Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars BlueprintsIt’s hard to find a blog’s worth of words to say what I can really say in one sentence: Star Wars: The Force Awakens lives up to the heady hype and breathless anticipation.

I mean really, I’m pretty sure today we’ve heard the collective happy exhalation slash fist pumping of Star Wars fans the world over. I’ve yet to hear one say the film didn’t live up to their expectations.

Of course, it’s easy to say now I always had faith in JJ Abrams’ ability to execute an on-song film, but I did. He obvs has a strong track record, the Star Trek reboots being the most recent, but he is also a master at drawing out the key narrative elements and enhancing them.

Which is exactly what he did here. Balanced with just the right amount of action meets heartstring-tugging meets fantasy meets comedy, this Star Wars iteration impresses. Its look and feel is accurate. More importantly, its tone feels right.

In a nod to episodes past as well as a clever way to link the past and the present, TIE fighters, X-wings, the Millennium Falcon, and the Deathstar return in various forms (I for one have spent plenty of time poring over their blueprints). As do some of the most beloved characters.

FramesBut the film is carried by a cast of next-generation relative newbies—arguably in George Lucas’ tradition, but still much more than I’d expected, if I’m honest, but hats off to it.

These newbies include a modern droid that is Wall-E-like in nature, but mostly endearing rather than abundantly annoying. Is it just me, or did anyone else find Wall-E annoying? And BB-8 was cute, but only in small doses. I felt it was overdone in early scenes, but the rest of the film reigned it in.

There was, of course, also a resourceful junk scavenger named Rey, who upends stereotypes about which jobs women are or aren’t good at. In fact, she executes my favourite joke of the film—‘No, no, no. The one I’m pointing to.’—which is one about asking her male co-protagonist to hand her a spanner.

In fact, there was a fair amount of role reversal in this iteration. The women are strong and centre stage and less sexualised—more so than in the past. There’s Rey, of course, but Leia too, and no gold bikini in sight. There’s also a brilliant, bespectacled, oracle-like woman Maz (Lupita Nyong’o), whose opening words to Han Solo were: ‘Where’s my boyfriend?’ It turns out she’s a fan of the Wookie. She’s so incredibly compelling she just about steals the show.

Everyone is wearing masks in this film—some literally, others metaphorical. Peeling them off to reveal truths is at the film’s core. And, as a Star Wars fan who is also a Harry Potter fan, I have to point out what’s probably already been pointed out a bunch of times by now: Was it me, or were the new Darth Vader-ish and Supreme Leader Snoke rather Snape- and Voldemort-looking? And Rey very Keira Knightley meets Natalie Portman? Inadvertent or not, to me the resemblances were uncanny. (Then again, maybe I’ve spent too much time obsessing over Lucas’ every decision.)

Star TrekI don’t want to give to much away about the film, but I will say it’s a crowdpleaser—sentimental but not soppy, and a return to Star Wars form. Forgive me for admitting I actually cried at one stage when the Resistance fighters appeared.

‘This is so not how I thought this day was going to go,’ Han Solo says in one scene, as things go pear-shaped. But I’d prefer to recast this: This film so didn’t go how I expected it to. And for that, and the fact that Jar Jar Binks remains banished, I am entirely thankful.

Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan

Return of the PadawanI’m sure the Germans have a word for when you get two pages into reading a book and realise it’s the second one in a series instead of the first.

Whatever that word is, it applies to me, having just experienced that with Jeffrey Brown’s Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan.

The ‘return’ should probably have provided me an early hint, both because it implies someone’s already been somewhere before and because the Return of the Jedi in the film isn’t exactly the first. But let’s all agree my brain wasn’t entirely engaged until I had the graphic novel in my hands and its opening pages before my eyes.

Either way, I quickly caught the gist of the story (aided by the handy in-case-you-haven’t-read-the-first-book summary): Protagonist Roan Novachez dreams of being a pilot. He’s studying at Jedi Academy, a kind of boarding school for future Jedis.

The book/series is an entry into the young adult market, with Brown’s other books (about which I’ve blogged up to could it be three times?) catering to the dual market of young children and their bemused and sleep-deprived Star Wars-fan parents.

