Book Review – I, Jedi

  • Title: I, Jedi
  • Author: Michael A. Stockpole
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 01/10/2016

**Spoiler Alert** Just after the film Star Wars The Return of the Jedi was released in theaters in 1983, a license was granted to Bantam Books (Spectra imprint) to publish a series (which started as two and eventually became several lines) of tie-in novels set after Return of the Jedi. I read and collected them, but eventually more and more lines were added, and my interests changed, and I no longer kept up with them. When I stopped reading the Star Wars books I had a few around that I didn’t read, but not many. Well, books are like wine – sometimes they need to age to be enjoyed.

Having finally gotten the chance to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) I was in the mood for more – so I pulled I, Jedi off the shelf to read. I’m glad I did, because it was extremely enjoyable.

I enjoyed the novel I, Jedi very much, even though at the beginning I was a little lost. There are a lot of references to other events in the shared Star Wars Universe and I could no longer remember them. I remembered a few things: that Han and Leia married and had twins (a boy and a girl) who were strong in the Force, that Luke set-up a Jedi Academy, that one of the first Jedi Luke found was Mara Jade and she was very kick-ass – but that was about it. Still, the events to other events were not something that totally threw me out of the story. I did feel like I was missing something, but the story I was reading was still comprehensible – which isn’t always the case when picking up a book in the middle of a long-running series.

I, Jedi is written entirely in first person and is the tale of Corran Horn, a former Corellian Security (CorSec) officer and investigator who ends up in Rogue Squadron helping the New Republic and who is currently on an assignment with his fellow squadron mates to stop a pirate crew headed by an Admiral Tavira aboard an Imperial Star Destroyer called the Invidious – though the loose group of pirates included many squadrons. Corran returns home to Coruscant (home of the New Republic) after a mission with Rogue Squadron and discovers his wife, Mirax has been kidnapped. As a former investigator, he wants to bring her home himself. He goes to his superiors in the New Republic, files an appeal to be allowed to find his wife with Councilor Leia Organa Solo, and even contacts his father-in-law who’s a bit of a gangster, but one who now is tolerated by the Republic. Essentially told to sit-and-wait, Corran rejects that idea.

The book is then split into two parts.

In part one, because Corran is also the grandson of a famous Jedi, and Force sensitive, friends and comrades-in-arms suggest Corran can best help his wife by learning how to help her and he disguises his appearance, changes his name and heads to Luke’s Jedi Academy to be part of Luke’s first class. It is Luke’s idea that he change his name and identity. Part One is awesome because it gives a detailed view into the process of becoming a Jedi. There is also a mystery or two to be solved, and the inventive action that the Star Wars universe is known for. It’s enjoyable.

In the end, though, Corran decides he has learned all he can from Luke, and that in assuming the role of Jedi-Trainee Halcyon Horn, he has lost some of his own identity. He also decides he’s stayed in one place too long and he really must find his missing wife.

In Part Two, however, Corran returns to Corellia and sees the man he’d known as a child as his grandfather, but whom he now knows is his step-grandfather. This man tells him the truth about his Jedi grandfather and gives him some other information. He also helps Corran change his identity again. Soon Corran is operating undercover inside the pirate organization headed by Admiral Tavira – because he has uncovered information that the pirates are the ones holding his wife or that they know where she is. As Jenos Idanian, a Corellian with a shady past, Corran joins the Survivors, one of Tavira’s squadrons. He works to shape up the rag-tag group, find out what is going on, try to locate his wife, and pick-up any useful info for the New Republic that they can use to stop Tavira’s pirate group. Although, initially the second half was slower than the first half (I very much enjoyed seeing Jedi training, an undercover investigation was more pedestrian) – eventually that part of the book did pick-up. The second half picked up once the Pirates meant to attack a defenseless refugee colony world only to discover it being attacked by slavers first. Jenos Idanian manages to minimize civilian damages and casualties – while providing excuses that the pirates and their leadership will buy. He also ends-up acquiring, quite by accident, a Caamasi refugee as a “bodyservant” – basically think butler with fur, or Alfred Pennyworth from Batman but slotted in the Star Wars universe. Elegos the Caamasi is an awesome character and I enjoyed how he took care of Corran. Also, as luck would have it – he has a talent that really helps bring the plot to its conclusion. The concluding chapters were very awesome and a quick read.

