Book Review: From a Certain Point of View: Star Wars by Various Authors

Author: 40 Authors
TitleFrom a Certain Point of View: Star Wars
Narrator: Multiple Narrators
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group

This book celebrated the 40th anniversary of Star Wars in 2017 with a collection of 40 original short stories by 43 authors. Each story is told from the perspective of a different character in the Star Wars universe, hence the title cribbing Obi-Wan’s famous line “From a certain point of view.”  The authors include a lot of well-known writers such as Rae Carson, Claudia Gray, Chuck Wendig, Wil Wheaton, Elizabeth Wein, Jeffrey Brown, Kieron Gillen, Nnedi Okorafor, Jason Fry, and Greg Rucka.  I suspect that if you are a bigger fan of science fiction/fantasy writing, you will recognize even more of the authors!

No character is too small to be a point of view character, thus there are tales told by droids, Jawas, Tusken raiders, bounty hunters, rebels of various ranks, stormtroopers, Imperial officers, a numerous other sentient beings.  A few bigger characters including Greedo, Obi-Wan, and Biggs get their stories as well as characters like Yoda, Palpatine, and Lando Calrissian who don’t even appear in the movie!  Perhaps the strangest story of all  is “Of MSE-6 and Men” by Glen Weldon, told from the perspective of a Death Star mouse droid and written in some kind of machine language, that tells the story of an ill-fated romance between a storm trooper and Grand Moff Tarkin.

Some stories are better than others, and I like it when the author takes a small character and builds a whole world around their life before and after their appearance in the film’s narrative.  Other stories are less successful because they basically just have the scenes and dialogues repeated from the movie interspersed with the thoughts of the point of view character.  The stories are arranged in sequence to the movie’s plot and things really get bogged down with five different stories about characters in the Mos Eisley cantina, and again during the Battle of Yavin.

Some of my favorite stories include:

  • “The Sith of Datawork” by Ken Liu, about an Imperial bureaucrat who is able to fix things in the records for the gunnery captain who failed to shoot at an escape pod.
  • “Laina”  by Wil Wheaton, which tells of a widowed rebel sending his young daughter away for her safety in a story which packs a lot of emotional punch.
  • “An Incident Report” by Daniel M. Lavery, in which Admiral Motti files a formal complaint against Darth Vader for force choking him.
  • “The Baptist” by Nnedi Okorafor is a life account of Omi, the creature that grabs Luke in the trash compactor.
  • “Time of Death” by Cavan Scott details Obi-Wan’s experience of joining with the Force immediately after his death.

I get why they wanted to go with 40 stories for the 40th anniversary, but this book could be improved with some judicious pruning.  Nevertheless, this is a fun book and I’m sure Star Wars fans will find something in it they like.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan

Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Ship of the Dead
Narrator: Michael Crouch
Publication Info: [New York, New York] : [Listening Library], [2017]

This is a terrific conclusion to the Magnus Chase and the Guards of Asgard trilogy.  Magnus Chase and his allies must stop Loki from bringing about Ragnarok.  To accomplish this, they sail on a banana-colored ship to various locales including the court of the ocean god Aegir, York, England, the frozen lands of Norway, and the palace of the winter goddess Skadi.

Magnus is once again joined by the Islamic Valkyrie  Samirah (who is fasting for Ramadan), the elf Hearthstone, the dwarf Blitz, and the genderfluid child of Loki, Alex Fiero.  In fact, Magnus takes a romantic interest in Alex which I think is wonderful for the children reading this, both children learning about their own gender expression as well as cisgender children who get to see a positive representation of a transgender character in a book.  Three more characters who had smaller roles in previous books join the team and play a bigger part in the finale: Thomas Jefferson Jr., a young Black soldier who died fighting in the American Civil War, Mallory Keen, who died attempting to defuse a bomb in Belfast during The Troubles, and a Norse mercenary berserker  Halfborn Gunderson.  Each member of the team ends up having a task that leads them to their final confrontation with Loki.  And Magnus draws upon their teamwork in his battle of words, or flyting, with Loki that serves as the novel’s terrific climax.

