William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return (William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, #6), by Ian Doescher (2014)

If you’re a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy–as well as a fan of Shakespearean prose–you will find perhaps no greater treat than Ian Doescher’s “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” trilogy.

The premise is simple, if painstakingly difficult to execute. Doescher took one of Hollywood’s most-beloved film series, and wrote it as William Shakespeare would have.

Well, or might have, if The Bard knew anything about Death Stars and androids.

All three films are reimagined in beautiful Shakespearean language. This takes some serious skill on the author’s part. Not only did he need a firm grounding in William Shakespeare’s writing style, he also needed an expert knowledge of the Star Wars saga.

“The Jedi Doth Return” is the third installment, and it’s a good one. We follow Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia–and loyal droids C3PO and R2D2–as they battle “Jabba of the Hutt” for their freedom. Then it’s off to the forest moon of Endor, where they have to disable the newly renovated Death Super Star’s energy shield, in order that the rebellion can destroy it. Then–huzzah!–peace will reign throughout the Universe.

Ah, if only it were that easy. The evil Emperor Palpatine and his dark henchman, Darth Vader, have other plans. The forest moon housing the energy shield generator is full of Imperial troops. Forsooth! The Rebels were tricked! Thus, Han, Leia, Chewy, and the droids have to team up with small, teddy bearesque creatures called Ewoks to defeat the Imperial troops and disable the shield.

Even worse, Luke Skywalker is bound to face off with Darth Vader, who we know from “The Empire Striketh Back” is actually Luke’s father. Luke’s plan is to turn his father back from the Dark Side, and restore him to his destined place as a Jedi Knight.

If you’re one of the three or four dozen people on Earth who hasn’t seen “The Return of The Jedi,” I won’t spoil the story.

All I can do is tell you that this installment of “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” is an amazing ride.

One small note, though. I think the first two episodes translated slightly better to the Shakespearean treatment, for they worked better at conveying the visual aspects of each film. The entire scenes on the forest moon, Endor, were harder for me to imagine strictly based on the description. I don’t think this was any fault of Ian Doescher’s at all, just that “The Return of The Jedi” had settings far different from the more easily described space sets in the first two. (Even the desert scenes in the first novel were more readily translated to prose)

I remember feeling the same way watching “Return of The Jedi” in the cinema. When it got to the forest moon, I shook my head: What the hell is THIS doing out in space? It was like Star Wars had moved to a redwood forest.

That small observation aside, reading “The Jedi Doth Return” kept a smile on my face, just as the first two installments did. The stories are so familiar to me–and, I imagine, to literally millions of others–that this revisiting was a joy to read.

If you hated the Star Wars films, I doubt you’ll like this book. If you loved Star Wars, but you’re iffy on Shakespearean prose, you might still like it. The language here is not as foreboding and impenetrable as much of Shakespeare’s work, and the narrative construction often cracked me up.

For example, R2D2’s dialogue is, true to the film, a bunch of beeps and blaps and whistles. However, when R2 speaks to the audience in an aside, he’s surprisingly sarcastic and funny.

All in all, Ian Doescher’s “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” series is a joy to read, a true tour de force of writing skill. More importantly, though, it’s an inspired piece of storytelling from an author who’s also–quite obviously–a huge fan of these epic tales.

Highly Recommended

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store, by Robin Sloan (2012)

It’s perhaps ironic that a book about books and a bookstore is so damn hard to write a book review about.

Clay Jannon lost his job at an upstart, high-tech bagel chain. Desperate for cash, he ends up getting a job at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in San Francisco. What soon becomes a bafflement to Clay is that very few of the customers on his overnight shift seem interested in the store’s small new book selection. They ask for volumes from “the wayback” shelves, towering shelves of books with obscure names. Moreover, they don’t pay for the books: those patrons of the Wayback books all have library cards. They bring in one book, and leave with another.

One night, Clay opens one of the books, only to find that it’s gibberish, strings of letters that make no sense.

In time, he meets a young Google programmer named Kat Potente, who helps unlock one mystery of the shelves. This leads to a greater mystery, one involving Festina Lente,a secret cabal of book decoders hidden deep beneath New York City. Clay’s link to Festina Lente comes from Mr. Ajax Penumbra himself.

The Festina Lente group are trying to crack the code of a centuries-old manuscript that may–just may–contain the key to immortality.

Add in a common, though mysterious, font called Gerritszoon, and the entire mystery grows as thick as San Francisco sea fog.

My description doesn’t do this novel justice. The story is so wonderfully quirky and unusual, that it defies easy summation. The characters are unusual, yet so fully drawn, that you can’t help but fall in love with them (well, with MOST of them, anyway).

Clay comes off as being the most normal character in the book, and as such, he’s a perfect narrator. He seems to accept the eccentrics he encounters in stride, and he works with the information he’s given, regardless of how bizarre it may seem.

