Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler


Author: Octavia E. Butler
Title: Parable of the Sower
Narrator: Lynne Thigpen
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2000. [Originally published in 1993]
Summary/Review:

Set in the near future (Butler published the book in the 1990s, but it’s set in the 2020s), Parable of the Sower is a dystopian science fiction novel about the societal collapse caused by climate change, peak oil, and corporate greed. Things are in a bad state already when the novel begins but conditions gradually deteriorate for the characters in the story much like they do for the mythical boiling frog.  Butler also makes it clear that the dystopian state affects some people far earlier, much like they do in our real world, with the homeless and addicted gathered in the edges of the community.

The narrative begins in a walled community in Southern California.  The novel is written as the journal of Lauren Oya Olamina, a teenage girl as the novel begins and the daughter of a minister.  Lauren has a condition called empathy which causes her to feel the pleasure and pain of people near to her, a condition that can be crippling.  She also develops a belief system called Earthseed based on the concept that God is change, and thinks that Earthseed could be a means to saving humanity.

As Lauren grows into young adulthood, she faces tragedies in both her family and greater community.  But she also shows great resilience and leadership as she pulls together a group of allies (or as she would call them, the first Earthseed congregation).  The novel is a grim depiction of a world that doesn’t seem as far removed from our own reality of the 2020s as I would like.  But it is also a novel that offers a lot of humanity and hope.

Favorite Passages:

“No. No, Donner’s just a kind of human banister.” “A what?” “I mean he’s like … like a symbol of the past for us to hold on to as we’re pushed into the future. He’s nothing. No substance. But having him there, the latest in a two-and-a-half-century-long line of American Presidents make people feel that the country, the culture that they grew up with is still here—that we’ll get through these bad times and back to normal.”

“That’s all anybody can do right now. Live. Hold out. Survive. I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.”

Freedom is dangerous but it’s precious, too. You can’t just throw it away or let it slip away. You can’t sell it for bread and pottage.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Treason
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019) 
Summary/Review:

In the finale of this trilogy of books, Grand Admiral Thrawn finds himself in the middle of a conflict between Governor Tarkin (of the original Star Wars fame) and Director Orson Krennic (of Rogue One fame).  Even more pressing is an incursion by the war-like Grysks from the Unknown Regions into Imperial territory.

To fight this new threat, Thrawn must work with his own people, the Chiss, with Admiral Ar’alani leading a fleet in an uneasy alliance with Thrawn and the Empire. This book also marks the return of Eli Vanto, who has defected to the Chiss, and it is great to have him back.  Commodore Karyn Faro is established as another great character who becomes a great leader under Thrawn’s tutelage.

It’s interesting that Thrawn is associated with the evil Empire, because he’s an excellent example of leadership in the way he establishes Vanto and Faro as his proteges and then trusts their experience. It’s very different than the rest of the Empire where the “leaders” either step over one another or cower in fear. Brierly Ronan, Krennic’s deputy who is sent along to watch over Thrawn, is a slippery character who is more typical of the Empire we know, although his character also develops in interesting ways.

This book is excellent at building intrigue and gamesmanship.  The only flaw in my mind is that when the story finally builds to a climactic battle, it’s not all that interesting to read about, compared with how exciting it would be depicted in film.  There is more Thrawn to read, as Zahn is now publishing an Ascendancy trilogy about Thrawn’s experiences before he joined the Empire.  And this trilogy of novels I just completed also tie in with the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, so I’m going to have to catch up on that too!

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: La Jetée (1962)


Title: La Jetée
Release Date: February 16, 1962
Director: Chris Marker
Production Company: Argos Films
Summary/Review:

Working my through lists of all-time greatest movies means watching lots of very long movies, so I was relieved that this one is only 28 minutes. The joke was on me though, because this is an intense 28 minutes of experimental film set in a post-nuclear war Paris. The movie is almost entirely made up of a montage of still images.