It’s a 190-page image and story fest, with Brown applying his comic-drawing skills to full effect. No two sections are the same, with each surprising as they simultaneously flesh out the Jedi Academy universe and propel the story forward.

The book begins with Roan heading back for his second year at the academy. The first year, reportedly, was a little rough, but I’m obviously yet to read that firsthand. This year, Roan will finally get to do the study he’s been most keen on: learning to pilot Jedi starfighters via state-of-the-art flight simulators.

While I found the hapless, bumbling Roan sweet but a little too goofy at times (he mixes up days and arrives at school too early; he forgets to pack underwear and breaks just about everything he touches…), he is ultimately endearing.

Jedi AcademyEven better were Brown’s subtle inclusion of Star Wars references and puns merged with high school references and rites of passage.

Gammy is the academy’s new cook and first Gamorrean to achieve the galactic gourmet rank—that is, he’s the least friendly, least likely cook to serve edible food since the quintessential cafeteria lady.

The gym teacher is a wookie. The students go on a camp with Yoda at Hoth and one student gets his tongue stuck licking ice in a cave.

Gammy’s Home Economics tips include: ‘Lightsaber should not be used to cut butter (it tends to melt all the butter) or bread (will toast the entire loaf). Lightsaber can be used to carve turkey for dinner. Make sure to thoroughly wash lightsaber afterward.’

Students use the force to create a forcefield that deflects spitballs. A parent–teacher interview sign is cheekily amended to read: ‘09:00 parents arrive [and give you embarrassing hugs]’, ‘09:30 parent–teacher interviews [no hiding report cards this time]’, ‘01:30 parents will receive tour of classrooms and [messy] dorm rooms’, ‘04:00 parents depart [after probably crying for no reason]’. Oh, and there’s a bedlam-peddling Ewok pilot to boot.

It goes without saying I’ll need to go back to Book One to understand the true nuances of this second book. But Book Two has been good enough standalone to encourage me to recommend it. I guess I should research if there’s yet a Book Three while I’m at it…

Goodnight Darth Vader

Goodnight Darth VaderI figured Jeffrey Brown had exhausted the Star Wars novelty with his boy- and girl-themed books for children and their Star Wars-loving parents.

If you haven’t already seen them, fallen in love with them, and given them as gifts to any and all of your friends with young children, Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess present an alternate universe in which Luke and Leia grow up with their dark side-hugging dad.

Luke and Leia see and treat Vader not as an evil, chokehold-dishing-out doer to be feared, but as their father—a guy who’s increasingly being worn down, wearied, and bemusingly befuddled as he tries to navigate the challenges of parenting.

The results are some fantastic scenarios that both reference the film while marrying the nods and winks with some situations all too recognisable to parents.

Brown’s back with Goodnight Darth Vader, proving I know nothing about novelty and that some concepts really have legs. But I should have expected as much from Brown and his stellar publisher, Chronicle Books, which seems to have a knack of finding and publishing top-notch books.

Picking Goodnight Darth Vader up, I assumed it to be piggybacking off the Go the F*ck to Sleep book that took the interwebs, tired parents, and bemused people without kids by storm a year or two ago. But it’s not, weaving a rhythm and theme all of its own.

The book is ‘Episode Eight PM’ writ across the page in the iconic yellow running text that’s the hallmark of the films’ openings. Vader has commanded Luke and Leia to go to bed, but the knee-high twins have other ideas.

Meanwhile all the creatures and droids in the Star Wars universe are preparing for bed, and there are some fantastic good-night scenes and film nods. My favourites include the battle droids taking an interminably long time to say goodnight (‘Roger Roger’, ‘Roger Roger’). Meanwhile General Grievous, with his extra limbs, gets ready for bed four times faster than anyone else.

The Millennium Falcon is wished goodnight with the play on the adage with ‘Don’t let the space slug bite’, while the Ewoks determine it’s easiest to sleep ‘when the Empire’s been silenced with rocks’.

Goodnight Darth Vader is one for the collection for adults and kids alike, with the illustrations and text providing dual-level entertainment. Without giving my Christmas shopping plans away, it’s safe to say this book will be making an appearance in my gifts-to-give list for friends with young children.

