Thursday, December 27, 2018

Looking Back: The Grand Admiral Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn

For my last review, I'm taking a look back to books from the older days of Star Wars, the Grand Admiral Thrawn trilogy. This series, written by Timothy Zahn, first came out in 1991 and is generally credited with relaunching the Star Wars Expanded Universe. If we're being entirely honest about the old EU it was definitely of mixed quality ranging from such debacles as the Jedi Prince series to such weird installments as Splinter of the Mind's Eye. But the Thrawn trilogy, consisting of Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, was widely regarded as one of the best installments of the old EU.

The books are set about five years after the Battle of Endor. The New Republic has taken the galactic capital of Coruscant and is in the process of transitioning to a permanent government. The Empire, divided after the loss of the Emperor and Darth Vader, has been slowly losing ground in the war. But this soon changes when Grand Admiral Thrawn, the only non-human Grand Admiral in Imperial History, returns from beyond the edge of the known galaxy to take command of the Imperial remnants. From the bridge of the Star Destroyer Chimera with the assistance of Captain Gilad Pellaeon, Thrawn stops the New Republic's advance and puts the Republic in a fight for survival.

I originally read these books a long, long time ago when I was in seventh grade, but I remember these books as being fairly good. Coming back to them about fifteen years later and after all the events of the prequels and then the Disney take over and reboot I will say that it's a little weird to come back to the books after all this time. Especially with the cloning plot within this series and the insane Jedi clone Joruus C'baoth when we finally found out what the Clone Wars were, the series feels a little weird to come back to. It's almost like reading quaint older science fiction that used what was at the time cutting scientific theory which has since been discredited or reanalyzed.

The thing that I liked the least about these books was how the characters kept referencing things in the movies. I feel like the people who are likely to read the books are the sorts of people who have seen the movies and so we don't necessarily need reminders of what happened in the movies. Maybe it would be necessary for people who hadn't seen the movies, but if you haven't seen Star Wars then why the heck are you reading a Star Wars book?

But I think where this book really shines is where Zahn introduces new characters and ideas into the series. I will say that Thrawn and Pellaeon were a lot more ruthless than I remembered, which fit them as Imperial officers. But there are plenty of other characters such as Borsk Fey'lya, Garm Bel Iblis, Talon Karrde, and of course Mara Jade. The book does rely fairly heavily on the movie characters: Han, Leia, Luke, Chewbacca, Lando, as well as more minor characters such as Mon Mothma, Wedge Antilles, and Admiral Ackbar. But the introduction of new characters into the series means that we're not just seeing the adventures of Han, Luke, and Leia over and over again.

Overall as dated as these books feel now, and despite the imperfections, I actually think these books are pretty good and worth taking the time to check out. They may no longer be canon, but I think they're fun Star Wars adventures that build on the universe and take it into new directions.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley

Today I'm looking at a book that I read in eighth grade because my English teacher was too lazy to read book reports and just wanted us to do whatever Accelerated Reader tests were available. Fortunately this book was a combination of fantasy, high enough reading level, and on the list of books that my school had tests so I was able to read it. I remembered this book as being really good and enjoyable so when it came up as on sale some time ago I decided I should go back and read it again.

The book follows Harry Crewe, the daughter of a fairly low-ranking minor gentry family who has moved to Damar, the very edge of the Homelander empire, a desert that has stalled the otherwise implacable Homelander advance. Harry adapts to life in the desert but is kidnapped from her home by Corlath, king of the Damarian Hillfolk who live beyond the control of the Homeland. Harry soon learns that the Northerners are planning a massive invasion that will threaten Homeland ambitions, but definitely threaten the very existence of Damar. For whatever reason, Harry is tied up in the mystical power of kelar and her destiny is tied with that of Corlath and Damar.

I actually did a little bit of research on this book and it turns out that it was written in response to a 1919 book The Sheik, a frankly quite awful book in which a strong-willed Englishwoman goes on an adventure, gets kidnapped by an Arabian sheik, who continuously rapes her until she develops Stockholm Syndrome and realizes she loves him. McKinley wrote this book as a response to that novel. I will say as a result with Harry getting kidnapped by Corlath it still feels a little weird, especially knowing that it's written in criticism of The Sheik. At least the destiny and kelar aspects make the kidnapping less bad, it still feels weird to me.

Weirdness aside, I actually really like this book. Harry does kind of come across as a kind of Mary Sue/Chosen One because despite having only six weeks to train she becomes the greatest warrior that the Damarians have seen in years. This is explained partly with her kelar abilities, and to be entirely honest I actually don't mind it so much because I really like Harry as a character. She feels very well-developed as a character and she starts off as confused and irritated as the reader with the situation. She only gradually comes to accept her destiny and still doesn't quite believe it through the book. So despite her being the Chosen One, I really like Harry as a character and it makes the book a lot easier to read.

