Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

August 21, 2017 at 2:00 pm (Reads) ()

escapeEscape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

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Not sure if you’ll like this book? Well, the back of the book tells you everything you need to know in one quote: “In this cross between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and A Night in the Museum …”. Twelve kids go into a state-of-the-art library, built by the enigmatic and eccentric Mr. Lemoncello, and try to solve puzzles to find a secret exit. He (or she!) who does wins an extraordinary prize.

Straight up, this book is a lot of fun. It starts fast and maintains its pace throughout the story, keeping us engaged with lively characters and an engaging plot. We don’t have any Mike Teevees or Veruca Salts, but neither do we have any Uncle Joes or Charlie Buckets, instead, we have everyday kid protagonists who are easy to like, and everyday kid antagonists who are as equally easy to loathe. The plot doesn’t wander far off its mark, which is fine, since the story is set in one location, and there’s only one goal in mind for all the characters. It’s a simple story that plugs along without pretention.

It’s best to understand that this is a kids’ book. Its characters are drawn with a broad brush, without much complexity or depth. We get enough to know who we should like and who we shouldn’t, but we’re not getting a bunch of backstory or ambiguity in their characters. It’s straightfoward, easily accessible, and pretty mindless, none of which are bad things, so long as you understand that going into the book. Anyone looking for a Harry Potter or a Percy Jackson are going to be disappointed.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a love letter to libraries and books and reading and knowledge. Sure, it’s written for kids, but adults who are still kids at heart, or who have a soft spot for the libraries of their youth, will find a lot to like here. It’s morally sound, with good behavior rewarded in the story, and its main theme is friendship (though teamwork takes a close second). If it sounds like anything you might like, then I’ll bet that you will. I highly recommend it.

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A New Hope: The Life of Luke Skywalker

August 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lukeA New Hope: The Life of Luke Skywalker by Ryder Windham

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When I set out on this Star Wars reading project, I decided against including all of the novelizations of other works, save for the adult novelizations of the movies. It cut out a lot of the juvenile books, since most of them were retellings of even the adult novels, but it appears that a few of them squeezed through the cracks. Ryder Windham’s biographies of the characters are a few of those.

For the most part, the books have been entertaining, and in some ways even enlightening (it’s nice to get Obi-Wan’s viewpoint when he first talks to Luke about Anakin and Darth Vader in The Life and Legend of Obi-Wan Kenobi), but they’ve been a collection of details from other works. The Life of Luke Skywalker collects dialogue and scenes from Star Wars, the radio plays, some comics, and even a novel from the Legends Expanded Universe, so very little of the content is original. Windham borrows from these sources to build a single story of Luke, but what he chooses to include and exclude seems odd. The largest details are left out (those from Episodes IVVI), and some scenes are hastened through, as if he were trying to cram as much as possible into the story. As a result, the story doesn’t feel cohesive, or even complete.

This is the last of the biographies written by Windham, the others being about Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, and Darth Maul (no love for Leia there, I guess), but none of them have felt necessary. With the earlier books, I thought they would serve a purpose as an introduction into the larger works, but now that I’ve read one where I don’t know some of the details Windham covers, I can see that it only causes confusion. I’d skip over these if I were to do this project over again.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

August 7, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

universeThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe by Ryan North, et al.

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I’m not a fan of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, the series. The character I admire for all of her positive traits, and I endorse giving this book to young girls interested in comics so they can see what a female superhero can be, but for me, a forty-five year old male with no children, female or otherwise, it doesn’t quite ring my bell. It’s a shame, really, because for all the other childish things that appeal to me (The LEGO Movie, the Animaniacs, and almost everything Pixar has ever created), I expected this series to hit all the high notes.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe, though, surprised me. Maybe it’s because I had written off the series for not being my thing, and went into the graphic novel with lowered expectations, or maybe it’s because it’s a standalone work without the inherent baggage of ongoing titles, or maybe it’s just a better written work. Whatever the case, I found myself laughing more at the story than I did with the two collections I’ve read.

The characters are the same, their dynamics are the same, and the storyline is similar to what one would find in the series (only with a clone added into the mix). The running gags carry over from the main series (the Spider-Man theme song continues to make an appearance in one form or another), and the commentary along the bottoms of the pages is still there, but something about it clicked for a change. It’s not enough to convince me to keep reading it, but it was an improvement over the main series.

I’d still recommend this to younger readers, especially girls, but boys, too, so they can see there’s more to being a female superhero than skimpy outfits and assisting male superheroes. Adult readers, though, may have a harder time getting into it.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel You Know It’s True

August 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

squirrel2The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel You Know It’s True by Ryan North, et al.

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I have a rule with ongoing graphic novel series: Read at least two collections before drawing a conclusion on how much I like them. The Unwritten had a bit of a boring start, but once it caught its groove, it surprised me with how much it could do. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was a title I’d heard a lot about, all of it good, but Squirrel Power just didn’t quite do it for me. Squirrel You Know It’s True is more of the same style presented in the first collection, which is good or bad, depending on how much you liked the first one.

