisy, Dez and gang in deep doo-doo. The witches, who they had hoped would set everything right, have returned, but they are only interested in taking over. The odds were already stacked against the Rebel Janitors, but with the witches and the BEM combined against them, things are looking bleak. And now Rebel janitors are disappearing.

Whitesides finishes the series in fine form, throwing in plenty of twists and turns while presenting readers with even more magical cleaning supplies. One of my sons had a discussion afterward about which of all the various glopified supplies we most wished were real, and we had a really hard time deciding. They’re all highly cool and useful!

Pretty much all the threads are tied up (I can’t think of any that aren’t) in this book, and Whitesides says he has no plans for sequels or companion novels. I was satisfied with the ending–as satisfied as I could be, knowing there won’t be any more. And the ending is a doozy. While I saw many other twists coming, there’s no way I could have seen that one.

It’s hard to discuss the book without giving away spoilers for others, so I’ll just say it was a fitting end to a fun series my kids and I have enjoyed reading through the years. It’s aimed at middle grade readers, but the younger YA set will find it fun as well. My boys have re-read the books several times. I can’t speak for all parents (I’ve been a janitor, and was raised by janitors), but I had a lot of fun with these books as well.

Whitesides finds a good mix of action, tension, humor, and coolness. His setting is very much urban fantasy with emphasis on the fantastic, but within the concept he keeps everything consistent, and everything fits nicely across the series. Either he was really good at planning in advance or he’s really good at retrofitting his ideas to fit into what’s gone before, but I was impressed at how well the setting and plot holds together across five novels.

If you haven’t read the Janitors books yet, I’d recommend them. And if you have been following the series thus far you probably don’t need me to tell you to get this last book. For me the only questions that remain are these: What’s Whitesides going to do next, and where do I buy a copy?