Solo’s Eleven

Star Wars: ScoundrelsStar Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before I say anything spoiler-y, I want to point this out for everyone who might be interested in this book: everything makes a lot more sense if you’ve read A. C. Crispin’s “Han Solo” trilogy (which itself makes more sense if you’ve read Brian Daley’s “Han Solo Adventures” trilogy, but that’s far enough removed from this that it isn’t necessary). It’s not essential, but it is helpful, especially in light of the Han-and-Lando dynamic that comes up frequently.

Now, let me get into the spoilers. This is a “heist” book, and like a “heist” movie, it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to review without mentioning at least one spoiler. So consider yourself duly warned.

I really enjoyed this book. I like stories that keep me guessing a little bit, and this one certainly delivered. (Of course, Mr. Zahn has some experience with keeping me guessing, at least as long ago as I read his non-Star Wars novel The Icarus Hunt.) I also think that Mr. Zahn did a good job writing Han, Lando, Winter, and Kell Tainer (whom he borrowed from Aaron Allston’s X-Wing books). I would need to reread books featuring the latter two characters to make sure this fits in with their backstories and style, but based on Mr. Zahn’s prior good work, I have no reason to think that it did not.

Perhaps the most frustrating, in retrospect, was the identity and purpose of Eanjer, the local that hires Han for the job. I should have guessed his identity much earlier, based on my prior knowledge of his character, but I think I figured it out, at best, a few pages before Mr. Zahn wanted me to. Ah, well–more credit to the author, I suppose.

The book wasn’t perfect, but I don’t have many complaints. As with The Icarus Hunt, I thought that the book ended too quickly, without revisiting all of the characters in enough detail. And, while I appreciate Mr. Zahn’s interest in embroiling us in the world by mentioning other names that we might remember (referencing Crispin’s trilogy, for example), there were a couple anachronisms. It made no sense, for example, for one character to refer to Revan and Malak (characters from the Knights of the Old Republic video game), who existed thousands of years prior, in the middle of a galaxy in which Jedi and the Force were all but forgotten (a point made by Lando toward the end of the book). I might as well say, “Who do you think they are, Achilles and Odysseus?” It’s theoretically believable that I would mention those people, but far from normal.

At any rate, I enjoyed the book, and I hope that Lucasfilm’s new masters will not overlook Mr. Zahn as they continue to produce fiction in the “new” Star Wars universe.

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Marian Study, Not Marian Apologetics

Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of GodHail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God by Scott Hahn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I struggled with my selection of a star rating for this book; I vacillate between liking and disliking it. I liked it because it’s very forthright, very dedicated, very committed; I disliked it because Mr. Hahn allowed that dedication to surpass good judgment and good argumentation.

Before I get started with the major things, let me offer up very minor things. First, some people like puns; others don’t. If you don’t, you may not appreciate Mr. Hahn’s section titles–this is your fair warning. There are also a few typos and poor word choice that affect the flow of the prose, but nothing grammatically offensive.

Let me begin the meatier section with the good points. This is a good book for Catholics who want to know more about the history and basis of Marian devotion and Marian theology. It answers questions that Protestant objectors tend to raise, and it presents information based on Scripture and Tradition to back up those answers. It does all of this with the impassioned voice of someone who truly adheres to the teachings of the Church on these matters, which are often difficult for non-Catholics to consider.

But this is not a good apologetic book, and it should not be given to Protestants.

We (human beings) are emotional creatures. In many ways, and at many times, we allow our emotions to influence our judgment. A book that is poorly worded, or a book that chooses phrasing and imagery that is insulting from an opposing point of view, loses almost all the ground it may gain through good sourcing and effective argumentation. “Hail, Holy Queen” suffers from this problem. One main trouble is not that Mr. Hahn did not know his Bible, or that he did not know his papal documents or council documents or Augustinian writings–the trouble was that he, on more than one occasion, made statements that would be emotionally objectionable for a disagreeing reader. He also made several key errors in argumentation, which I will address as I come to them.

While Mr. Hahn’s knowledge of Scripture and Tradition seems well-established, so far as I can tell, his Roman history is somewhat lacking. It seems a crucial point, for example, that he interpret the beast of the sea (in Revelation) as the Roman dynasty that empowered the Herodian dynasty to oppress the Christians–but he says that there were “10 Caesars” from Julius Caesar to Vespasian. It should be pointed out that the dynastic view of the Roman emperors does not run from Julius to Vespasian, but from Julius to Nero, and from Galba to Domitian, and from Nerva to Commodus, and so on. Furthermore, the name “Caesar” truly belonged to Julius Caesar, but in classic Roman style, it was applied to nearly every emperor until the 4th century (to the point where “Caesar” became synonymous with “emperor,” which is why the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was called the Kaiser and the emperor of Russia the Czar). It only stopped in the 4th century because, by then, it was the job title instead of a name. One of the exceptions to this naming custom, of course, was Vitellius–the emperor immediately preceding Vespasian. Nevermind that Octavian (“Caesar Augustus”) was, at best, adopted by Julius Caesar, but still had to win a civil war to become emperor himself.

