Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon

August 31, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lando2Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon by L. Neil Smith

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When I started my Star Wars reading project, I was determined to read all the books, good or bad. Well, I’ve certainly stumbled right into the “bad” spectrum with these Lando Calrissian books. It’s no surprise that the Exanded Universe books took until the early ’90s to get going, because if these books represented the non-movie stories of the Star Wars universe, it deserved a quick death.

Aside from the titles of these books, which seem to have been created with combining random words from the dictionary and a box of Alpha-Bits, the stories are as dull as a fake sword. There are hints that Smith understands the character of Lando as he’s presented in the movies, but then he has him be mostly passive about the events and let outside influences move him forward. Vuffi Raa, his sidekick, is the one who keeps Lando moving forward (and alive), since Lando is mostly interested in playing Sabacc and smoking cigars.

The Flamewind of the title is (I think) a solar-system-wide aurora that can have detrimental effects on beings who travel through it, so the main plot is that Lando has to fly through it to accomplish a mission he’s been forced into. The antagonist from the previous novel appears again, suggesting that the entire trilogy will have him as a recurring plot, and he’s a central part of this book’s plot. It doesn’t help that he’s a Snidely Whiplash sort of character, all but twisting his mustache as he laughs maniacally. It’s a bit heavy handed; give me a character with nuance and substance, not cliched traits.

As before, there’s almost no characterization to the book, and there’s far too much telling going on. Smith continues to reference too many real-world things, though that may be due to it being written so early in the Expanded Universe, before terms like “transparisteel” replaced “glass” and “death sticks” replaced “cigarettes”. Still, it’s odd, and breaks the illusion of the story, when he has a spacecraft complete what he calls, “in another time and place”, the Immelman turn. I feel like the author is either showing off how much he knows about aerial maneuvers, or bring lazy and telling us what happens instead of describing the move.

The books don’t even feel much like Star Wars, since there’s no mention of much to connect us to the movies. Lando’s name, as well as a few references to the Empire and the Emperor, are it. There’s no Force, no rebel alliance, nothing to remind us that this is the Star Wars universe. On the one hand, it’s refreshing, since we rarely see non-Jedi characters as the focus of the EU; on the other hand, these books are so boring and tedious that it’s not worth reading them.

About the only think I like about these stories is Vuffi Raa, who feels more like a human character than Lando does. There’s a part of me that’s hoping Vuffi will become Lobot in the third book, tying the two trusted sidekicks together, but I get the feeling Smith isn’t concerned with that kind of thing. Instead, we’ll get paragraphs of pointless description and plots as thin as an after-dinner mint.

Seriously, these books aren’t worth reading. They might have been more interesting had I read them during their time, but in retrospect, they represent the worst of science fiction. Even people who feel the need to read all of the EU books should skip these.

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How to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records

August 30, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

ruinHow to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records by Larry Livermore

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I read Kevin Prested’s Punk USA, and was surprised to see that Larry Livermore was absent from the interviews included in the book. How could someone write a book about Lookout! Records without including Larry? Was it because he had removed himself from the label, or didn’t want to look back on what it had become? No, it turned out that he was writing his own book about his time at the label, and didn’t want to duplicate his thoughts. So of course once I finished that book, I had to move on to Larry’s.

If you want to know about the bands and the shows and the tours and the releases, Punk USA is the better book to read, because Livermore’s story is more personal. It makes sense — Prested was looking at the story from the perspective of a journalist, while Livermore is writing a memoir — but the two books pair well together. It’s still hard to tell if the two books comprise the complete story of Lookout! (there are a few contradictions between the two books, and the heroes and villains are portrayed differently), but together they tell a lot more than what a casual fan would already know.

Livermore tells his story in a self-effacing manner, mostly in the way he tells about the conflicts he had with other people on the label. Tim Yohannon and Ben Weasel get as much attention in Livermore’s book as they did in Punk USA, but Livermore relays his feelings with an amount of respect. He admires the people as much as he criticizes them, which isn’t always evident in Punk USA. Prested himself avoids comment, but those he interviews have some choice things to say. I preferred Livermore’s telling of those stories, just because it praised as well as criticized.