I enjoyed I, Jedi very much. Because it’s told entirely in first person from an outsider’s point of view, it gives a very different view of the main characters in the Star Wars universe (Leia, Luke, Han, Wedge, and R2 D2 – all show-up at one time or another, though often only briefly). The training scenes are excellent, and Stackpole’s ability to describe light saber battles is just perfect. I found the Caamasi to be an unique alien race and that story was well-told. The story of Corran trying to find his wife gave the whole story a personal bent, though it was also a bit more traditional. Still, I enjoyed the novel and I recommend it.

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Book Review – Mrs. Pargeter’s Plot

  • Title: Mrs. Pargeter’s Plot
  • Author: Simon Brett
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 01/01/2016

Mrs. Paregeter’s Plot is a very amusing British Cozy-style mystery (set in the modern day). Mrs. Pargeter is a widow whose deceased husband ran a gang of thieves and troublemakers, who also sponsored ex-thieves into more legitimate professions that were related to their life in crime (such as the ex-getaway driver who now owns his own limo service), but Mrs. Pargeter doesn’t know any of the details of her former husband’s life, nor does she know the source of her considerable income. She simply has her dead husband’s address book of people to call in case of trouble.

This book is part of a series, but it’s the only volume I’ve read – and it was a quick read. The story begins with Mrs. Pargeter traveling out to a plot of land she inherited from her husband that she is having her dream home built on. Her builder is Concrete Jacket, one of her husband’s old friends who has gone straight. Unfortunately, before he can tour the foundations with Mrs. Pargeter, he shows her his surprise: a built-in wine cellar. Which, it turns out, is occupied with a corpse. The police arrive immediately, and Mr. Jacket is arrested. Mrs. Pargeter becomes determined to prove he didn’t do it, even though the corpse, Willie Cass, had been heard threatening Mr. Jacket earlier. Mrs. Pargeter works with a PI, named Truffler Mason and her husband’s “associates” to solve the case.

But throwing a monkey in the works is “Fossilface” O’Donahue – a former member of the gang known for both his bad luck, and being, well, an idiot that caused several members of the gang to spend time in jail – O’Donahue is back. He, however, has had a jailhouse conversion, and is determined to make “restitooshun” as he calls it for Mrs. Pargeter and the entire gang. He’s also determined to show that he’s developed a sense of humor. O’Donahue’s fiercely unhelpful activities liven up this book with both humor and surprises.

Overall, Mrs. Pargeter’s Plot was a fun British cozy. It had some interesting characters (all with improbable names), a straightforward plot, and it was very short. I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to fans of the modern cozy. I’d also buy another book in the series. Enjoyable and fun!

Book Review – Evans Above

  • Title: Evans Above
  • Author: Rhys Bowen
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 07/22/2015

This time this book was recommended to me by my Mom – who received the entire collection from a friend. This is a typical British Cozy-style mystery. Or, to be precise, a Welsh cozy set in Northern Wales in a small village at the foot of Mount Snowdon. Evan Evans is the local police constable, who returned to Llanfair a few years ago after training in the police in Swansea. The small village of Llanfair is home to many colorful, interesting characters, including three more Evans – known as Evans-the-milk (the dairy man), Evans-the-meat (the butcher), and Evans-the-Post (the mail carrier). So Evan Evans becomes Evans-the-law. There’s also a flirty barmaid, and a no-nonsense school teacher who both view Evan as possible husband-on-the-hoof.

Pretty quickly, a crime occurs – two hikers are found dead on the mountain. PC Evans immediately thinks it’s murder, because two dead climbers is too much of a coincidence. Sgt. Watkins initially thinks it’s simply an accident – and he’s distracted by the horrible murder of a young girl, and an escaped pedophile he thinks is to blame.

Evan investigates on his own, and nearly gets into trouble. But when the escaped pedophile is captured and confesses – everyone thinks all is well. Until there’s a third murder.