From time to time, Mr. Hahn also made statements that eroded his own position. He quoted Tertullian, for example, to summarize Catholic Mariology–and immediately pointed out that Tertullian’s Mariology is mostly flawed and erroneous. This almost nullifies the quote, and one must wonder: could there not have been a better quote, from a more reputable source?

Chapter 5 is something of a turning point in the book. In the first four chapters, Mr. Hahn is focused on establishing Mary as the culmination of a number of Old Testament types. In Chapter 5, he finally addresses, in so many words, the Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church (the perpetual virginity, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption). Yet it is here that he begins to struggle with clear argumentation. He proposes that Mary (as a person) be the focus of this study, since she is not merely a collection of ideas–yet the ideas are what must be discussed, because there is no serious historian who denies the existence of the person of Mary. More than once, Mr. Hahn makes blanket statements and broad assumptions, declaring as fact things that are not in evidence and have not been established earlier in the book, ostensibly to establish Mary as a “person”–an establishment which no one will controvert, though they will certainly controvert the assumptions.

He first makes bold claims, and asks his reader (who may have doubts about Mary and Marian doctrine) to establish Mary (as taught by the Catholic Church) as the goal of the discussion–not to discuss the doctrines and how she might fit them, but to run towards those doctrines as though towards a finish line. This is counterproductive to the discussion, because the opposing mind will simply refuse, and no ground will be gained. He uses the earlier chapters of the book to justify his assumptions, but those earlier chapters have not yet been proved to the doubtful reader–making these new statements all the more dubious. He even uses emotional arguments from popular belief and popular historical opinion.

None of these arguments are effective, but rather, they are counterproductive to the intended goal of increased understanding of Marian doctrine and greater devotion to Mary as our exemplar.

At one point, Mr. Hahn seems to suggest that the doctrine of perpetual virginity arose, not from fact or historical understanding or theological necessity, but from an oversimplification caused by creedal speech (i.e., that “born of the Virgin Mary” equivocates Mary with Virginity). He uses the more ambiguous term “brethren” to translate adelphoi–probably because it sounds more gender inclusive, but it comes across as intentionally avoiding the “from the [same] womb” literal translation that Mr. Hahn insists upon in later chapters.

Perhaps Mr. Hahn’s most egregious mistake is to use language and arguments that would be emotionally charged for a Protestant reader–especially a reader looking for any reason to discount this book, and all it contains, as hogwash. He uses terms like “unfamiliar,” “non-issue,” and “amateur” to describe anyone who would disagree with the interpretation of Scripture that he posits. He oversimplifies the nature of sin by equating it to an auto mechanic overcharging for services. He says outright in two different places that one’s acceptance of the Gospel can be measured by one’s acceptance of Marian doctrine. He engages in poor word choice, talking about the “union” of Mary’s human will with God’s divine will–clear enough to a theologian that understands the distinctions between that “union” and, say, the hypostatic union of Christ, but unclear to someone who may think Mr. Hahn is again trying to deify Mary. At one point, he seems to say that the Church is only the spouse of Christ and the mother of the faithful (a common point of agreement between Catholics and Protestants) only because Mary was those things first (and so Mr. Hahn removes the common ground he might otherwise have had). He frames Mary and the Church in opposition, saying that Mary is over there with God, and the Church is over here, trying (in vain) to emulate her. This, indeed, seems to be the only case of genuine overreach on Mr. Hahn’s part–going beyond the Mariology that seems acceptable to suggest that Mary is exterior to the Church, rather than an exemplary part of it, and that the Church is merely a type of Mary.

He closes the argumentative portion of the book (prior to the final chapter, which advocates caution and love in the face of opposition, and the appendix, which is, in many ways, a redeeming passage) with the declaration that the Church should not put ecumenism before Mariology; he surely did not mean it as such, but at this point in the book, it almost sounds like justification for his occasionally uncharitable tone.

All that to say, I vacillated between liking and disliking this book. Clearly, I had more negative things to say than positive, but that usually happens when I take notes. This book is very good for Catholics who want to know more about Mary, but I maintain that it is not a good work of Marian apologetics.

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The Star Wars, but Different

The Star WarsThe Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a harder time reviewing comic books than regular books, in no small part because I feel like there’s more to review, but I don’t have enough experience in the genre to do it.

The art in this book was excellent. Certainly evocative of the look and feel of early Star Wars (i.e., McQuarrie) concept art. At times, I thought that the art could have been used for more effective pacing (the story seemed to move far too quickly, and part of that was Lucas’ original writing, but it could have been allayed by clever artwork).