Strangely, the key moment of the book — when Livermore decides to leave the label — is told differently in each book. The way Livermore tells it, Chris Applegren came to Livermore when he was ready to have a legal intervention over a disparagement with Ben Weasel (Livermore stresses that it wasn’t suing, even though it was perceived as such) and basically gave him an ultimatum: Drop the proceedings or I quit. Instead, Livermore himself quit and let Applegren take over the label.

It’s clear that Livermore has fond memories of the label and its scene, even as he has no regrets over the decisions he made. As he sees it, the label’s focus changed after he left, similar to how Sub Pop changed when Bruce Pavitt left, and that’s ultimately what led to its downfall. It’s hard to say if Livermore staying on would have prevented the label’s demise (though the way Livermore tells it, it would have), but he does tell the story with reserved judgment. For that part of the story, he’s on the outside looking in, and his hindsight is 20/20.

The most remarkable piece of the story is in his postscript, where he writes about art and the scene and nostalgia, and sums it up in a beautiful way. Livermore is a talented writer, and his poignant look to the past and future is an effective way to wrap up his story. Prested’s book gives a better picture of the label overall, but Livermore’s memoir tells the story the way a biography can’t. They’re inseparable works, and anyone interested in the label and its history should read both books.

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Spy Rock Memories

August 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

spySpy Rock Memories by Larry Livermore

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After reading Punk USA, the story of Lookout! Records, I figured I needed to get the complete picture of the label by reading Larry Livermore’s take on it, too. The thing is, when I went to find his book, I saw that he had another book, one he wrote about his time living on a mountain in a house that had running water thanks to the creek near his cabin, and electricity thanks to its solar panels. That time predated (and overlapped) Livermore’s time with Lookout!, so I figured I should start with this book before moving on to How to Ru(i)n a Record Label, even if I wasn’t all that interested in reading about living off the grid.

In my review of Punk USA, though, I noted that a well-written book about a topic in which the reader may not have a lot of interest will still be engaging, and Spy Rock Memories is one of those books. Livermore tells his tale with a kind of self-awareness that shows us both sides of a story, even though it’s written by just one person. He’s quick to show us his successes (he even admits that he is his own favorite topic), but he also easily admits his failings.

Though Livermore touches on his dealings with Lookout!, the story is really a memoir of his life on the mountain. He talks about how he came to buy his home there, how he survived the brutal winters, the repairs and additions he had to make to his home (which, based on the way Livermore tells it, he had to do constantly), and his run-ins with the local wildlife. He writes about being a hippie, about being into punk, about making friends and enemies on the mountain due to his beliefs, and tying all of his ideals together into a self-published newspaper/newsletter called The Lookout. He writes about starting a band with some of the kids of his neighbors, of his forays into San Francisco and Berkeley both before and after the label began, and his presence in the local town and what it meant to his life on the mountain.

He also writes about the heartache of broken relationships, of finding, raising, and losing pets, of achievements and losses, and disilluisonment, not just with his label, but also with how to live life and the idea of living on the mountain. It’s a very human story, with a sharp focus. Sometimes, Livermore comes off as being self-important, enough so that it’s difficult to know if what he’s telling us is the truth as it actually happened, or is the truth as he wants it to be, but his self-effacing manner through the memoir suggest more of the former over the latter. It still comes through on occasion, though.

Spy Rock Memories is a fascinating read, and one that preps me for How to Ru(i)n a Record Label. It’s good to know that Livermore can write about more than just the facts, and can pull real emotion into his story, because it means the next book will be a perfect complement to Punk USA, where it felt more factual than emotional. That’s probably the difference between a memoir and a biography, to be honest — one is told by the person, while another is told about a person. Regardless, I look forward to seeing Livermore’s take on his involvement with Lookout!

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Punk USA: The Rise and Downfall of Lookout! Records

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

punkPunk USA: The Rise and Downfall of Lookout! Records by Kevin Prested

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Ah, Lookout! Records. I have a lot of good memories regarding that label. I think Operation Ivy was what brought them to my attention, and it was what kept it for a long time. I wasn’t there “from the beginning”, but I remember when 39/Smooth was the only Green Day record, and I remember the excitement surrounding Screeching Weasel finally signing with them. There weren’t a lot of labels I followed religiously, but Lookout! was definitely one of them.