The plot involves scientists researching time travel and finding a man (Davos Hanich) who has a strong memory from his childhood of a young woman (Hélène Châtelain) standing on the observation platform (“la jetée”) at Orly Airport.  The post-apocalyptic setting, time travel, and even the significance of an airport reminded me of the 1995 movie 12 Monkeys, so it was no surprise to find out that La Jetée was a credited inspiration for that movie.

La Jetée is a chilling but surprisingly beautiful film, with sound effects and music carrying a heavy load and Hanich and Châtelain expressing a lot of emotion and nuance in their acting (or perhaps more accurately, “posing”).

Rating: ****

Book Review: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Alliances
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, [2018]
Summary/Review:

This second book of the new trilogy, after Star Wars: Thrawn, teams up Grand Admiral Thrawn with Darth Vader. In a parallel narrative, a younger Thrawn still with the Chiss Ascendency meets up with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars. In both stories their mission brings them to the remote planet of Batuu, which just happens to also be the planet used for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney theme parks (if Disney’s going to Star Wars synergy like this, at least they did it very well!).

Thrawn and Vader make an interesting pair because they seem to be the only individuals who can trip one another up. There’s a lot of tension due to their mutual mistrust and competing goals.  While I didn’t think it was a good as the first book as it gets bogged down in plot details, it’s still a compelling novel.  I also felt Eli Vanto’s presence was missing from this book.  Still, I’m looking forward to book 3.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Del Rey Books, 2017
Summary/Review:

Grand Admiral Thrawn, the antagonist introduced into Star Wars literature in the now non-canonical Heir to the Empire, is reintroduced in this Disney canon novel. This story serves as something of an origin story, beginning with Thrawn being found by the Imperial Navy after apparently having been exiled his mysterious species of people, the Chiss Ascendancy.  The novel depicts his rapid rise through the ranks in the years after the end of the Clone Wars. Thrawn is known for his brilliant observational and strategic skills, and throughout the novel the reader gets  to see his internal monologue on how he unravels the words and mannerisms of others.

The novel is also told from the perspective of Eli Vanto, a young cadet from Wild Space who inadvertently becomes Thrawn’s translator and assistant. At first resentful of the interference in his own career path, Vanto grows to respect Thrawn and also rises in the hierarchy of the Imperial Navy.  They have Holmes and Watson kind of relationship.  In a parallel story, Arihnda Pryce rises to become governor of her homeworld Lothal through similar skills of cunning.

This novel is less war story or space opera and more a work of political intrigue.  Zahn does a great job at taking these putative villains – Thrawn, Vanto, and Pryce – and making them captivating and even sympathetic characters.  The audiobook has great production values and Thompson does great voicework, giving Thrawn the reserve of Anthony Hopkins and Vanto a Appalachian accent befitting his background in Wild Space. This is an excellent novel and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: The Vast of Night (2020)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: The Vast of Night
Release Date: May 29, 2020
Director: Andrew Patterson
Production Company: GED Cinema
Summary/Review:

This movie is framed as an homage to The Twilight Zone, called Paradox Theatre in the movie, although stylistically it is far more cinematic than the tv show. The movie is set in a small town in New Mexico in the the 1950s when most people have gathered together to watch the high school basketball game. Two outliers are a pair of teenagers, Fay (Sierra McCormick) who is working her shift as a switchboard operator, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), the DJ at the town’s radio station. Both encounter a strange audio signal on the phones and the radio and begin an investigation that may lead to aliens!

This movie is the antithesis of an action movie with the focus on character studies, intimate moments, and the slow revelation of the source of the mysterious sounds. McCormick is great as the earnest Fay, and Horowitz teeters on the verge of unlikable in his performance as someone whose intellect overshadows his interpersonal skills. The movie is beautifully crafted with impressive tracking shots that establish the locations within the town and remarkable sound design.

I feel this movie is a treat for film buffs but may be less enjoyable if you’re just looking for a popcorn flick.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: The Mandalorian (2020)


Title: The Mandalorian
Release Date: 2020
Creator/Head Writer/Showrunner: Jon Favreau
Episodes: 8
Production Company:  Lucasfilm | Golem Productions
Summary/Review:

WARNING: LOTS OF SPOILERS HERE! DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THIS SEASON AND WANT TO BE SURPRISED.