I highly recommend all three of these books to readers of any age.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan

Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Hammer of Thor
Narrator: Kieran Culkin
Publication Info: Listening Library (2016) 

I really enjoyed The Sword of Summer, Rick Riordan’s first installment of the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Series, and there is no sophomore slump in The Hammer of Thor. Magnus Chase is joined once again by the Valkyrie Samirah, the dwarf Blitzen and the elf Hearthstone.  The book also introduces a new character, a genderfluid teenager and child of Loki recently arrived to Valhalla as an einherji.  Together they are tasked with finding Thor’s missing hammer Mjolnir, while Loki attempts to trick and tempt them to his

Their adventures take them to Provincetown, Hearth’s unhappy home in Alfheim, a bowling alley for giants, and the bar from Cheers.  Like the predecessor the book is full of humorous mythological allusions, impossible predicaments, and a lot of Boston or Boston-ish locations.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Being John Malkovich (1999)

Title: Being John Malkovich
Release Date: October 29, 1999
Director: Spike Jonze
Production Company: Gramercy Pictures | Propaganda Films | Single Cell Pictures

Being John Malkovich is an extremely weird movie, perhaps even weird to revisit 20 years later when the real-life Malkovich is no longer a prominent celebrity.  This movie is so weird that I even forgot that there’s a chimpanzee in this movie named Elijah, and there’s even a scene of Elijah having a flashback.  The basic premise of this movie (and it’s heavy on premise) is that struggling puppeteer, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), takes a job filing on the mysterious 7-1/2 floor of a New York City office building.  There he discovers a small door hidden behind a filing cabinet that serves as a portal into the mind of John Malkovich (John Malkovich).

Craig and his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) start a business charging $200 a pop for people interested in being someone else for 15 minutes.  To complicate things further, both Craig and his wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz) fall in love with Maxine, but she is only attracted to them when they are inside Malkovich, creating – dare I say – a bizarre love quadrangle.  Being John Malkovich is a weird movie, but I wouldn’t say it’s weird for being weird as it goes to some unexpected places.  You could poke at the many plot holes in this movie (like, how do they keep driving to New Jersey so quickly), but where’s the fun in that.

This may be the first movie where Cusack isn’t playing a nice guy.  Not unlike Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, the movie takes advantage of our fondness for the actor to have the audience on his side even though he is a clearly messed-up individual.  I have to say as a content warning that there’s a scene where Craig beats on Lottie and that ties her up and puts her in a cage that is very disturbing.  But if you can get past that, Being John Malkovich is a funny, albeit unsettling, modern day fantasy film.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: The Mummy (1999)

Title: The Mummy
Release Date: May 7, 1999
Director: Stephen Sommers
Production Company: Alphaville Films

The Mummy is a lot of things: a remake of a Universal horror classic with 1990s sensibilities, a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of adventure with CGI, and a star vehicle for Brendan Fraser (who doesn’t seem to appear in big movies anymore). It’s kind of trash, but it’s fun trash if your looking for a goofy adventure.  Fraser plays adventurer Rick O’Connell who guides librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) to Hamunaptra, the lost city of the dead for Ancient Egypt.  They face rival parties of treasure hunters and awaken the mummy of Imhotep.  Chaos ensues until everything is resolved as you might expect.  The movie gets extra credit for having Evelyn balancing on a library ladder and drunkenly proclaiming “I am a librarian” which have served well as memes in the library community for so many years.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Sword of Summer
Narrator: Christopher Guetig
Publication Info: Listening Library (2015)

Magnus Chase is a 16-year-old boy who’s lived on the streets of Boston for 2 years since his mother was killed in a supernatural attack.  He’s avoided his estranged Uncle Randolph, who lives in a Back Bay mansion opposite the Leif Erikson statue and is obsessed with Viking artifacts, but as the book begins Magnus is forced into contact with his uncle.  This unleashes a series of events where Boston is attacked by fire giants and Magnus dies in battle.  And that’s just the beginning.