Punk USA takes us from the very beginnings of Lookout!, all the way through to its sad end. Prested tells us a little bit about all of the major bands that signed to the label, as well as telling us a bit about the scene that drove the start of Lookout!, as well as carried it along. He recognizes that the label was a result of the scene, and pays attention to the ones who were a part of that scene, and how they played a role in the label. It was a small enough scene that almost everyone was a part of Lookout! at one point or another.

Punk USA is a collection of recollections, some told from his perspective, but most of them from those who were a part of the scene and the label. Chris Applegren, an early employee of the label who eventually became a co-owner, tells the bulk of the story, but we also hear from members of the bands who were on the label, including such luminaries as Dr. Frank from The Mr. T Experience and Jesse from Operation Ivy. For someone like me, who followed the label so closely and knew a lot of the bands and names, it was a great insight into a big part of my youth (if you consider college “youth”, at least).

Noticeably absent from the book are any pieces from Larry Livermore, one of the two founders of the label. There’s no intention to it (Larry was apparently already working on his own book about the label, and chose not to participate in this one so as not to duplicate his own effort), but it makes the book feel incomplete. David Hayes, the other co-founder, participated, and from the other participants it’s easy to get a picture of Livermore, but it doesn’t seem right to have a book about Lookout! without having Larry give his own view of events. Considering that one of the key points in Lookout!’s history is when Larry leaves the label, but we never really get a complete view of why this happens.

To his credit, Prested makes sure to give as accurate a view as possible in the book. He takes a “warts and all” approach to the story, showing us how band-centered the label was, but also not avoiding the drama that eventually led to the label’s demise. The feuds between the label and Ben Weasel and Tim Yohannon are discussed, and Prested does his best to present them in the most balanced way possible, considering that neither Livermore, Weasel, or Yohannon participated in the book (though I should point out that Yohannon died in 1998, long before the book was written).

The thing is, the book covers a lot of ground. Lookout! started in 1987, and didn’t go out of business until 2012, so there’s a lot of time to detail in the book. Prested does a good job of giving us a look at each of the bands on the label, even if it’s not comprehensive, but sometimes it feels like we’re only getting a brief look at one small part of the label. It doesn’t help that Prested doesn’t provide breaks between sections, so it sometimes feels like the story is shifting abruptly from one band to another. Add in several typos and a handful of run-on sentences, and you get a book that’s more about the scene than it is in being a good book.

Still, that sounds a bit harsh; for anyone who was into Lookout! back in the day, this book feels essential. It’s not necessarily well written, but it’s a work of passion, and it’s a book that required a lot of hours to write. Prested should be commended for tackling the story and bringing it to the fans to read, but at the same time, it’s only going to resonate with those fans. A well-written book, even about a subject with which the reader is unfamiliar, will engage any reader; Punk USA‘s focus is for a smaller audience. Even readers looking to know more about Green Day will find themselves having to wade through all the other bands to get there.

As such, it’s a perfect punk book. It’s for the fans, by a fan, and it doesn’t care if it’s polished and perfect, so long as it gets its message across. Anyone who remembers the heyday of Lookout! should read it, as should any old punk who wants to relive the days of the scene, even if they weren’t into Lookout!

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Archie: Volume Three

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

archie3Archie: Volume Three by Mark Waid & Joe Eisma

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I’ve been reading the Archie books for as long as I can remember. I have memories of begging my parents to buy me the newest digest on display at the grocery store, and I remember reading them over and over again. I had my favorite characters, and I took sides on the whole Betty/Veronica running plot (Team Betty!), so it’s safe to say I was invested in the series as a kid.

The thing is, I don’t remember Cheryl Blossom. At all. I might have been too old to be reading Archie when she was introduced (Wikipedia says that was 1982), but even if I was, she didn’t make an impression. The way Waid introduced her in this volume made it clear she was an established character he was re-introducing, but for me it was all new. It didn’t feel like Waid was expecting the reader to know the character in order to not have to create her backstory, but it did feel like he was playing to the audience more with her character.

She’s not a likable character (she’s not intended to be), but she’s being presented as a third interest for Archie’s affections. While Archie is still the klutzy, clueless teenager he’s always been, Waid hasn’t presented Archie as being so clueless that he won’t see through her act. Maybe that’s forthcoming; this volume is more interested in establishing her character and putting events into place to bring her to Riverdale. Regardless, I’ll be interested in seeing how Waid puts the two character together.