Author Robin Sloan has created a beautiful mythology living just below our workaday surface. Stir in the aforementioned eccentrics, and you have the recipe for a truly entertaining read.

Most Highly Recommended

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Reading, Writing, and Being Blocked

Most anyone who’s tried to write has experienced writer’s block. Whether it’s a brief college paper or a full-length novel, you sit there, staring at a blank screen, the cursor blinking at you almost mockingly.

I’ve discovered something equally nefarious in my life: reader’s block.

For the past few years, I’ve suffered from severe bi-polar disorder. One of the more difficult symptoms for me has been lack of concentration. Sadly, with this lack of concentration has come the inability to focus long enough to read a novel. Hell, sometimes I can barely get through a magazine article, much less a 300 page book.

We heal, though, and with the help of various medications, I’ve gotten my focus back.

I can’t tell you how liberating it has been to start a book, then actually read it through to the end. Even better, to read, then be able to write a cogent review for Goodreads or my book blog (BooksAndMoviesAndCrap.com)—sheer bliss.

My book-blogging Maven went through a period of reader’s block a while back. She devours a book a day, and she hit a wall, too, so I don’t feel bad.

Where I feel bad is that it was almost six months between book reviews—I hadn’t posted anything this year. I may as well have just shut down my blog altogether.

Happily, the reader’s block has been lifted, at least for now. The fog has cleared, and I’m once more free and able to participate in one of my greatest pleasures: reading.

As a book blogger, I have a bunch of review copies, both in my Kindle and stacked on my desk. To some, plowing through them would seem like a daunting chore. To me, it’s a challenge of love. I want to read and review them, and finally, I am able.

I’ve always taken reading for granted, all the way back to when I was nine and devouring a Hardy Boys mystery every day. I’ll never take it for granted again.

The reader’s block has been intermittent, retreating and attacking over the past three years. This past bout was the longest and worst yet. I’m hoping it’s been vanquished once and for all. In the meantime, I plan to spend my free time with my nose in a book (or staring at my Kindle screen).

Reading has always been my friend. Girlfriends have come and gone, and I’ve had close friends leave my life so thoroughly that I can neither recall their names nor visualize their faces. But books have been steady companions. Sometimes, I’ll see a title somewhere in my blog or on Goodreads, and I won’t remember what the book is about. Once I read the first few sentences of the review, the whole story comes back to me, as rich and real as it was the first time. My real-life memory should be so acute.

I guess this is just a paean to my love of reading, and my lament that it left me for so long. Be the Gods of Literacy willing, this will never happen again.

I’ve also neglected both of my blogs. With the lack of focus came the inability to write anything longer than a lame-ass Facebook status, or the occasional pithy comment. I promise I’ll use some of this renewed focus to do more than drabble out some nonsense every few months. I used to be a reasonably good blogger—at least, I was reasonably frequent. Lately, I’ve had nothing. Here’s hoping that, too, can change going forward.

Anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this. And thanks for your patience. I plan to be back doing what I love to do, and doing it anon. Happy Wednesday.

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The Hound at The Gate, by Darby Karchut (2015)

The Hound at The Gate

Once again, author Darby Karchut shows off her amazing knack for building on each installment of a series, making each book better than the last.

In the Adventures of Finn MacCullen series, Ms. Karchut hasn’t struck a bad note yet, but the third book—“The Hound at The Gate”—surpasses even its two predecessors.

The first two novels mainly focus on the relationship between apprentice Finn “Don’t Call Me Finnegan” MacCullen and his Knight, Gideon Lir. We watch as Finn struggles to learn all the skills required to make him a full-blown knight in the ancient Tuatha De Danaan realm.

The first novel—“Finn Finnegan”—shows Finn’s early training, and the dangers that surround this world so new to Finn. The second novel—“Gideon’s Spear”—shows Finn come into his own, gaining confidence and skill, and showing the traits that will make him a brave warrior in his own right.

In the third installment, “The Hound at The Gate,” Ms. Karchut shifts gears a bit. Rather than focusing solely on Gideon and Finn, she gives us a glimpse into the entire Tuatha De Danaan world.

The location is The Festival, a gathering of Tuatha De Danaan from all over. It’s a sort of ancient warrior Woodstock, with feasts, music, and challenges, a chance for Knights and Apprentices to renew old friendships, and—especially for Gideon and Finn—some old rivalries.

Also attending The Festival—crashing the gates is more like it—are the Amandan, fierce goblin-like creatures whose favorite food happens to be Tuatha De Danaan.

Things turn ugly early, as certain people question Finn’s right to attend The Festival, since he comes from a Knight father and a mortal mother. This internecine tension crackles throughout “The Hound at The Gate,” as if the Amandan weren’t enemy enough.