Look I get it: she’s a positive role model for young girls; she attempts diplomacy before violence (and usually succeeds at it); and her adventures are light enough for young readers, but not without serious consequences. If I had a young daughter, I would love for her to read these books. The thing is, I don’t, and there’s just not enough to the stories by itself to encourage me to keep reading it. I loved (and still love) Ambush Bug, the Animaniacs, and the Looney Tunes cartoons, so the loopy sense of humor the series has should have appealed to me, but somehow it was more ingratiating than funny. The Twitter exchanges were still the highlights for me, but overall, it didn’t quite hit my funny bone.

I’d recommend this series to readers with kids, but for adult readers, I’d suggest they pass on it. They don’t take long to read, so the investment of time is slim, but there are so many other good series written for adults that it doesn’t seem worth it to devote what short time it would take to read these books. I have another of her books to read (what can I say? They were on sale, and my expectations were high), but I don’t see myself adding it to my titles to follow.

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The Marvels

July 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

maRVELSThe Marvels by Brian Selznick

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Brian Selznick is a fantastic writer. The Invention of Hugo Cabret was so good, and Wonderstruck even better, that I bought a copy of The Marvels around when it was released. It took me a few years to get around to reading it, but I finally bumped it up my to-read list, and I’m pleased to say that it’s as moving a book as either of his first two books.

Selznick’s books are told equally in words and pictures, and The Marvels is no exception. What makes The Marvels different, though, is that the first half of the book is told 100% in pictures. Some of the illustrations have text, but for the most part, they’re wordless, and tell the story of a family who lives in the theater. The story goes back to a shipwreck in 1766 and takes us all the way through the early 1900s, showing the lives of a family who worked and were raised in the theater. Then, the story shifts to 1990, and is told 100% through narrative. Like any Selznick book, though, there’s a puzzle beneath the story, telling us more than we realized, and when the pieces all fall into place, the real story shines through.

Selznick creates his characters to be lively and engaging, even when they’re as unlikeable as Uncle Albert, and they’re what carry the story. Had the entire book been told with narrative and pictures interspersed, like he did with his previous two books, it could have become overly complicated — Selznick does tell the story of several generations of one family, after all — but the way he balances the two stories is perfect. In the end, the characters we’re meant to know the most about — Joseph, Albert, and Frankie — are the ones we grow to care about, and that they’re the ones whose lives are covered through the narrative isn’t a coincidence.

I don’t feel like The Marvels is quite as strong as Selznick’s other books (there seems to be a bit too much back-and-forth between Joseph and Albert that doesn’t go anywhere), but that’s not to say that I didn’t like it. It moved me as much as his other books did, enough so that I had to blink several times to be able to make out the words as I neared the end of the book. Anyone who read and enjoyed Selznick’s previous work should read The Marvels; it’s as brilliant as anything else he’s written.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power

July 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

squirrel1The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power by Ryan North, et al.

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I’ve heard a lot about Squirrel Girl, all of it positive. I hear she’s a good role model for kids, especially young girls, and that she’s more inclined to solve problems with diplomacy than with punches. Plus, I hear there’s a loopy sense of humor to the books, so when I saw that these were on sale, I figured it was time for me to see what all the fuss was about.

The good news is I see all of the good I read about in other reviews; the bad news is I still couldn’t get that invested in it. I do think she serves as a strong role model, and it’s refreshing to see a female superhero who isn’t all about skimpy costumes and helping the male superheroes, but the tone of the book put me off. I grew up on Ambush Bug, so I was prepared for loopy and irreverent, but there was something about the characters that didn’t do it for me. Part of it, I think, is the feeling that these books are supposed to be part of official continuity. Continuity, to me, suggests a level of seriousness that doesn’t exist with this title. The fact that she couldn’t keep her secret identity secret (not that it’s broken in this book, but come on; it’s not going to last) opens up a vulnerability to all the characters who know her, and it all fell apart in my head.

There were parts of the story that made me laugh (the Twitter exchanges that started a couple of the issues cracked me up), but for the most part the humor grew tiresome. I gave up on trying to read all of the editorial comments that were at the bottom of each page, as they became distracting, slowed me down, took me away from the story, and in the end weren’t really worth the time. Plus, I was reading a digital copy of the book, and in order to read them all, I had to enlarge the page. It was too much effort for not a lot of gain.

My disappointment might lie with my expectations being too high, but I’m not feeling it so far. I still have a couple other collections to read (they were on sale, and I do still abide by my rule that I have to read at least two collections before drawing any conclusions on a title), but I’m not champing at the bit to get to them. I’ll get there when I get there. I can appreciate the title, and I would recommend it to readers looking for positive comics with a female lead, but so far it’s not going to be a go-to title for me.

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The Last of the Jedi: Reckoning

July 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

reckoningThe Last of the Jedi: Reckoning by Jude Watson

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Ferus, one of the last of the Jedi, finally confronts Vader. At the same time, the truth regarding Flame, the mysterious benefactor of the rebellion, is revealed. Ferus also confronts Obi-Wan over his long-term mission, and gets to ask him all the questions we’ve been asking for the entire series. In short, the main plot points of the entire series come to the front here, and the main characters all get a chance to have their reckoning.