I’ve also learnt my lesson not to assume this is going to be the last in the Vader-and-kids series, so I’m instead going to hope Brown and Chronicle Books continue to come through with Vader spoofs for future Christmases and birthdays…

Vader’s Little Princess

Vader's Little PrincessJeffrey Brown has cemented himself as a firm favourite of mine for a bunch of reasons, not least:

  • his genius in coming up with an idea for some clever books and seeing them through to fruition
  • because he’s gotten me out of many a gift-giving bind (especially for friends with children, as being a child-friendly but child-free person, I’m not overly familiar with what appeals to kids these days)
  • his books manage the holy-grail feat of impressing both adults and kids.

I’m writing, of course, about Brown’s Vader series. The first, entitled Darth Vader and Son ( I have to say I think Vader and Son would have been a stronger title), I’ve blogged about previously. It’s based on the premise that instead of not encountering Luke until he was an adult, Vader instead raised him on the Death Star.

The follow-up, Vader’s Little Princess, is the daughter-themed equivalent, with Vader experiencing all the love and enduring all the quirks that come with that gig.

The scenarios are recognisable to parents and non-parents alike, but given a peculiarly fantastic Star Wars-themed twist. Let’s be honest, these books are pretty much the best thing nerds and nerds who’ve become parents could ask for (and that’s not even including how much these books appeal to kids).

Some favourite Vader’s Little Princess moments include:

  • when Vader embarrassingly insists on dropping Leia right to the front door of school in an At At Walker rather than, as she requests, around the corner
  • a dad-and-new-boyfriend ‘bonding’ moment when Vader introduces Han Solo to a carbon freezing chamber
  • when Vader lectures Leia, dressed in the barely there outfit famous from the Jabba the Hutt scene, that she’s ‘not going out dressed like that’
  • when Leia pours her heart out about (and implores Vader to help dissect the meaning of) saying ‘I love you’ to Han Solo and all he said back was ‘I know’
  • and when Leia takes Vader to the ballet featuring—wait for it—Jar Jar Binks (it wouldn’t be a Star Wars spoof without a Jar Jar Binks joke).

Vader and SonI don’t find Vader’s Little Princess quite as entertaining as I do Vader and Son, although whether that’s because Brown understandably used up his best material in the first book or because the element of how-cool-is-this surprise was gone the second time around.

But I do find it great enough to warrant reading occasionally and recommending and gifting to friends more often than that.

I’m not sure if there’s room for a third book in the series—maybe a Vader as grandparent title?—but I truly hope so. In the interim, these two are going to remain my parents-and-kids gift-giving staple.

Zombies and Darth Vader

I love picture books! I have a four-year-old, so I reads LOTS of picture books to her. But I also read picture books for my own pleasure. And I want to tell you about two rather unusual ones that I LOVE!

Zombies! They’re the in thing, aren’t they? Everybody seems to love ‘em. People even like to dress up like them. It seems like every state in this country has an annual zombie walk. Now, zombies are usually scary. Sometimes they can be funny as well (think Shaun of the Dead). Recently, they’ve also been romantic — case in point: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion. But a picture book about zombies?

Zombies Hate Stuff is a picture book, written and illustrated by Greg Stone. And it is BRILLIANT! Basically, this book is a series of lists divided into 4 sections: “Zombies Hate…”, “Zombies Don’t Mind…”, “Zombies Really Hate…” and “Zombies Love…”. Each list item has its own page and its own highly amusing picture. So, by reading this book, you can discover that zombies hate kittens, but they don’t mind mimes; they really hate bagpipes, but they love… Well, there’s only one item in this last section and I’m not about to spoil the surprise. 🙂

Despite the gruesome subject matter, the illustrations are cute and never gory.

Zombies Hate Stuff is a really cool book!

So is Darth Vader and Son, written and illustrated by Jeffrey Brown. Okay… so you have to be a Star War fan to like this book. But who isn’t? 🙂

This book is a series of scenes from a Star Wars reality that never was. A “what if?” scenario in which Darth Vader raises his son, Luke Skywalker, (OMG… I hope I haven’t just spoiled The Empire Strikes Back for anyone.) and engages in a bit of father-and-son bonding. They play baseball with a lightsaber, they go trick-or-treating with Luke as a stormtrooper (“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”) and they visit the garbage compactor aboard the Death Star. The illustrations are cartoonish and very engaging, with lots of wonderful detail. A fun book! An there’s a follow-up book — Darth Vader’s Little Princess.

