Book Review: Attack of the Clones by R. A. Salvatore


Author:R. A. Salvatore
Title: Attack of the Clones
Publication Info: Random House Publishing Group, 2002
Summary/Review:
Like its predecessor, this book is an improvement on the film it novelizes. Primarily this is due to the fact that it includes a lot of scenes where minor characters get fleshed out, such as Shmi and Lars and Jango and Boba Fett, as well as some deeper insight to Anakin’s relationship with Obi-Wan. Presumably these were in early scripts but were cut to prevent the movie being 5 hours long. There are scenes that I wish had made the cut in the film, such as when Padme brings home Anakin to meet her family.  It is much better at developing their relationship than any of the scenes that made it into the movie.  Unfortunately, all that painfully bad dialogue of Padme and Anakin expressing their anguished love is also present in the book (plus the author seems creepily obsessed with describing Padme’s beauty).  So this is no masterpiece of literature but it does offer some things that you don’t get from the movie.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray


Author: Claudia Gray
Title: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice
Publication Info: New York : Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.
Summary/Review:

Continuing my daughter’s fascination with the Star Wars universe, we read this novel which is a prequel to the prequels. It tells the story of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi on an assignment several years before the events of The Phantom Menace. The central part of the story is that neither master nor apprentice feels that they have bonded.  In this story they end up in conflict with one another over following the rules and yet that conflict brings them closer together.

This book is complex for a Star Wars story with the events arranged around palace intrigue as well as issues of corporate influence on government and the enslavement of people.  The book has some interesting twists (I didn’t expect who would be the villain) and introduces the eccentric Jedi Rael Aveross, an old friend of Qui-Gon who is serving as a Lord Regent to a young queen.  I really like the character development in this novel of both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as well as the many new characters (members of the royal court, corporate agents, and even an interesting pair of jewel thieves who ally with Qui-Gon).  It makes The Phantom Menace all the more depressing for sacrificing opportunities for great character moments to bland CGI special effects and comic relief.

Favorite Passages:

“It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch—it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.”

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Labyrinth (1986)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: Labyrinth
Release Date: June 27, 1986
Director: Jim Henson
Production Company: Henson Associates, Inc.| Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

Surprisingly, I’ve never watched this Jim Henson production before, despite the fact that it came out when I was 12, the ideal age to watch this movie. I remember hearing that the movie was a dud, and believed the criticism, although in later years I learned that Labyrinth became a cult classic.  There’s a lot of talent involved in this movie – Jim Henson as directory, George Lucas as producer, Monty Python’s Terry Jones as the main scriptwriter, and David Bowie lending his talents to his performance as Jareth the Goblin King and his music to the soundtrack.

One might expect something huge from this confluence of talents and be disappointed by the smaller film that ensued. If you take the film on its own though, it is a wonderfully imaginative story that draws up fantasy folklore with impressive visuals. Jennifer Connelly plays the fantasy-obsessed teenager Sarah who resents having to babysit her infant brother and asks the goblins to take him away.  When Jareth does in fact take Toby to his castle he allows Sarah 13 hours to solve a labyrinth to recover her brother. The resourceful Sarah uses her knowledge of fantasy tropes to find her way through with the help of the cowardly dwarf Hoggle (Brian Henson), the gentle giant Ludo (Ron Mueck), and the overly courageous fox Sir Didymus (performed by Dave Goelz and voiced by David Shaughnessy).

Compared with present day fantasy and adventure movies, there’s very little preamble before Sarah jumps into her adventure in the labyrinth, and a brief conclusion as well.  While more grounded in the real world than The Dark Crystal, the movie is wonderfully fantastic with impressive sets, puppetry, and animatronics. On the downside there’s some poor chroma key work in some scenes especially the one where the Fierys are dancing.  This film falls into the part of Bowie’s career when he was making over-produced, synth heavy pop, although the songs are better than his work on Tonight.

I’m so used to actors in their 20s playing teenagers that I’m impressed that Connelly was actually 16, because she seems older. She does a good job of portraying the age when one begins to put aside childish things for grownup responsibilities.  Although, as we learn, those childish things will always be there when we need them.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow


Author: Alix E. Harrow
Title: The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Narrator: January LaVoy
Publication Info: Hachette Book Group, 2019 

Summary/Review:

Set in the early 20th century, this story is told by the young January Scaller.  Her mother is presumed dead and her father works for the New England Archaeological Society (an old boys club type of place) traveling the world to collect new items for their collections.  January escapes into books and then later discovers doorways that lead her into new universes (it’s all a rather obvious metaphor of books as portals).