I’ve said in other reviews that this series feels more like one long novel instead of a series of novels featuring the same character, and now that I’ve finished the series, I feel that even more strongly. The characters have time to develop from book to book, and even when Watson borrows characters from her other books, or introduces a character we already know enough about without giving us much background (e.g., Bail Organa), they feel real and developed. The later novels are much better than the ones at the beginning of the series, but given how the plot develops, this is no surprise.

With Reckoning, Watson brings The Last of the Jedi — and her foray into the Expanded Universe — to a close, and she does it well. She gives real emotion to her characters, and gets the reader to feel for how things end. Over the ten books, the real connection has been Ferus and Trever’s relationship, and here she brings it to a bittersweet end. For me, that makes the book stronger, and the series one of the best of the juvenile books I’ve read thus far.

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The Last of the Jedi: Master of Deception

July 25, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

deceptionThe Last of the Jedi: Master of Deception by Jude Watson

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Master of Deception takes us to Alderaan, and brings Bail Organa to the front of the story. Ferus, still working for the Empire, is sent to investigate reports of a Force-sensitive child. We already know the reports are accurate, since we know Leia is on Alderaan, but Ferus, still working as a double-agent, works against the reports, trying to downplay the findings.

I find Bail’s character to be one of the more interesting in the Expanded Universe. I feel like he received short shrift in the movies, but he’s been developed into a real character in the EU. His honor and nobility, and his working behind the scenes to try to undermine the Empire, strikes a chord with me. The story continues to show Ferus as he struggles with succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force, but the individual story here shines through the larger story for a change. It’s win-win for me, since I find the larger story to be more compelling, but I also found the main plot of this book to be as interesting.

I have one more book to go in the series, and I’m certainly not going to stop, even if I weren’t already committed to reading all of the EU novels. I get the feeling the overarching plot will be the primary focus of the last novel, and I’m eager to see how Watson pulls it off. She’s been able to portray real emotion with her characters, and with all that could happen in the last novel, I expect it will be a strong conclusion.

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The Last of the Jedi: Against the Empire

July 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

againstThe Last of the Jedi: Against the Empire by Jude Watson

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Against the Empire makes a shift in the focus of the series, as Trever becomes the main character for a bit. Once Lune has been enrolled in the Imperial Navy Academy, Trever infiltrates the Academy himself in the hopes to break him out. Of course, it’s not that easy (when is it ever?), and to make it even more difficult, Watson brings back one her most despicable characters — Jenna Zan Arbor.

At the same time, Ferus is struggling with the power of the Dark Side. He’s given over to hate after Vader kills Roan, and now that Palpatine has shown him the power of the Dark Side, he finds himself wanting to kill Vader. He knows what that means, but he struggles to find his balance between the rebellion, playing the Empire, and exacting revenge. It’s some good development, and makes for good storytelling.

I’ve seen a previous review noting that Ferus and Roan’s close relationship suggests they were more than friends, and while I can see where that reviewer is coming from, I find it troubling that two male friends can be that close without having readers think they’re gay. I don’t have a problem with a gay relationship in Star Wars (I feel the need to point that out, since several readers were offended by it in the Aftermath trilogy), but I also feel like it shouldn’t be assumed unless explicitly stated.

I’m still enjoying this series a lot more than I expected. It gets better as it goes, which reinforces my feeling that this series is really just one long novel, broken into parts. I think it works better that way, since the characters are given more space to develop, and I’m excited to see how this is going to end. It’s only been with the last five or six books where I’ve been that caught up in the story.

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The Last of the Jedi: Secret Weapon

July 21, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

secretThe Last of the Jedi: Secret Weapon by Jude Watson

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The Last of the Jedi keeps playing with issues of trust. Watson’s other series have done this, too, since most of the books feature a traitor, but here she’s showing us how that trust affects an internal group. At issue is Ferus’ allegiance: Is it with the rebellion, or the Empire? Playing a double-agent, his conspirators in the rebellion aren’t sure what to think, especially as he becomes more and more the public enforcer for Palpatine’s rule.

The good news is this theme of trust and friendship and loyalty makes for an engaging read. I’ve bumped up my rating of the series with this book, as it starts to take on heavier meaning. I’ve mentioned already that the books feel more like chapters of a larger novel, making the entire series one long story instead of having it be several novels concerning the same characters. While each book has its own conflict, the real plot of the series is that of Ferus and his friends working to build the rebellion. I’m glad I’ve been able to read these books back-to-back, as the singular nature of the entire series is more apparent that way.

The “Secret Weapon” mentioned in the title is pretty obvious to everyone reading the book — it’s the Death Star. It’s odd how Watson (and, admittedly, other writers in the Expanded Universe) dances around this and other plot points that we already know about. Why not work with that knowledge and make it more obvious? There’s no sense in being coy, especially when we get a few chapters from Vader’s perspective.

I have a renewed interest in this series. When I first started reading it, I was looking at it as more books to finish before I could get back to the adult Expanded Universe books, but Watson has surprised me. I’m finding myself reading them because I’m engaged in the characters, and why else should someone read a novel?

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