Much like Rick Riordan’s books about Camp Half Blood where Greco-Roman myths are real and demigods are trained on Long Island, The Sword of Summer incorporates Norse myth.  In fact, the two series are in the same universe as Magnus is cousins with Annabeth Chase of the Camp Half Blood books!  We follow Magnus as he is brought to Valhalla, learns of his godly parentage, and goes rogue on a quest to prevent Ragnarok, or the apocalypse.  I think Riordan is even more clever in how he winds Norse myth into a young adult fantasy adventure, and most of all this book is funny as Helheim.

Magnus travels with a great team including the Muslim Valkyrie Samirah “Sam” al-Abbas from Dorchester, Blitzen, a dwarf with a great sense of fashion, and the deaf and magical elf Hearthstone.  I’m definitely biased, but I love how Boston is set as the “hub” of the Norse worlds and that many scenes are set in Boston, or in an alternate version of the city.  Although it should be noted that Eben Norton Horsford’s discredited theory of  Norse navigators sailing up the Charles River were rooted in the white supremacist belief that an Italian like Christopher Columbus was unworthy to be the person who “discovered” the Americas.

I think this is my favorite Riordan book yet, and I look forward to continuing the trilogy of Magnus’ adventures.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Visitors (1993)

Title: Les Visiteurs 
Release Date: 27 January 1993
Director: Jean-Marie Poiré
Production Company: Gaumont

I watched the hit French comedy The Visitors back in the 1990s and remember it being a funny, Monty Python-style comedy.  It surprised me that the French could be so crude. The story involves a 12th-century knight, Godefroy de Montmirail (Jean Reno) and his servant Jacquouille la Fripouille (Christian Clavier) who through the machinations of a wizard are to travel through time to right a mistake.  They are accidentally sent to late-20th century France instead, where they meet Godefroy’s descendant Béatrice (Valérie Lemercier) and learn that Jacquouille’s descendant Jacques-Henri Jacquard (also Clavier) now runs the Montmirail castle as a hotel. Chaos ensues as Godefroy looks for a way to return to his time, while Jacquouille begins to like the opportunities for a peasant in post-Revolutionary France.

This movie is not the laugh riot I remember.  If anything, it seems to lack ambition for telling a bigger story and taking advantage of the culture clash and fish-out-of-water elements for comedy.  Instead there are a lot of gags involving people hitting other people and breaking things, which gets old fast. I don’t know why I liked it so much all those years ago, but it still does have certain charm. Reno is great at never breaking from his serious character despite all the madness around him.  Meanwhile Clavier is like Rowan Atkinson in his ability to be funny by doing things that are very dumb.  It’s a mystery why this movie became such a global hit, but despite all its flaws I still have a soft spot for The Visitors.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Jungle Cruise (2021)

Title: Jungle Cruise
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Davis Entertainment | Seven Bucks Productions | Flynn Picture Company

Disney theme parks typically adapt movies into attractions, but sometime it goes in the other direction, successfully with The Pirates of the Caribbean, and not so successfully with The Haunted Mansion. The Jungle Cruise was an opening day attraction at Disneyland in 1955 and actually was inspired by the True-Life Adventure movies, a series of nature documentaries that Walt Disney produced from 1948 to 1960, as well as the non-Disney movie The African Queen.  The ride was originally planned to cruise past live animals but when it was realized they would mostly sleep during the day, they created audio-animatronic animals in naturalistic settings.  Over time, the Jungle Cruise skippers began incorporating jokes and puns into their educational narration, and then some sillier scenes were added to the ride.  All of this history is summed up well in a recent three part series of the Disney History Institute Podcast.

The Jungle Cruise seems almost destined to for film adaptation, the question is whether or not that adaptation was worth it.  I’d say yes.  Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt, returning to Disney after starring in Mary Poppins Returns) is an adventurous botanist pushing against the chauvinism of the scientific world in 1916 who goes to the Amazon to seek a legendary tree said to be able to heal all illnesses.  She hires Frank (Dwayne Johnson, returning to Disney after starring in Moana) a punning trickster of a riverboat skipper to carry her up the Amazon to the tree.  Along for the ride is Lily’s stuffy brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall).