Through the doorways and support from some friends (and a large dog named Bad) after her father is also assumed to be dead she is able to learn the sinister secret of the New England Archaeological Society and her guardian Mr. Locke (what a metaphorical name in a book about doors!).  She also uncovers her family history and her place in the world, or more accurately her place in the multiverse.  The book is an interesting enough concept, and I certainly wanted to read to the end to find out what happened, but it didn’t really grab me either.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks


Author: Terry Brooks
Title: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Publication Info: New York, NY : Del Rey Books, 1999
Summary/Review:

My daughter is really getting into Star Wars now, and I told her we should read some of the books together. She decided she wants to read the novelizations of the films in episode order.  I remember liking the novelizations when I was a kid too.  Back in 1999, after being disappointed by the movie, a friend recommended this book to me because it was written by a well-regarded fantasy writer, Terry Brooks.

Then, as now, I enjoy the novel more than the movie.  Maybe it’s because it has time for scenes that provide greater depth to the characters and their relationships than seen on screen.  Maybe because Brooks does a good job of providing the thoughts and points of views of several characters.  Maybe it’s because Jar Jar is so much less annoying in print.  At any rate, reading a Star Wars book is fun.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Dark Crystal (1982)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

TitleThe Dark Crystal
Release Date: December 17, 1982
Director: Jim Henson & Frank Oz
Production Company: Henson Associates | ITC Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Technically, this is not a Muppets movie but it was the next step in Jim Henson’s vision to create an original live-action movie featuring only puppets and animatronics on screen. I remember watching this several times as a child (and imitating the Chamberlain’s “hmmms”) even though I didn’t like it much due it’s creepiness and the fact that I didn’t enjoy fantasy stories as child.

Rewatching this as an adult I still find a lot of the characters and scenes to be nightmare-fodder and now that I’m more well-versed in fantasy, I can tell that the plot is not at all original. It’s particularly disappointing that the gelfling Jen (voiced by Stephen Garlick, performed by Jim Henson) is a protagonist with no real character beyond being the one to heal the crystal.

With those reservations, The Dark Crystal is nevertheless an impressive work of film-making. The puppet and animatronic work is jaw-dropping and shows a clear progression from the innovations made for the two Muppet movies that preceded it.  The movements and facial characteristics of the Skeksis is particularly impressive.  The movie really creates a dream-like alternate world unlike anything else seen on film.

I can see why this movie was not received well at the time of its release and why it’s also become a cult classic.  It’s easy to miss the greatness of what The Dark Crystal is for the even greater possibilities of what it could’ve been.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Highfire by Eoin Colfer


Author: Eoin Colfer
Title: Highfire
Publication Info: New York : HarperPerennial, [2020]
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I received an advanced reading copy of this novel through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Eoin Colfer writes fantasy fiction primarily for the young adult audience, but this book is most decidedly not for children.  Nevertheless, the book is about an ancient dragon Wyvern, Lord Highfire (“Vern” for short) who has retired to the Louisiana bayou where he reclines in his La-Z-Boy wearing a Flashdance t-shirt and drinking vodka while watching Netflix. A series of incidents bring him together with a teenager named Everett “Squib” Moreau, who has a penchant for trouble but is trying to do his best. Squib eventually becomes Vern’s assistant or “familiar” despite the latter’s mistrust of humans.

Squib has the misfortune that the corrupt and sociopathic constable Regence Hooke is insistent on dating Squib’s single mother.  Squib gets into deeper trouble when he witnesses Hooke murdering a rival.  Hooke learns of Vern from following Squib and comes up with a plan to use the dragon to take out a New Orleans crime lord and take control of drug and arms trafficking.

Parts of this book are a delightful blend of fantasy and gritty, everyday life on the Louisiana bayou.  I especially enjoy the growing relationship between Squib and Vern.  Unfortunately, Colfer seems to revel in detailing Hooke’s cruel and psychotic mind.  It gets to the point where Hooke feels like he’s the main protagonist of the story and he’s not someone I want to spend a lot of time with.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: Damaged Goods by Russell T. Davies


Author: Russell T. Davies
Title: Damaged Goods
Publication Info: Virgin Book, October 1996
Summary/Review:

Many of the Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s were written by authors who either wrote for the original tv series or would go on to write for the revived series.  This novel is significant in that it’s author Russell T. Davies would go on to be the showrunner who brought Doctor Who back to our tv screens in 2005.  In common with the later tv series, this story is set on a council estate with a family named Tyler.

