This is my little page to describe some of the things that have caught my interest lately. Whether you take these as recommendations to follow or just indicators into my warped wolfen brain is up to you. :) (Last update: 11/11/04)
On the Coffee Table:
I've been doing a lot more reading this year, and I feel a little guilty that I haven't been keeping this section more up-to-date. Here are a few of the titles I've been impressed with this year.
I'll admit it: I'm a Star Wars geek.When the Star Wars fiction line for adults was re-launched in 1991 with Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, I was instantly hooked. I've read a lot of Star Wars novels since then, but in my opinion Timothy Zahn still does the best job of capturing the spirit and personalities of the characters. His most recent outing, Survivor's Quest, takes place near the end of the New Republic era, about 20 years after Return of the Jedi and before the start of the New Jedi Order maxi-series. Here Jedi Master Luke Skywalker and his newly-wedded wife, the former Imperial assassin Mara Jade, head out on a diplomatic mission to the Unknown Regions of the galaxy. It seems that the Chiss, an honor-driven and somewhat xenophobic species that rules much of the Unknown Regions, have found the remnants of a Jedi exploration vessel from the last days of the Old Republic. Since it is believed that a Chiss commander was responsible for destroying the vessel -- none other than Thrawn, who later went on to become a Grand Admiral of the Empire and nearly brought down the New Republic -- the Chiss feel honor-bound to give back the remains of the vessel in a formal ceremony of apology. Not everything is as it appears to be, however, and Luke and Mara quickly find themselves entangled in a web of secrets and lies that could prove deadly. At the same time, Mara is suffering doubts about her decision to side with the New Republic, and begins to wonder if she wouldn't be better suited to a life in the recently-reformed Empire.
This is, at its heart, a mystery story set against a sci-fi backdrop. There is action, and it's both engaging and well-written, but this is ultimately a smaller story than the epic space opera of Zahn's previous Star Wars novels. Luke and Mara are the only recurring characters who get any screen time here, so if you're not already a fan of the Luke/Mara relationship you're unlikely to find anything here that will appeal to you. I get the impression that this book was Zahn's way of filling in some gaps in the Star Wars world: he expands on our information about the Chiss, picks up the dangling plot threads about the Outbound Flight Project from his previous novels, and shows us some of Mara's character development between the Hand of Thrawn duology (when Mara finally admitted her love for Luke) and the New Jedi Order series, where she's become a Jedi Master and a stalwart defender of the New Republic. This is an important phase in Mara's growth, and it's nice to see it written down -- but at the same time, this is not the book to start with if you're new to Star Wars fiction. I recommend it to established Star Wars readers who are fans of Luke and Mara -- it may not be what you're used to, but it's a great story.
If you've been following this page in the past, you already know I'm a big fan of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Normally I'm suspicious of any author who takes more than three books to tell a story -- if it's good enough for Tolkien, it's good enough for me -- but I make an exception where Butcher is concerned, because Harry Dresden is so darned fun to read about. A professional wizard in modern-day Chicago, Harry makes his living off of dealing with stuff that most people don't want to even admit is real -- demons, ghosts, vampires, and the like. Along the way he's gotten himself into a boatload of trouble, and one of the people who have bailed him out in the past is Thomas, a vampire of the White Court (who are more like incubi and succubae than traditional vampires). Now, in Blood Rites, Thomas is calling in a favor in return: he needs Harry to help protect an erotic film producer who seems to have become the target of some nasty black magic. Needless to say, things aren't that simple, and Harry quickly runs into the sorts of twists, turns and unexpected developments that Butcher does so well. And along the way we discover a number of fascinating new details about Harry's family, including the cause of his mother's untimely death.
I seriously can't recommend these books highly enough; Butcher is just a terrific yarn-spinner, and his characters are so wonderfully real and human (even the nonhuman ones). Start at the beginning with Storm Front and work your way up to this one; if you enjoy mysteries, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, horror, or just good characters and well-crafted plots, you owe it to yourself to check this series out.
I've also been reading through the Star Wars New Jedi Order series -- just finished it, in fact -- and there's one book in particular that I wanted to make mention of: Traitor, by Matthew Stover. This book absolutely blew me away, in terms of what Stover was able to accomplish with this little bitty piece of the NJO storyline. First off, this is not your typical Star Wars novel. The characters you've come to know and love from the movies are barely present, if at all. The protagonist is Jacen Solo, one of the twins born to Han and Leia in Tim Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, now a young adult struggling to find his purpose in life. In the previous book, Balance Point, Jacen was captured by the Big Bads of the NJO, a heavily religious and militaristic species called the Yuuzhan Vong who first invaded the galaxy three years prior. Things are bad, very bad: the capital system of Coruscant has fallen to the Vong, Jacen's brother has been killed, and the New Republic is in shambles. Jacen has been entrusted to Vergere, an enigmatic alien Force-user kept by the Yuuzhan Vong as a familiar; she assures them that she can turn Jacen to their purposes, converting him to the Vong religion.