Repeatedly, Finn finds himself locked in combat for his life and that of his friends.

And those were the good times.

On one night of The Festival, the unthinkable happens. A massive army of Amandan force the Tuatha De Danaan to retreat. Things look hopeless. Only incredible bravery by a handful of Knights stands between being vanquished or living to see another morning.

As the battle winds down, Finn becomes embroiled in yet another quarrel regarding his status, this time due to his uniqueness, not his difference. At stake is his future as a trainee, and the chance that he could be forever separated from his beloved mentor, Gideon.

I can’t stress enough how much of a page-turner “The Hound at The Gate” is. I’ve learned better than to start one of Ms. Karchut’s novels before bedtime, since I know I’ll read all night, and never get any sleep.

As interesting as the lives of the Tuatha De Danaan are in the first two novels, “The Hound at The Gate” gives us a broader glimpse into this mythical world. We see the alliances and rivalries within the group. We learn about the hierarchy and ruling body, and we see all of these things disappear when the Amandan mount a full-scale attack. Knights and apprentices work together, regardless of position or personal feelings. There’s a job to do, and each is prepared to defend the group to his or her dying breath.

I say “his or her” advisedly, because one of the highlights in this novel is the introduction of a feisty female Knight named Kel, and her equally feisty apprentice. Needless to say, these two women leave Gideon and Finn utterly flummoxed, even as they more than prove themselves equals to the men in the group.

Ms. Karchut does a wonderful job providing rich description, setting a visual stage against which the battle will be fought. Then she lets fly with the action.

“The Hound at The Gate” is my favorite thus far of the “Adventures of Finn MacCullen” series, primarily because of the expanded view it gives of the warrior group. While the action is plentiful and powerful, I like the quieter moments as well. Here, we see the people behind the flashing daggers and swinging axes. We can see our own groups mirrored in the Tuatha De Danaan, with all of humankind’s foibles, strengths, and weaknesses.

We also see how all of Gideon’s training has rubbed off on Finn. Not just on the battlefield, but in other areas as well.

Like the rest of The Adventures of Finn MacCullen series, “The Hound at The Gate” is classified as a “middle-grade” book. Also like the rest of the series, “The Hound at The Gate” serves as an excellent read for adults, too.

My only complaint is that Ms. Karchut is making us wait till 2016 for the next installment. That’s a long time to wait for such an exciting series.

Most Highly Recommended

(nb: I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher)

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Suicide Watch, by Kelley York (2012)

Suicide Watch is a website, where people contemplating suicide gather and discuss their pain, their hopelessness, and their plans to end their lives.

Kelley York’s novel, “Suicide Watch,” is one hell of a read.

The book’s narrator, Vincent, has been cast out his entire life. His parents gave him up when he was two-and-a-half years old, and every foster family since then let him go as well. He finally lands with an elderly woman named Maggie, who is completely different. She makes it clear that Vincent’s stay with her will be permanent, and she lives up to her end of the bargain. She cares for Vincent like a son, helps him change to a school that better suits his needs, and serves as a one woman cheering squad.

She dies during Vincent’s high school graduation.

Her estate isn’t much, but it leaves Vincent enough money to live on for a year or so, if he’s careful. His sense of grief and abandonment, of hollowness, is so acute, that he’s driven to think about suicide. He once saw a girl jump to her death from a bridge, and Vincent remembers the peaceful look on her face before she let go of the railing.

A Google search turns up a link to Suicide Watch. Vincent is puzzled, but intrigued enough to sign up. Soon, he finds himself chatting with a girl screen-named Casper, who’s dying of cancer and wants to go out on her own terms. He also meets a boy who goes by the name RoxWell. Roxwell communicates entirely through song lyrics.

The cyber-world of Suicide Watch becomes real when Casper invites herself to meet Vincent for a gallery exhibition. Vincent is still defensive and terrified of people, but he manages to bond somewhat with the vivacious Casper.

On Casper’s next trip down, she brings RoxWell, a sullen eighteen-year-old. The three engage in an uncomfortable evening.

As time progresses, the three become close friends, and Vincent and RoxWell agree to help Casper when she decides to end her life.

The three friends prop-up one another as they face their individual hells, through sadness and loss, through hope, love, and triumph.

The key to “Suicide Watch” is Vincent, through whose eyes we see everything. We’re privy to his thoughts and inner pain, and we can see just how hard it is for him to trust his new friendships. He’s so used to being abandoned and made to feel worthless, that it’s damned near impossible to believe that people really like him just as he is.

I’ve suffered from depression for years, and I found myself highlighting passage after passage from Vincent’s narrative. “Oh, that’s true. That’s dead-on.” That sort of thing. Vincent is drawn that realistically.