The film is carried by Blunt and Johnson who have a great chemistry.  The story is designed to undermine gender roles, but doesn’t make the mistake of pushing to far in the reversal.  Lily and Frank each have strengths and they each show vulnerabilities.  Even MacGregor proves not to be as useless as he initially appears.  While Jungle Cruise is undeniably formulaic, there are some twists in the plot that are genuinely unexpecting.  And as a delivery system for jokes and action sequences it is effective.

The downside of Jungle Cruise is that it is way too long.  The movie may have been pared down if they chose one antagonist to develop instead of two.  Instead the crew of La Quila have to contend with the German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) pursuing them in a submarine as well as the cursed conquistador Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez).  For a movie set in Brazil, there is a distinct lack of Brazilians among the many European characters.  Indigenous people are still represented stereotypically even if it’s done as part of another gag about reversing expectations.

Jungle Cruise is a summer popcorn flick with some underlying substance, but not too much that it goes beyond just being a fun ride.  In that way it is a worthy of the Disney attraction that gave it its name.


Book Review: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

Author: Kelly Link
Title: Stranger Things Happen
Publication Info: Small Beer Press (2001)

Kelly Link’s collection of short stories take place at various locations around the world, most with a young woman as protagonist.  The tales, for the most part, are grounded in reality but contain elements of fantasy, fairy tale, or horror as if each story is haunted by something outside of reality.  Some stories are better than others but I didn’t find any of them particularly satisfying, if that’s even something one can ask of fiction.  Still Link has a vivid imagination and as this was her first story collection it could be worth checking out her more recent fiction.

One thing I do need to do is make a note about where I find out of books I add to be reading list.  While I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, I am glad I read it, and I really wonder what inspired me to put on my TBR list in the first place.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Amélie (2001)

Title: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain
Release Date: 25 April 2001
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Production Company:
Claudie Ossard Productions | UGC | Victoires Productions | Tapioca Films | France 3 Cinéma | MMC Independent | Sofica Sofinergie 5 | Filmstiftung | Canal+ | France 3 Cinéma

Life’s funny. To a kid, time always drags. Suddenly you’re fifty. All that’s left of your childhood… fits in a rusty little box

French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet specializes in making films set in fantastical worlds.  In Amélie, he makes a fantastic world out of contemporary Paris, a world of wonders created in the mind of its protagonist Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tatou in the role that made her a worldwide superstar).  Amélie is shy young woman who works as a waitress at a cafe and finds pleasure in the simple joys of everyday life. When she finds a box of a child’s treasures hidden in her apartment she surreptitiously returns it to the now middle-aged man who hid it decades before.

Seeing the joy that the box brings to the man, Amélie dedicates herself to anonymously performing acts of kindness for others.  She also begins to pursue a shy young man, Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), whom she observes collecting discarded pictures from photo booths. While Amelie is full of sweetness and charm compared to darkness of Jeunet’s earlier films with Marc Caro, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, some of the things Amélie does would be really creepy in real life.  Nevertheless, Tatou’s performance is brilliant and is one of the best examples of an introvert as protagonist that I’ve ever seen in a film.

In addition to Tatou there are some great performances by an ensemble cast that includes Rufus as Amélie’s father, Serge Merlin as The Glass Man, a wise older neighbor with brittle bone syndrome, and Jeunet film regular Dominique Pinon as a stalker-ish cafe patron who Amélie sets up with the hypochondriac tobacco counter clerk played by Isabelle Nanty.  André Dussollier narrates the film with a documentary-style gravitas that contrasts wonderfully with the magical realism of the movie.  Amélie is only my third favorite Jeunet film after The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen, but dang is if it isn’t a fantastic bronze medalist.

Rating: ****1/2