Suddenly, everyone is in a tizzy. Sgt. Watkins who has gradually come to appreciate PC Evan’s skills, begins to listen to his theories and investigation so far. Watkins’ boss comes in to solve the third murder – and downplays Watkins’ abilities, just as Watkins had downplayed and pooh-poohed Evans own abilities. But pretty quickly Evans is able to investigate, find the real killer, and solve the case.

Evans Above read like the pilot of a television series. It was fun and light, and I enjoyed it – but there was also very little depth. Still, I’d definitely read more in the series. If you like a good British Cozy style mystery, and want to explore Wales and Welsh culture, the Constable Evans Mystery series is a place to start.

Book Review – Rainsong

  • Title: Rainsong
  • Author: Phyllis A. Whitney
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 07/14/2015

Books are like wine, sometimes they need to sit for awhile before one reads them. One would hope it would improve the vintage – sadly this was not the case for this romantic suspense novel from 1984. It had been sitting on my shelves for awhile, and I finally took it down to read it. And it was a fast read – unfortunately that’s one of the few things it had going for it.

I first discovered Phyllis A. Whitney in junior high – and I actually really liked her books, and read as many as I could find, searching libraries and used book stores to find more. Then I became bored by the entire romance genre and stopped reading them.

But I still had a few books that I had gotten through a book club lying around, waiting to be read – so I finally picked up this one and read it.

Hollis is a songwriter, who at 18 is gutsy enough to sneak into the hospital room of her favorite singer, Ricky Sands, and play him some of her song. He likes her music, and likes Hollis as well. Before long, they are married (though he’s nearly twice her age – eeeeewwwwwh) and she’s writing hit songs, while he parties his life away.

Hollis is kept in an expensive New York City apartment, basically forbidden to go out. Ricky doesn’t even invite her to watch his concerts, though she sneaks out, occasionally, and watches her husband perform.

Eventually, Ricky’s manager introduces Hollis to Coral Caine, a soap actress that Ricky’s been having and on-again-off-again-on-again affair with since before Ricky even met Hollis. But after their first meeting, Coral mysteriously “kills herself”. Within what seems to be a few days or weeks later (but is actually a year, as later events make clear) Hollis’s husband, Ricky, also commits suicide.

Reeling from loss, Hollis accepts an invitation from a strange, elderly, rich woman, who once knew Hollis’s father, to stay at Windtop, her huge, creepy, mansion of a house in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. And that is the good part of the novel. Once Hollis arrives at Windtop, the novel turns into a typical Whitney storyline: creepy house, strange people, secrets from the past that won’t die, and a lot of coincidences. Hollis, with very little agency at all, gets swept up in events. There’s no obvious romantic pairing at first, and the conclusion has Hollis attempting to cross a pitched, slate roof, in Winter, that’s covered with snow, ice, and running water from fresh rain. Sigh. She escapes of course. And finds a new man in the very last chapter, of course. Double sigh.

Rainsong wasn’t boring – it actually moves at a fairly good clip, but it’s flat. The characters aren’t predictable, but we just could care less about them. There’s no chemistry – not between Hollis and the first guy who chases her, nor between her and anyone else. And there are things about this novel that creeped me out. The marriage between 18-year-old Hollis and 30-something Ricky was just… eewwww. That he keeps her locked up in a nice Manhattan apartment, but with no friends, no one to even talk to was totally not cool – and this is the love of her life? The mysterious two suicides, which I really expected to be murders, – should have been more of a focus of the plot (as should have been the mysterious coral-colored roses left at both crime scenes) but everyone seems to just accept what they are told. Even Hollis, who doesn’t believe either death was suicide, doesn’t ever seem to even say, now “wait a minute”, and is oh so willing to just disappear.

Windtop is actually a cool-sounding house, even the burnt-out wing, destroyed in a fire six years previously. (And never cleaned-up. No one in this novel ever seems to be able to acknowledge the passage of time.) I would have loved to see Hollis come into Windtop and propose making the place into an expensive luxury bed and breakfast. If she wasn’t going to write songs anymore, she needed something to do. But, alas, the author totally misses that opportunity.