Kelley York does a wonderful job in keeping the story under control. It’s not like Vincent meets his new friends, then suddenly begins dancing joyful tarantellas. His distrust of people–individually and in general–is too deep-seated for him to change that abruptly.

Change is gradual, and often painful. Ms. York recognizes this, and she avoids innumerable pitfalls and easy shortcuts she could have used.

In the afterword, she says that this book was the hardest book she’s written, that she gets attached to her characters and finds it heartbreaking when they suffer.

It’s obvious that she means what she says. Life has dealt Vincent a cruel hand. Ms. York doesn’t shy away from his pain. She guides him through it as best she can, hoping–and leaving us to hope–that Vincent finds some sort of recompense in the end.

Most Highly Recommended

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Beckon Me (Beckoners #1), by Cindy Thomas (2015)

College sophomores Karina and Rainey are enjoying a night on the town. They close down an art museum, which was featuring a photography exhibit. An excellent photographer herself, Karina especially was enchanted with the beautiful images.

On the walk back to the garage where they’d parked, the two stumble upon a couple obviously engaged in a very public intimate activity. What happens next reveals that the activity wasn’t consensual, and it gets Karina and Rainey both shot. Karina survives; Rainey doesn’t.

When Karina returns to college for fall term, she sees her friend everywhere, and every time, Rainey looks a little worse for the wear. Soon, Karina discovers she’s not the only one who can see Rainey–as well as other disembodied spirits–and that she might be destined to become a Beckoner, a being whose purpose it is to help souls cross-over to their ultimate destinations.

Karina’s decision isn’t entirely her own. She meets Eli, an impossibly handsome fellow student, and Gabby, who becomes Karina’s new best friend. Now, Karina has to decide whether to embrace her role as a Beckoner, or to remain human. It’s her choice. If she becomes a Beckoner, she’ll be able to help her friend move on to the next realm. She could also encounter terrifying, evil entities called Ceptors, who could damn both Rainey AND Karina to eternal misery.

Cindy Thomas’s novel “Beckon Me (Beckoner #1)” does an excellent job setting up the mythology for what should prove to be an interesting series. Karina is a perfect heroine. Beyond accepting that she’s seeing her dead best friend for real, she’s even more skeptical when she finds out about Beckoners, much less that she may be one. When Eli also sees Rainey’s ghost one day, Karina can’t deny it any longer.

Damnation or not, she has to help her friend–Karina owes her that much.

There are sparks between Karina and Eli, though Karina finds him arrogant enough not to succumb to his advances. Instead, they work together to prepare for her new role, and for all the dangers she will be facing.

I like the triangle between Eli, Gabby, and Karina. Karina is utterly clueless in the beginning why Eli and Gabby don’t seem to like each other. As the relationships gel, we can see their respective roles in Karina’s life.

“Beckon Me” is alternately funny and fascinating, especially as Karina tries to balance her need for Eli’s training, with her lust to hone more than her Beckoner skills.

As prepared as Karina becomes, she’s just not ready when she faces her first challenge, and the stakes are even higher than she imagined.

Cindy Thomas has written a compelling novel. It’s one of those where I kept saying, “All right, just one more chapter.” Then, ten chapters later, I’m still reading. That’s the sign of an entertaining book, and that’s what Ms. Thomas has created here.

Highly Recommended

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Give War a Chance, by P.J. O’Rourke (2003; orig. published 1992)

“Give War a Chance: Eyewitness Accounts of Mankind’s Struggle Against Tyranny, Injustice, and Alcohol-Free Beer” is a collection of P.J. O’Rourke’s various writings from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. If you grew up during the Reagan Years, you’ll probably remember many of the stories in this collection from when they were current events–especially various foreign affairs stories (Iran-Contra, e.g.).

O’Rourke also takes jabs at famous books from the era (Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, and a book penned by former President and First Lady, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter). To me, one of the funniest parts of the book is the party games he’s invented to play using the Carters’ book. It’s…well, you’d just have to read it.

The book’s biggest section concerns the events leading up to The Persian Gulf War, as well as the war itself. The war–if you recall–was the first one really televised live. O’Rourke gives behind the scenes details of how the press coverage really worked, as well as some horrifying situations he encountered during his time there.

To us–more than a quarter-century after most of these stories were originally published–“Give War a Chance” is most-valuable as an eyewitness historical perspective. O’Rourke’s adventures have led him through more than enough dangerous situations.

The real value to fans of the author is his rich, funny prose. It takes a special skill to inject humor into war coverage, for example, but P.J. O’Rourke manages to do just that. He balances his oft-irreverent style with in-depth reporting, without being overly frivolous.

The age and length of these stories would normally earn three stars from me. But I’m giving it four, just because P.J. O’Rourke is so damn funny.

Recommended (Mainly for P.J. O’Rourke fans, and those with interest in that time period’s big stories.)

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