Speaking of the writing, it’s lacking in a few areas. A relationship that begins abusive progresses through wishing death upon the other person and proceeds to, within a few days (at most), professions of love. (Lucas’ quality of writing in “Episode I” really shines through in the romantic subplot of the story–and, in general, in regard to relationships.) For example, when Kane Starkiller leaves his son Annikin in the care of a stranger, Annikin says, “So long, Dad!” and departs. (Recently, it had been revealed that Kane was dying.) Later, Captain Whitsun and Princess Leia have a conversation about her feelings for Annikin while their ship is exploding. This sort of thing is very unrealistic and subpar.

It’s definitely not Star Wars, but it also is–kind of. There are a lot of familiar names and places, similar imagery, and so on–but it’s not the Star Wars of the films by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s entertaining, especially for long-time fans of Star Wars that are looking for something a little different, but with the original films behind us, this is no longer revolutionary or incredible.

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The Unpleasantness of the Eccentric Detective

Fer-de-Lance (Nero Wolfe, #1)Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven’t read many mysteries. It’s not a genre that normally appeals to my escapist philosophy of fiction. Yet as a writer, I have had some interest in hiding details from my readers until the opportune moment–and besides, I try to branch out once in a while.

This book was not quite what I expected. I had heard positive things about Rex Stout’s series before, and the first in that series has certainly been intriguing, but I’m not sure I want to continue with the series. In the simplest estimations, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are only the Americanized Holmes and Watson–one an eccentric, the other a more practical man. Wolfe’s ethical shortcomings are far removed from Holmes’, of course; where Holmes frequented opium dens and held to other vices, Wolfe is something of an agoraphobe–and, based on the ending of the book, that extends beyond weakness into true character flaw.

It was probably the ending that made me lower my rating from 4 stars to 3. The grand reveal of the final few pages was not our killer–no, he had been suspected since an early chapter, and confirmed a little more than halfway through–but was instead a facet of the character of our supposed protagonist, the great detective Nero Wolfe. This was not in keeping with what I had anticipated for a mystery novel, in that all the red herrings and false leads and unimportant minutia were put aside and overcome long before the end; it was also not what I expected from a book which, presumably, should make me cheer for the character after whom the series is named.

All that to say, I found it very difficult to appreciate Nero Wolfe, especially in the final pages of the book. Not that he is not a well-written character, or a well-rounded character (no pun intended), but that I simply do not like him. That would probably be okay, since we spend far more time with Archie Goodwin than with Wolfe, if I had liked Goodwin a great deal. If, say, Goodwin had been more like Watson–honorable, of strong character, and perhaps less… American–I could be entertained by the eccentric (if unethical) detective. (Goodwin is petty and short-tempered, heavily self-interested, and a bit of a womanizer, from what I’ve read.) Instead, I read a book in which I supported the ambitions of no one, and I was sated only with the conclusion to the mystery.

At any rate, the book is well-written. It includes mannerisms and turns of phrase appropriate to its age (first published in 1934), and there are even now some typographical errors among its pages, but the characters are complex (if a little unpleasant to me) and the plot entertaining.

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Devotional Point of View and Authority

My Daily BreadMy Daily Bread by Anthony J Paone

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was given this book as a gift, and–in need of a daily devotional–I gave it a shot. In a lot of ways, Fr. Paone’s work here really delivers. Many of the readings are convicting and encouraging, warning and uplifting at the same time. Frequently, I set the book down, and I was enlivened to face the day with vim and vigor, to turn a phrase.

But the book was not perfect. Fr. Paone frames the book as a dialogue with Christ–a dialogue in which Christ rarely quotes Scripture, occasionally speaks in the Person of the Father, and does not always present himself in the pattern of Our Lord, according to what we know through Scripture and the Church. Through Christ as a mouthpiece, Fr. Paone encourages spiritual behavior that has widely varying levels of success, and should only be pursued under the close guidance of a wise spiritual director (such as flagellation, for example). Fr. Paone (as Christ) also grants only grudging acceptance of anyone who pursues anything less than the contemplative life; while it is true that a life wholly dedicated to God may be holier than one drawn in multiple directions by the worries of this world, that does not make the rest of us second-class citizens. After all, we are obeying God’s commands, too–to be fruitful and multiply, and to reflect the love of the Godhead through holy matrimony and devout family life.

Most of the book is just fine, but I think Fr. Paone would have done better if he had not purported to be transcribing the words of the Living Word, but only his own spiritual advice. Alternatively, he could have used Scripture passages as the basis for each prayer, showing how–through the Written Word–God does intend for us to behave in the ways that Fr. Paone has encouraged.

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