I bought these books for myself. Who would have thought that both my kids would love them as well? Now I have to share them.

zombie book IMG_0406

Catch ya later,  George

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Darth Paper Strikes Back

Origami + Star Wars = a fun series of kids’ books. Intrigued? Read on…

Last year I came across a rather oddly titled book — The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angelberger. The title alone was enough to spark my interest, but the blog posts I read about it convinced me that I should buy myself a copy. (Check out my post “Following the blog posts to Origami Yoda”.) I’m so glad I did. It is a charmingly original and highly entertaining read.

It’s a children’s novel about a group of middle school kids and an origami Yoda puppet. One particularly weird kid named Dwight, brings the origami Yoda to school and starts dispensing advice. Miraculously, his advice turns out to be very helpful and so the kids begin to wonder if this finger puppet really is imbued with the power of the Force.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda was a runaway success. So now we have the second instalment, Darth Paper Strikes Back.

But now Origami Yoda has to contend with the power of the dark side — in the form of Darth Paper, a new origami puppet on the finger of a rival kid named Harvey. Darth (and Harvey) manipulate a situation to ensure that Dwight is suspended from school and threatened with the possibility of being sent to a school for difficult students. So now, it’s up to Dwight’s friends to build a case to present to the school board in the hopes of saving Dwight and his origami Yoda.

As you would expect, both books are chock full of Star Wars references — some obvious, others more obscure. Even the school names, such as McQuarrie Middle School, are references. But these references never overshadow the storytelling and are very much in context.

I loved the first book, and my biggest fear was that the sequel would simply be a cash-in. I am relieved to say that it is not. Darth Paper Strikes Back recaptures the charm and interest of the first. The main characters are likeable and each gets his/her time in the spotlight.

This book is also interesting for it depiction of the American public school system and its bureaucracy. It is not at all complimentary. In fact, it is this bureaucracy that is the real villain in the story.

Without actually giving away the ending, I need to mention that I love the way things are resolved. There is no neat contrived solution in which the evil Empire of bureaucracy is defeated. Yes, things work out for the main characters, and yes, Dwight gets a happy ending… but it is brought about through a decision to no longer engage with the enemy. It is a very satisfying ending.

I’m now hoping there will be a third book.

You definitely need at least a passing familiarity with the Star Wars films to enjoy these books. But you don’t need to be a hard-core fan. While there are many obscure references, not getting them all will not hamper your enjoyment of the story.

If you’d like to find out more about these books and their author, Tom Angelberger, check out the Origami Yoda website.

May the Force be with you,  George

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Wookiee Cookies

Wookiee CookiesFinding the perfect present can be an arduous and pot-luck task, but the thrill when you do stumble upon the thing that’s just right is unrivalled.

I did an H&R Block-like fist pump when I found a present that was perfect not just for my Secret Santa, but a whole raft of current and future recipients. Including me. Because any gift this good warrants me buying one for myself.

The veritable gift gold? A brilliantly conceived, brilliantly executed Star Wars Cookbook: Wookiee Cookies and Other Galactic Recipes. Featuring such recipes as Wookiee Cookies, Yoda Soda, Hoth Chocolate, Princess Leia Danish Dos, and (my favourite) Boba Fett-ucine, it’s simultaneously both incredibly practical and useful, and outrageously entertaining.

The recipes are incisively, tongue-in-cheek clever, but they’re also recipes that would see the light of day. That is, ones you’d actually cook, instead of admire and dismiss as too hard, too time consuming, or filled with ingredients too exotic and too tricky to source.

The book is a hardy hardcover, but is spiral bound so it can be laid flat for easy reference while cooking. Better yet, the pages are made of a special glossy, wipe-clean material for those of us (kids and adults alike) who tend to spread our ingredients beyond the bowl.

There are also stickers at the back that contain such gems as Yoda saying [and I’m paraphrasing here, because I gave the book away and have yet to purchase my own copy] ‘Eat it you will. Good for you it is.’ It’s referring to spinach, with a clever little accompanying image.