As I said above, this book is all about Cheryl and getting her to Riverdale, but all of the events leading us that way feel forced. It made some sense for Hiram Lodge to send Veronica to a European boarding school at the end of Volume Two, but it still felt strained. Waid even succeeds in making her return feasible, but Cheryl’s move was a little too pat to be believable. The pieces fit well enough, and thinking back on it, I can’t see where Waid cheated to pull it together, but I’m not sure why he felt the need to move Veronica to Europe to do it.

Waid has done a good job so far with reinventing Archie for the modern world while staying true to the characters, but it feels like he stumbled with this arc. Now that the characters are all back on one place, the story should pick up and get back to what it’s done well so far, but getting there was a bit of a disappointment.

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The Island of Dr. Libris

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

librisThe Island of Dr. Libris by Chris Grabenstein

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As fun as the two Mr. Lemoncello books were, I went ahead and moved on to another of Grabenstein’s books, since it seemed related, even if it wasn’t part of that series. The premise of The Island of Dr. Libris is definitely different: a twelve-year-old boy is going to stay with his mother for the summer, their divorce pending and weighing on his mind, and while he’s there, he becomes part of an experiment where people are trying to harness his imagination.

It’s a weird setup, especially when the different stories Billy reads start to mesh together in a “Fractured Fairy Tales” sort of way. I expected the story to be a wacky mash-up of the stories with Billy running around trying to fix them, but it took a more somber tone. I didn’t mind that it bucked my expectations, but I don’t think the execution was that good.

Dr. Libris is the one behind the experiment, and it’s evident from his notes peppered in the story that he’s looking to make money off of his findings, but it never goes anywhere in the story. He’s there just to allow the events to get started, but once the experiment is deemed a success, his part in the story ends, even though there was still half the book to finish.

Grabenstein seems to want the story to focus more on Billy’s parents pending divorce, but he spends more time on the stories come to life to pull it off. Billy ultimately uses his ability to pull things out of stories to make an attempt to fix his parents’ marriage, but it comes off too late in the story, and simplifies whatever problems might be contributing to the divorce. His attempt rang true — he’s only twelve years old, and his understanding of love and relationships is naive — but the resolution didn’t.

When Grabenstein focuses on telling a story just for fun, he does a fine job, but his attempt to add depth to a silly story falls flat. I mentioned in my review of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library that the story was told without any pretension of being anything more than a fun story; The Island of Dr. Libris tries to be more, but suffers for it. For juvenile stories that take a more mature look at adult issues, look to Brian Selznick’s work.

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The Adventures of Lando Calrissian: Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu

August 23, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sharuThe Adventures of Lando Calrissian: Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu by L. Neil Smith

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I originally had this book as part of the most recent omnibus printing, but while browsing a used bookstore, I found all three of these (and the Han Solo Adventures!) in their original edition, and I had to have them. Not only did I remember seeing these books when I was a kid, but I’m also knocked out by that artwork. I mean, check it out! How can you not like that style?

Unfortunately, the same can not be said for the book itself. On the bright side, Aftermath is no longer the worst book I’ve read in the Expanded Universe, but reading this book was a bit of a chore. It’s overwrought, it meanders, and it makes little sense. Plus, for a book that’s supposed to be about Lando Calrissian, it does a terrible job capturing his character. The book opens with him playing a game of Sabacc (which, I should note, was introduced in this book), but then it develops into him being roped into an adventure where he has to find the Mindharp of Sharu, but even now, having just finished the book, I’m not sure I can tell you exactly what that is. Let’s just call it what it is: a McGuffin.

I’m willing to give the book some leeway in how it approaches the EU (it was, after all, only the fifth novel written outside of the movies themselves), but there were parts of it that just didn’t work in the universe. Namely, Smith refers to a lot of things in the universe with our names for them: trombones, air-conditioning, and needlepoint, to name just a few. He does make an effort to come up with new names for a few things (“coffeine” is one I recall), but for the most part, the book feels like it was written outside of Star Wars and then retconned back into place to make it fit his purposes.