Much like in Andrew Carmel’s Warlock, a narcotic drug turns out to be an alien force.  In this case, cocaine contains an ancient Gallifreyan weapon called the N-form.  The weapon draws power from a pair of twins separated at birth who are connected by a vampiric waveform.  The whole plot is rather complicated, but it’s setting in the depression and poverty of Thatcher’s Britain is a well-formed world for the Doctor, Chris, and Roz to unlock a mystery and a human tragedy.

Rating: ***1/2

Other Doctor Who Virgin New Adventures:

Movie Review: The Black Cauldron (1985)


TitleThe Black Cauldron
Release Date: July 26, 1985
Director: Ted Berman and Richard Rich
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation |
Silver Screen Partners II
Summary/Review:

Taran (Grant Bardsley), a boy with dreams of the glory of battle is given the responsibility of caring for an oracular pig, Hen-Wen (Frank Welker). On his journey he’s distracted by Gurgi (John Byner), a creature who seems to be the illicit love child of The Lorax and Elmo (and maybe the ancestor of Dobby the House Elf), and Hen-Wen is abducted by the minions of The Horned King (John Hurt, channeling Emperor Palpatine).

Taran breaks into The Horned King’s castle and while helping Hen-Wen escape, he is imprisoned himself. He is released by fellow prisoner Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) who has a magical orb. Together they rescue another prisoner, a minstrel named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), who has a magic harp.  Along the way, Taran picks up a magic sword and all three escape the castle.

They are reunited with Gurgi and follow Hen-Wen’s tracks where they fall into a whirlpool leading into an underground fairy kingdom.  They determine that they must destroy the powerful weapon that The Horned King seeks, the Black Cauldron. Now numbering six, with Hen-Wen and the fairy Doli (John Byner) on their quest.

I’m afraid of given away the plot of the first half of the movie.  But it’s hard to set up all the characters and plotlines going on here any other way.  It’s unfortunate, because with the surplus of characters, there isn’t much character development.  Eilonwy and Fflewddur Fflam don’t really do much after we’re first introduced to them except act as cheerleaders for Taran, and their magical objects play no role in the outcome of the movie.  After setting up needlessly complex interweaving plots, the end of their quest is rather anticlimactic.

For a Disney animated feature, The Black Cauldron is known for being darker and scarier than usual. And yet, the animation style is trademark Disney and there’s lighter, comic relief stuff everywhere that gives the film issues with tone.  I think they would have done better to adopt a bold, new animation style to match the high fantasy of the story and set it further apart from traditional Disney fare. As is the case with most 1970s/1980s animation, you have to imagine how this movie would’ve improved with the resources and TLC given to the Disney Renaissance films.  All that being said, it’s a moderately enjoyable story with a great lead character on a journey of discovery and should be enjoyable for parents and braver children.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Onward (2020)


Title: Onward
Release Date: March 6, 2020
Director: Dan Scanlon
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

I was looking forward to seeing this movie when it came out last month, but suddenly we weren’t allowed to go out to the movies.  Thankfully, the Disney company decided to release it to Disney+ this weekend.

Onward is set in alternate universe of mythical creatures – elves, centaurs, unicorns, cyclops, pixies, fauns, and the like – where long ago beings determined that technology was easier than magic and settled into a quotidian suburban lifestyle.  Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is an elf celebrating his 16th birthday. He never knew his father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), who died of an illness just before he was born and has been raised by his mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt).  Barley is an enthusiast for Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games which he believes are based on factual historic records.

Laurel presents the boys with a gift from their father that she’s held until they were both 16.  It is a magic staff with a gem and a spell that will bring Wilden back for one day so he can see his sons.  While trying to cast the spell, Ian gets distracted and is only able to generate his father’s legs before the gem disintegrates.  Barley determines that they must perform a quest to find another gem before the 24 hours expire.

I won’t go into the details and be all spoilery for a brand-new movie, but Ian and Barley indeed go on their quest.  As should be expected from a Pixar movie there are many clever gags drawn from mythical creatures, and the ultimate point of this journey is that Ian and Barley will discover more about themselves and one another.  And, of course, there are heartrending moments of familial love, so be prepared to weep.

Rating: ****