What makes this book so extraordinary is the relationship between Jacen and Vergere, as it unfolds on a Vong worldship and, later, on the partially terraformed world of Coruscant, which the Vong are shaping into a reflection of their lost homeworld. In many ways it's a reflection of Luke's training with Yoda, but Vergere has very different teaching methods and very different lessons to teach. She reveals to Jacen a new way of looking at the Force, at himself, and at life in general -- revelations that could change the entire course of the war.
This is a very philosophical book, and interwoven into the story of Jacen and Vergere are a number of very intriguing lessons about life, fate, and the nature of good and evil. What Stover does with the Star Wars mythos and the concept of the Force is daring, brilliant, and absolutely shocking. I'm actually amazed that the Star Wars line editors let him get away with it, because it will completely change our perceptions about the Force and the underlying reality of the Star Wars universe. I'm really glad that they did let him do it, though, because it makes for a richer, deeper mythos than what we've seen before in this setting. I can't say much more than that without giving away the good stuff.
I'd say this is the best use of philosophy-in-fiction I've read since Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and this is a much more entertaining story than Pirsig's. (The philosophy is also much better integrated into the story, and comes off as far less preachy.) The Star Wars folks took a big chance in letting Stover tell this story, and he absolutely knocked it out of the park. Great stuff.
On the Small Screen:
There doesn't seem to be anything worth watching on TV anymore. Lately I've been renting a lot of anime titles from Netflix, particularly Witch Hunter Robin, Love Hina and Noir. I can't wait for January, when Alias returns to ABC.
In the CD Player:
There are some albums you just keep coming back to, over and over again, because they touch something inside of you and they're just too bloody good to let go of. It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while you find an album you just can't seem to get tired of, no matter how many times you listen to it. For me, Woven and Spun by Nichole Nordeman is that kind of album. I've been listening to this thing for more than a year and a half now, and I still love it. Nichole has a gift for writing lyrics that touch the soul; she can say things in a way that is so vulnerable, intense and powerful that it just penetrates you to the core. In her first two albums, she spent a lot of time expressing her doubts and fears about her walk with God, but this time she felt called to step out into greater expressions of worship, hope and faith -- to recognize the light as well as the darkness. She hasn't lost her impact, though -- she bypasses the usual Christian cliches and and platitudes, expressing her feelings about God with an honesty and poetry that will make you sit up and take notice.
There are no bad songs on this album, but there are some that really stand out. "Healed" points out our complete dependence on God to give our lives order, meaning, and purpose. "I Am" is an intensely emotional song that tells how God has related to Nichole in ways that were meaningful to her at every stage of life -- Superhero for the little girl, Secret Keeper for the teenager, Shepherd and Savior for the grown woman with children of her own -- and yet He still remains constant, the divine "I Am". "Take Me As I Am" expresses her fervent desire to be able to do more for God, and how "the gap grows wider / between who I am and all I aspire to be". Still, she recognizes that she'll never be able to achieve all she hopes for, and that God embraces her and accepts her just as she is. "My Offering" is a gorgeous song in which Nichole expresses her dedication to praise God no matter what He might have created her to be. The mental pictures here, in which the fields and clouds and mountains join with us in worship of the Creator, are truly inspiring. She also does a cover of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" that is, in my opinion, the best version of this song that has ever been done -- and I've heard several.
All of this is just warm-up for the big finale, though. "Gratitude", the last song on the album, is a gut-wrenching piece about being thankful to God even when He doesn't give us what we want. In each verse Nichole brings before God a deep, serious need -- rain for a land in drought, food and shelter for her family, peace for a troubled world -- and expresses how important it is. And then, each time, she lays it down, accepting that God might not do what she wants and thanking Him for the lessons He's teaching her in each situation. Our problem is one of perspective: "Oh, the differences that often are between / Everything we want and what we really need." If we could all learn this lesson, and honestly thank God for His goodness even when we're unhappy with the way He's doing things, I'm convinced that it would revolutionize the way we look at life and help us to be much more at peace when things aren't going our way. Ultimately, whether God does it our way or not, He's working things out for our long-term good. Or, as a friend of mine said recently: "It'll all be right in the end. If it's not all right, then it ain't the end."
This album is over two years old now, but I'd recommend it more highly than any new offering on the shelves. If you're a Christian, even if you don't normally listen to Christian music, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
I haven't listened to the whole album yet, but I have to take some space here to give props to Sarah McLachlan for her new Afterglow CD. I do so for one reason: "World on Fire". If you haven't seen the video for this song yet, then go do so now. I liked this song from the first time I heard it -- but when I saw the video I was truly blown away. We get so caught up in this country with materialism, and flash, and sizzle, and being entertained -- and then somebody like McLachlan comes along and reminds us that there are things a hell of a lot more important than any of that. Yes, the world's problems are bigger than what any one of us can solve, but our response should not be to give up and sink in to apathy. Ultimately it comes down to each of us doing our part: "I try to bring more, more than I can handle / Bring it to the table / I bring what I am able." It's about who you can touch in your own life -- who you can bless -- doing the little bit you can do. We're all in this together, folks. Kudos to McLachlan for Getting It and passing on the word to the rest of us.
I've got a bunch of new albums, but I haven't had a chance to really listen to them yet because the CD changer in my car is on the fritz. I'll get back to you guys once I have a chance to pick out the really good stuff.
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