I will say that I kind of like the prequel, The Hero and the Crown better, but this book is still pretty darn good. If you're looking for a different and interesting book to read, I'd recommend checking this one out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Today I'm looking at one of Pratchett's non-Discworld novels, Dodger. This is a stand alone vaguely historical novel set in nineteenth century London and follows the adventures of the title character, Dodger. Dodger is a tosher, someone whose primary form of employment is to go through London's informal system of sewers to find lost coins, jewelry, and other valuables. On a rainy night, Dodger finds two men attacking a woman desperately trying to escape. Dodger intervenes and drives the woman's attackers off, to return and find that Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew have discovered the unconscious woman. Dodger soon gets embroiled in a plot of international dimensions and faces the possibility that there's something in his life beyond toshing.

I will say that this book, like a lot of historical fiction, seems to veer into Forrest Gump territory from the very beginning. Not only does Dodger meet Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew, but he defeats Sweeny Todd, meets Benjamin Disraeli, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Sir Robert Peel, and Joseph Bazalgette. Pratchett also draws extensively on Mayhew's evidence and other sources about nineteenth century London to create an extensive image of London. Pratchett being Pratchett he had to take a few liberties, but it does create a rather detailed impression of what life was like.

Dodger constantly running into famous people was a little frustrating but honestly that wasn't what concerned me the most about this book. What bothered me was certain things about the character Solomon Cohen. Solomon is a Jewish jeweler who lives in Seven Dials and provides space for Dodger to live and acts as a good influence on Dodger. There's also evidence that Solomon was a spy previously and may or may not have met Karl Marx. But what concerns me is towards the end of the book when Dodger is preparing to go into high society Solomon goes along with Dodger to help him get the best deals. And it turns out that Solomon is very, very good at haggling the best prices, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. There are a lot of really unfortunate stereotypes about Jews as cheap and extremely aggressive hagglers, which Solomon is. So I'm a little concerned that Solomon, a Jew, is also an extreme haggler. It's just a very concerning stereotype and I hate to see it in a Pratchett novel.

Overall, I thought this book was pretty good. I wouldn't say this is one of Pratchett's better novels, but I think it's well in the middle of his books. If you like nineteenth century London then this book definitely has lots of stuff for you to enjoy.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Retief! by Keith Laumer

Today I'm looking at an anthology of Keith Laumer writings, Retief!, which follows the adventures of galactic diplomat Jame Retief as he works to simultaneously ensure peace in the galaxy and subvert the orders of his superiors at the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrine. The reason I first picked up this book was because it was written by Keith Laumer, who as you probably remember was also the creator of the Bolo books which I am such a fan of. This book includes references to concepts Laumer used such as Bolos and the Concordiat but appears to exist in a slightly different universe. However this is definitely more of the pulp sci-fi action that I enjoy perhaps a little too much.

The Corps Diplomatique Terrestrine is a galactic organization with the missions of ensuring harmony between human-settled worlds, as well as protecting human interests in dealings with alien species. However the CDT as an organization has a distressing habit of being hidebound, corrupt, unimaginative, and desperately out of touch with conditions on the ground. It is perhaps only through the actions of imaginative field agents such as Retief that the CDT experiences any success whatsoever.

I will say that these stories are in many ways incredibly dated. Retief is a typical sci-fi action protagonist: ladies' man, habitual drinker, crack shot, skilled hand-to-hand fighter, smarter than his bosses, and able to develop instant rapport with the native species he encounters. In some ways you could call him a future space version of James Bond, but with slightly more emphasis on diplomacy than on spying. Not to say that this is inherently a bad thing, I rather enjoy the pulpy nature of this book as well as some of the older James Bond films. But that means that this book definitely shows its age. There are a couple of other examples where these stories definitely feel like they were written in the sixties, such as stating a ship full of women would march through a jungle in spike heels. At best it's an unfunny ''women amirite'' joke that's aged horribly. That was the worst example I could think of, but it does put a definite date on the book.

In hindsight, I have to admit Retief seems to do a lot of his negotiating at a barrel of a gun, whether literally or figuratively. There are some examples where he shifts CDT paperwork around and uses the bureaucracy to his advantage and to hinder his opponents, but for the most part a lot of his negotiating is done through violence. I don't know if that makes him a very good diplomat, after all the saying of the Foundation was ''Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.'' But for me that makes exciting reading.