I first bought this cookbook for my brother, massive Star Wars fan that he is, but it’s clear that this book has broad, age- and gender-transcending appeal. It was a hit with my Secret Santa recipient, and the people who witnessed its unwrapping. My best friend’s eyes lit up when I described it to her, and she’s ordered a copy for her boyfriend. My work colleague has ordered one for her three, school-aged boys. I’ve ordered one for me. And at least three of my (girl) friends have earmarked it for themselves.

What I’ve realised, coincidentally, is that this cookbook is almost a solution for my cooking issues, about which I moaned in a previous blog. (For those of you who didn’t suffer through it with me, the summary is that I can’t cook and I struggle to find cookbooks that cater to my quirky, no herbs-or-spices, vegetarian needs.)

Part of the reason it’s perfect is that the recipes are straightforward and engaging. My guess is that they’re designed so kids (to whose cooking abilities I’m about equal) can master them easily. And, although it does contain some recipes with meat, I can forgive it that, because this cookbook takes the pressure off cooking with a capital ‘c’ and injects the fun I’ve been missing.

I figure that between this cookbook, and the volume two that’s available and that I’m placing an order for now, I should find some recipes that suit my eating tastes and cooking proficiency. That and a handy gift that I can give to people of varying ages, genders, and cooking abilities.

Following the blog posts to Origami Yoda

When it comes to tie-in merchandise I don’t think there’s anything out there that could possibly top Star Wars. The words “Star Wars” have been slapped on to everything from bed sheets to breakfast cereals. And it seems that every time I walk into a shop there’s another piece of Star Wars merchandise. Amongst all this merchandise are, literally, hundreds of books. I read a few of them when I was a kid, but I never really got into them. So I don’t actually pay that much attention to the release of Star Wars related books. But then, along came The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.

The first I heard about this book was via a short blog post by author Sandy Fussell (who writes the Samurai Kids books). I read the post and was intrigued. I mean, really… how can you not be intrigued by the title. Sandy’s post included a link to a guest post on the blog of author Cynthia Leitich Smith (author of numerous YA novels). This guest post was by Tom Angelberger, the writer of the Origami Yoda book. I followed the link and was delighted by Angelberger’s story of how the book came to be written and published. Go and read the post… it will persuade you to buy the book. I clicked away from that blog, straight to an online bookstore and purchased The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.

I received it in the mail, put it on to my must-read-soonish stack and forgot about it once I had placed a few review books on top of it. But a couple of weeks ago, I rediscovered it and read it. And glad to have read it, I am.

It is not a typical Star Wars book. It is not set in the Star Wars universe, or even in outer space. It is set in an ordinary American middle school where the kids encounter the wisdom and advice of an origami Yoda finger puppet.

Origami Yoda is brought to school by a particularly weird kid named Dwight. Any time anyone needs any advice, Dwight pops the puppet onto his finger and dispenses the advice with a very bad imitation of Yoda’s voice. Now, the thing is… Dwight is a bit thick, but Origami Yoda’s advice is wise. How could this be?

The book is a case file of incidents put together by sixth grade student, Tommy. As he says in the opening line, he wants the answer to “The big question: Is Origami Yoda real?” Or is Dwight just playing a joke on everyone? So he collects incident reports from a bunch of other students. Each student relates the story of when they got advice from Origami Yoda and what the outcomes were. It all concludes at a school dance, where Origami Yoda’s advice to Tommy will be put to the test.

It’s a really fun, unique book. Angelberger weaves a story with interesting characters, gentle humour, sage advice and a great deal of charm. Each of the kids in the story is well realised, but it is the character of Dwight who is the standout. His quirky personality steals the limelight, even from Origami Yoda. And the book concludes without too many explanations, which actually works really well. As I read the book, I was fearful that the author would be tempted to reveal too much… so was very relieved when he didn’t. The book was a joy to read and I recommend it to you, even if you’ve not much of a Star Wars fan.

Apparently, there is a sequel in the works, due out in 2011, and it looks like it will feature at least one other origami version of a Star Wars character. I must say that I think the book is perfect as it is, and I fear that a sequel may water down its effectiveness. But I’ll keep an open mind and read it when it’s released.

For more info about Origami Yoda and Tom Angelberger, check out the official website — www.origamiyoda.com

Oh, and just in case you’d like to make your very own origami Yoda, check out this video:

And tune in next time for some book trailers.

Catch ya later, George

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