Also, throughout the novel, I found lines here and there that just seemed really, really disturbing – basically supporting the whole, “women are nothing without a man” myth.

Not recommended.

Book Review – Good Night, Mr. Holmes

  • Title: Good Night, Mr. Holmes
  • Author: Carole Nelson Douglas
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 07/10/2015

Good Night, Mr. Holmes takes the familiar Sherlock Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, and turns it on it’s head, telling the story from Irene Adler’s point of view. It also expands the story into a full-length novel. The author gives Irene her own Watson, Penelope Huxleigh, whom Irene calls “Nell”. Nell narrates the story, and she is interesting in her own right. The daughter of a parson, when her father dies, she’s left on her own. Nell does OK, getting a job as a governess. However, when her family leaves England for the wider Empire she is left behind. She gets a very low-paying job in a London shop, room and board included, but is soon set-up by one of the other girls, and loses her job – accused of stealing.

Nell is bereft when she nearly literally runs in to Irene, who takes her under her wing. Irene is independent, free-spirited, and a struggling Opera singer and actress. Nell and Irene begin to share lodgings. Irene helps Nell get her revenge on the girl that got her sacked, then urges Nell to find better work. Nell takes a short course and learns how to type, and before long she’s making an acceptable living as a temporary typist.

Irene meanwhile, gives the occasional concert, and occasionally solves, “little problems”. The two are surviving, in the middle of a expensive, Victorian city – but by their own wits.

Irene gets a commission to find the “Zone of Diamonds” a mysteriously missing piece of the French crown jewels. Sherlock Holmes, who only appears on the periphery of the novel, is engaged for the same.

Irene investigates the Norton family, and eventually Nell gets a job as Godfrey Norton’s typist and clerk at the Temple bar (he’s a barrister).

Irene’s star as a Opera singer begins to rise, and she eventually heads to Milan, then Prague, and finally Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic), where she is romanced by the crown prince.

Nell meanwhile has her hands full, as Godfrey’s paralegal for all intents and purposes.

The nice thing about this novel, and what I really enjoyed about it, is that despite the description on the back – it is not a romance. This isn’t a story about Irene or even Nell meeting their future husband, Godfrey. Rather it’s the tale of two women surviving in harsh circumstances without compromising their own natures. And then there’s a mystery and missing jewels.

I quite enjoyed the book. The author is American, but the historical research rings true, though the occasional term is used that seems either out of context by time or country. Still, I liked it, and I’m glad it wasn’t a typical romantic suspense novel. I would like to read more in the series.

Recommended.

Book Review – Sidney Chambers and the Perils of Night

  • Title: Sidney Chambers and the Perils of Night
  • Author: James Runcie
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 06/07/2015

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night is the second Grantchester mystery featuring the amateur detective and full-time parish priest, Sidney Chambers. It’s a typical British cozy, set in the small English village of Grantchester near Cambridge, in England. The time is the mid-1950s and early 1960s.

The novel is actually six related short stories. The first and third stories are set at Cambridge where Sidney, as a fellow of Corpus Christi College acts as intermediary between the University (which seems to police itself under the Master) and the police (who cannot investigate a crime at the university unless invited – even murder). The first story doesn’t even seem to be resolved, as it points to the British Security Services and a possible double agent (as well as campus recruiting) and everyone pretty much says, “drop it”, and a mysterious fatal accident is determined to be an “accident”.

The third story, also at Cambridge, is a locked-room story, but that accident is proven to be murder and the guilty party is arrested.

The second story is a rather bizarre tale of arson. I liked how Sidney figured it out – but it just seemed very weird.

The fourth story is the obligatory Cricket story. The first half is detailed, full of cricketing slang, and if you don’t understand cricket – very hard to follow. However, the murder and reasons for the murder (and again, it’s a murder at first disguised as natural causes) openly discuss 1950s racist British attitudes, as well as the younger generation’s ignoring of those attitudes. It’s a good story, with the excellent moral that hating people who are different from you is bad. Which should be obvious, but especially these days it doesn’t seem to be at all.