Ultimately I have to say that this book is what it is. It's a lot of pulp sci-fi action adventures and if you like that sort of thing this will definitely be the sort of book for you. If you're not a fan or want something a little more introspective then I'd suggest looking somewhere else.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Smek for President, by Adam Rex

Some of you might remember when I reviewed the book The True Meaning of Smekday, which the...questionable movie Home is based on. I actually hunted down the book because I was forced to watch Home and was surprised at some of the fairly deep questions it asked, specifically with colonialism. In my review of The True Meaning of Smekday I was left a little disappointed because I felt the book got inches within having a very serious conversation about colonialism in a way kids could understand, but then went into a standard alien invasion story where a small item defeats the aliens and life goes back to mostly normal for Terrans. All that being said I thought it was a good book and worth other people checking out.

Smek for President takes place about a year and a half after the original Boov invasion. Gratuity and her mom are living in upstate New York, along with J. Lo who's moved in with them. The Boov have moved to Titan, the moon of Saturn, and renamed it New Boov World where Captain Smek remains as absolute leader. J. Lo is having trouble fitting in with human society and is more than a little homesick. Most of all he wants the other Boov to forgive him for making an honest mistake and while he told the Gorg where Earth is, he more than made up for that by helping Gratuity drive the Gorg away. So J. Lo and Gratuity decide to take a road trip to New Boov World to meet with Captain Smek, explain the whole situation, and hopefully make the other Boov not hate J. Lo.

I think this book is slightly shorter than the original so it spends far less time on development than the original book did. You definitely need to read the first book to make sense of this one. The biggest conflict is J. Lo trying to earn forgiveness while Captain Smek clearly is only interested in using J. Lo as a scapegoat to solidify his own powerbase. There's a second conflict between Gratuity and her mom, who as I mentioned in my other review went from being a ditz to being a responsible parent which is a lot for Gratuity to adapt to. I actually found this plotline rather touching and emotional, perhaps for personal reasons, so I kind of liked it better than the other one, but I'm not sure if the book would have been better if it had focused more on that. The J. Lo plotline is fine, it works. Nothing terribly spectacular about it, but it works.

Again, I have to give Bahni Turpin a ton of credit. She does all the voicework in this book and makes the Boov sound like aliens that just don't have English syntax down. Considering there's some portions where Turpin had to use alien language entirely I thought she did a really great job. And Gratuity as always is a great character.

This book may not be as developed or quite as potentially deep as The True Meaning of Smekday, but I really liked this book and though it was worth the time to check out. I highly recommend that you go check it out for yourself as well.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Policing the Black Man, edited by Angela J. Davis

Today I'm looking at a collection of essays about the issues within the criminal justice system and the inherent, and not always conscious, racism which makes the criminal justice system target black men more strongly than almost any other ethnic group in the United States. In the introduction Davis states that women of color, and other ethnic minorities in the United States have their own experiences with a biased justice system, but this book specifically focuses on the black male experience. This is an issue that's risen to prominence in recent years with events like the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Eric Garner in New York City, and Freddie Grey in Baltimore, Maryland. These are just a handful of cases in a list that is far too long and illustrates that the system is in drastic need of reform for multiple reasons.

The essays talk about a lot of topics and various areas where reforms can be undertaken. A good example is the socialization of black children with police. There is a growing body of evidence that black children, and other children of color, have bad experiences with police during formative years. This is usually typified with police assuming children of color must be up to something, an assumption that is rarely if ever applied to white children. Because children are, well, children, and can be obstinate, disrespectful, impulsive, and a host of other ''improper'' behaviors, bad childhood experiences with police can leave children of color assuming the police cannot be trusted. And in a way, this assumption is correct and only reinforced by every bad experience. There are many instances where people of color are unwilling to go to the police because of this distrust and can stall legitimate criminal investigations because the community is unwilling to help law enforcement.

An important step to undertake is creating better social interactions with police, both for children and adults of color, that help them learn to trust and respect police and make them willing to work with police in future. They use an anecdote where a police officer does something as simple as explaining why they need people to not enter a certain area which helped build a rapport with people in the community and led to tips on other cases they were trying to solve. If police treat communities of color as people to treat with respect, protect and serve, much as the police treat white communities, rather than as problems to be ''managed'', the response from communities of color will be much more positive. But it's vital that police take that first step to begin the process of respect.