The Mandalorian returns with Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) on a quest to reunite The Child (a.k.a. Baby Yoda) with the Jedi, assuming he can even find Jedi in the galaxy. Familiar faces from season 1 return to support The Mandalorian on his quest, including Peli Motto (Amy Sedaris), Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Greef Karga (Carl Weathers), and Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr).  But this season is also about tying in The Mandalorian with wider Star Wars lore, featuring the live action debut of the characters Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff) and Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), as well as the return of Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), now teamed with Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen).  The biggest character reveal, though, is reserved for the final moments of the season finale.

Each episode is still largely self-contained with the Manadalorian typically involved in carrying out a favor for someone in return for information that will help him on the quest.  Tantalizing details of the larger story trickle out but also there are some huge revelations through the season.  For example, we learn that “Baby Yoda” is actually named Grogu, and that he was a youngling who survived the Jedi Purge.

Pedro Pascal continues to provide some wonderful, nuanced acting in the lead role. His character learns a lot about his people and his beliefs this season and makes some dramatic choices out of his love for Grogu. The rest of the cast also remains uniformly brilliant, and I particularly like Bill Burr bringing a bit of morally ambiguous wisdom to his Space Boston character. The Mandalorian is a great mix of action, drama, mystery, and humor and remains the only show my whole family eagerly watches together.

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Book Review: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Heir to the Empire
Publication Info: Spectra (1992)  Summary/Review:

In 1991, I was a freshman in college when news that the Star Wars saga would be continued in books caused a flurry of excitement. In 2020, when an avalanche of new Star Wars content was just announced it may be hard to understand how excited we were to see the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, Han and company. As the generation who grew up on Star Wars, we were promised a nine movie saga, but after Return of the Jedi there was eight long years of nothing.  And so if the story was going to continue in books, we would read books.

The novel picks up five years after the destruction of the Second Death Star and defeat of the Emperor with the New Republic government now attempting to win the peace.  But there are still parts of the galaxy under Imperial control and they are coalescing under a new leader, Grand Admiral Thrawn.  In many ways, Thrawn is a more compelling villain than Palpatine as he has no sensitivity to the Force and instead uses his intelligence and studies his enemies’ culture to predict they’re behavior.  Even with this book being de-canonized to the Star Wars Legends, the character of Thrawn has reemerged in other media, because he’s just that interesting.

I enjoyed this book on several readings and found it a good adventure, although it is very bookish and probably would’ve never translated to the screen.  On the other hand, my wife and I read this to our Star Wars-obsessed daughter and my wife found it boring, while my daughter lost interest with only a few chapters to go.  So, your results may vary.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Return of the Jedi by James Kahn


Author: James Kahn
Title: Return of the Jedi
Publication Info: New York : Ballantine Books, 1983.


Summary/Review:

The original Star Wars trilogy finishes off with this competent novelization that doesn’t veer off all too much from the movie. The best part of the book is that it does get inside the characters’ minds to give their thoughts during key scenes of the story. The Vader, Palpatine, and Luke dialogue is also expanded. Also, the ghost of Obi-Wan tells Luke that Owen is Obi-Wan’s brother and that Luke & Leia’s mother lived until they were 4 (which works much better than the retcon of the prequels). All in all it’s an engaging retelling of a great story.



Rating: ***

Book Review: The Empire Strikes Back by Donald Glut


Author: Donald Glut
Title: The Empire Strikes Back
Publication Info: Del Ray, 1980
Summary/Review:

The best Star Wars film gets a competent and straightforward novelization. As is the case in all novelizations, there are scenes that didn’t make it into the movie, especially when Luke is training with Yoda. The book does make it feel like more time is passing in both Luke & Yoda’s stories and the Millenium Falcon storyline whereas in the movie it feels as if everything happens in a couple of days. The only startling change is that Yoda is blue instead of green! And Harrison Ford’s famous improvised line “I know” is not in the text. It’s an entertaining read for fans of the movies.

Rating: ***