Smith also has a penchant for alliteration. Take this example, from page two: “Oseon 2795 was a pocket of purity in a plutocrat’s paradise.” Upon reading it, my first thought was, “Really?”, but later I had to tell myself, “Really.”, because there was a sentence like that in at least every chapter. At one point, he has a character speak the line, with Lando commenting on it, but by then it was just annoying. It felt like Smith was trying too hard.

The plot is just barely there, as are the characters. Lando has a droid sidekick for most of the story, Vuffi Raa, who is actually the most realized character of the entire book. Lando’s a bit puffed up, a bit too self-important, but not in the same way he was in the movies. Smith forgets to include the charm that Billy Dee Williams brought to the character, and like I said above, for a story that’s supposed to tell Lando’s backstory, it sure doesn’t feel like the author captured the character well at all.

I said in the beginning that I was going to read all the EU books, and I still plan on doing so, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series. At the very least, I’ll be prepared for them. I guess they can’t get any worse, right?

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Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics

August 22, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

olympicsMr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein

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If you liked Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, it’s safe to say you’re going to like Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics. It has the same characters, the same tone, and the same message (friendship, teamwork, and libraries are all important) as the first book, and it’s just as much fun to read.

Pretty much everything I said about the first book is true about this one. It’s a juvenile book, so the characters are drawn broadly, but you’re going to like the protagonists and dislike the antagonists. Grabenstein mixes things up a bit by excluding some of the characters from the first book, and he brings in a new cast of characters through the Olympic themselves.

See, this time around, Mr. Lemoncello has received a lot of complaints from children across the US, saying it wasn’t fair that they couldn’t participate in the escape from the first book. In order to make it more fair, he creates the Olympics, where the country is divided by region, and each region sends a team of four to participate in the Olympics. Once at the library, the teams participate in twelve different events, with the team that wins the most medals being the winner of the Olympics. Of course, not everyone is happy with the way things are happening, which leads to the central conflict of the book (which, despite appearances, isn’t Kyle and his friends defending their title against the other teams).

At the beginning of the book, I wasn’t sure if I would like it as much, as it seemed to be a bit of a carbon copy of the first book in the series, but by the end, I had been just as caught up in it as I had the first time. It’s a fun book, it’s easy to read, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is. If the series sounds like something you would like, find it and read it and have fun with it. I know I did.

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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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Han Solo: The Hutt Gambit

August 18, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

gambitHan Solo: The Hutt Gambit by A.C. Crispin

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The Paradise Snare introduced the idea of Han Solo as an Imperial Navy pilot. It was an interesting idea, and one that helps explain why he’s such a good pilot in the movies (though it doesn’t explain why he never brings it up in the movies, but hey, this book was written 20 years after the movie, and I can live with such things), and one that I looked forward to reading about in The Hutt Gambit. Alas, this book picks up five years later, a month or so after Han has been kicked out of the Navy for striking an officer, so we don’t get to see that part of the story.

Instead, we see Han beginning his life as a smuggler proper. He’s being hunted by bounty hunters hired by the Ylesian Hutts he crossed in The Paradise Snare, while working for Jiliac and his nephew, Jabba. Chewbacca is now Han’s partner (Chewie is part of the reason Han got kicked out of the Navy), and the two of them start crossing the galaxy and getting into trouble.

The story flows pretty well, taking us through the characters’ lives, and giving us hints at what’s to come, and what’s come before. Bria makes an appearance here, though she’s a tertiary character, at best. We get a few fan-service moments throughout the story (Boba Fett, Cloud City, and Tatooine all make appearances, or are at least mentioned), and Crispin sets up the end of the novel to take us through to the third book in the series, which feels like it will be a culmination of the characters she’s introduced in the first two books.

Han feels more like Han in The Hutt Gambit, and Crispin avoids overusing “Honey” and “Sweetheart” in his speech like she did in The Paradise Snare (I don’t remember seeing a single instance of either, in fact). I felt more invested in Han and the characters around him, even though I didn’t have the kind of connection I’ve had with other characters in other books. The action is solid and well-paced, and the final battle in the book (which takes up about a quarter of the novel) is gripping and engaging.

The Hutt Gambit is a solid read, and is an improvement over the first book in this trilogy. I wouldn’t count it among my favorites, but it was worth the time, and is a stronger book than some of the newer Expanded Universe books. Despite some telly parts here and there, and taking a little too long to get to the heart of the story, the book satisfies.

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