There is also the intrinsic problems of the criminal justice system that disproportionately targets black men. There is a large body of evidence that black men are often seen as more dangerous and more threatening than white men. The best explanation available is an implicit, unconscious bias created through societal stereotypes. This may explain why unarmed black men are continually shot by police who state they are ''in fear for their lives'' while white mass shooters somehow manage to be taken alive. The best method to fight implicit biases is training and education, to raise awareness within law enforcement and help police officers overcome their implicit biases, and there is some evidence that this training has helped to reduce violent responses from police. So it shows that things can be done to help end this senseless police violence.

Finally there is the issue of explicit bias, which people consistently try to prove but are blocked from accomplishing this by the courts. There is some evidence that black men consistently get harsher sentences than white men for similar crimes, and black men are more likely to be given the death penalty in cases where the victim is white, than in cases where the defendant is white and the victim is white, where the defendant is white and the victim is black, and where the defendant is black and the victim is black. I say some evidence because there are attempts to collect this data and multiple attempts by civil rights groups to collect prosecution data to prove a systemic and perhaps explicit bias by the criminal justice system. However when these cases are brought to the courts, the courts have consistently ruled that in order to prove systemic or explicit bias, the plaintiffs need to have evidence that prosecutors are acting in a biased way and without that evidence they cannot bring a case. But that very evidence is what the plaintiffs were asking for when they brought suit because they don't have access to that data and it's only through access to that data that they can bring their case. It's a sort of paradox where to bring a suit you need evidence, but you can't get evidence without bringing a suit. Until we can get more data from the criminal justice system and greater transparency, this will continue to be a problem.

Overall I thought these essays were interesting and pointed to specific issues we can try to address in the future. There's a lot of work that needs to be done to create a more just and equitable society in the United States, but I think if we're willing to learn and change it's something we can accomplish.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

Today I'm looking at a biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has become a popular figure in recent years and the subject of countless internet memes. The amount of adulation around Justice Ginsburg can be somewhat surprising, considering other popular figures are usually movie stars, musicians, and other entertainers. Most people would not expect and octogenarian jurist to become the subject of internet fame on t-shirts, hats, and other popular media. But this biography proves that RBG, as she's referred to throughout the book, is well-deserving of the adulation and remains an vital figure in American civic and legal life.

This biography is fairly short, coming in at about 240 pages, so it's not an incredibly in-depth and fairly easy to read, but it leaves us with a very powerful portrait of a woman who has refused to let anything to stand in her way. RBG was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1933 and encountered many barriers as she attempted to enter the legal profession after World War II. As a married woman, a mother, and a Jew, RBG faced discrimination on multiple fronts and found it difficult or impossible to find a job. But RBG did not let any of this stop her and through determination, buckets of hard work, and a little help.

For years RBG worked tirelessly on behalf of the Women's Rights Project with the ACLU and argued several cases before the Supreme Court on the issue of women's rights. Carmon and Knizhnik show how RBG was extremely strategic in her fights for women's rights, planning gradual steps that would chip away at the edifice of patriarchy and gradually undermine the entire structure. Although large, sweeping decisions are dramatic and emotionally satisfying, they also provoke significant reactionary backlash. RBG firmly believed that a gradual approach would wash away the resistance of conservative, male judges until they finally came around to her way of thinking. RBG was also very strategic in some of her cases that she argued, using examples of how patriarchy harmed men through assumptions of gender roles. RBG believed, quite rightly, that using cases that affected men would resonate better with male justices.

Supporting RBG in her decades-long career was her husband Marty Ginsburg, who not only supported his wife pursuing a legal career, but helped take on chores at home. Most famously Marty took on the duties of cooking after an infamous incident involving a tuna casserole. Marty took great joy in becoming a world-class chef while RBG continued to work on the highest court of the land. Carmon and Knizhnik include a small sampling of the notes between the couple over the years and reveals a deep and abiding friendship and love built on mutual respect. It reveals a deeply personal side of RBG's life that is immensely touching.

The biggest change we've seen from RBG over the past decade was RBG's increasing willingness to voice her dissent and speak up. For years RBG developed a reputation as someone who didn't rock the boat and worked to create compromise. However the court has taken a hard shift to the right in recent years and begun to challenge many of the freedoms that she had fought for before the Supreme Court. As a result RBG has begun speaking out more and as the senior-most liberal has led the other three liberal justices, occasionally winning a critical fifth or sixth vote. Because of her championship for progressive causes, RBG has become an icon to many young people who believe in the same causes. Today many continue to hope that RBG will hold on at the Supreme Court and continue to fight for the rest of us.

I would highly recommend this book to everyone. As short as it is, it's a very quick read and provides great insight into probably the most influential jurist of her generation. I knew basically nothing about RBG about this, and while I now only know a little bit more it's infinitely more than I knew before.

- Kalpar