The fifth story has Amanda finally deciding to marry – and making a very bad choice. I’m not going to spoil the details, though. The story gets into the thorny problem of seeing a friend of the opposite sex making a life decision that one is convinced is bad for them and how the characters deal with it. In other words, Sidney, who is great friends with Amanda, is convinced from the start that her new fiancé, well, that there is something wrong. When Sidney brings up his fears – of course Amanda thinks he’s simply jealous. But the story is more complicated than that and has some important consequences.

In the last story, Sidney, goes to Germany to meet his on-again/off-again/-on-again girlfriend, Hildegard. Remember, that as an Anglican priest – he can marry and is somewhat expected to marry. Unfortunately, when he arrives in West Berlin, she’s gone to East Berlin to see her mother whom she was told had a stroke. Sidney, being Sidney, cannot have the good fortune to get into East Berlin without incident – and once that’s cleared up, he and Hildegard make the mistake of staying in East Berlin for a few days. As they attempt to leave, the Berlin Wall goes up and they have to sneak out. It’s an exciting story that balances history, their personal relationship, and a certain amount of “What are you doing?” reaction from the reader.

Overall, another excellent mystery short story collection in the English cozy style. There’s less of Inspector Keating in this particular book, but I still enjoyed it. Recommended.

Book Review – Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

  • Title: Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death
  • Author: James Runcie
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 05/31/2015

My Dad actually introduced me to the Canon Sidney Chambers mystery series. He read a review in one of the magazines or newspapers he subscribes to of the British television series which ran in the US on PBS. Before long I was recording the PBS series, Grantchester, on my DVR and I ended-up watching it with my parents – and believe me, that never happens.

Then I bought all three Sidney Chambers novels for my Dad for his birthday – but once he finished reading them, I immediately borrowed them back to read.

I just finished the first book, and it really is excellent.

Canon Sidney Chambers is an Anglican priest in the small village of Grantchester, just outside Cambridge, England, in the early 1950s. The novel is six interlinked short stories. In the first one, Sidney becomes an unwilling detective. There is a murder in his parish, and Sidney’s best friend, police inspector, Geordie Keating, talks him into investigating, telling him, “People will tell you things they won’t tell me.” (paraphrase) Sidney, turns out to be a good detective, and becomes involved in five more cases. They aren’t always murders – one story involves a stolen engagement ring – another a stolen painting. And Sidney is conflicted – as a priest, he feels he should see the best in people. But as a detective he must see the worst, as his close friend, Geordie, reminds him.

Sidney is also romantically conflicted, though not so much as he is in the television series, Grantchester, he meets a German woman who had followed her husband back to Grantchester, but finds herself widowed. The murder of her husband is Sidney’s first case. Yet, when everyone in his sleepy English village distrusts the German woman, Sidney is quite taken with her.

Sidney’s other romantic interest is Amanda, his sister’s friend. Introduced in the second story, Amanda and Sidney become friends and even work on cases together. But she is rich and privledged – and he’s a poor clergyman. Both think remaining friends is better than getting married.

It’s a traditional English Cozy setting: sleepy English village, amateur detective who’s fallen into being a detective – then happens to be there when crimes occur, a cast of lovable off-beat characters surrounding our main character, and there’s even a dog, named Dickens. But as much as Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death checks every box marked “traditional English Cozy mystery”, it somehow rises above it’s component parts. The publication date is 2012, so it brings somewhat modern attitudes to an historical era – the prejudice, un-equal social status, and repression of the 1950s are subtly condemned for what they are, through Sidney’s eyes – as he’s a modern character, with modern ideas. I breezed through this novel quickly, and enjoyed it very much.

For those having doubts about a mystery series where the main character is an Anglican priest, really, give these a try. I found them to not be “preachy”. Yes, the subject of religion comes up – but more because it is part of Sidney’s job than anything else, and Sidney never seems to be up to date on writing his sermons.

The novel, and the television series, are highly recommended.

Follow this link to read my Grantchester Series 1 review.

Grantchester series 2 and 3 are also available on DVD.