Star Wars: Tarkin by Luceno

Star Wars: Tarkin by James LucenoOne of the most dastardly villains in the Star Wars universe came and went with an all too early bang along with the Death Star: Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin in Episode IV, A New Hope. The then wasted opportunity to get to know this fascinated character is finally made available by this novel and readers will rejoice!

Star Wars: Tarkin
by James Luceno
read by Euan Morton
LucasBooks / Random House Audio
November 2014

A leader with the guts to blow up a fully developed world deserved more than the quick death on the Death Star. We never learned who he was, how he got to where he was, how in charge he really was, and what could drive a man to that horrendous atrocity. But here we do. James Luceno takes the Star Wars universe in a slight historical detour to tell the story of Tarkin’s rise to power in the Empire. Without spoiling too much, he begins with his outer rim birth and how he was raised to how he overcame perceptions and earned the respect of those in power, specifically Darth Vader and the Emperor.

Luceno’s great accomplishment is how he has readers cheering for Tarkin’s success. We grow to like him and understand his decisions. (Obviously not those decisions in the movies, but the decisions prior to those that made up his character.) I don’t recall the last time I rooted for the bad guy. I’m not talking anti-hero here, but actual bad guy.

This story isn’t just back story on a single character though. We see scenes where Palpatine rules and makes decisions, further fleshing out that character as well. After all, we see so little of how he ruled in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The one character we don’t learn as much about is Vader, but frankly we know quite a bit about him so that criticism is unfair.

Not everything is perfect though. The rebels tend to be rehashes of Star Wars cliché characters. The leader is Han with Leah’s moral compass; the others are tag-alongs you could see in nearly any book in the series. Indistinct is the best way to describe them. But they aren’t the focus. Tarkin is and when the story sticks to him it shines.

In my opinion, one of the best Star Wars books in recent years and one of my unexpected favorite reads of 2014.

A note about the audio version: Morton is excellent. His Tarkin reminds us of the film version. His Vader – thanks to audio editing and effects – works great. The Emperor is outstandingly close to the original. Very well done. Plus you get all the great radio drama sound effects we are accustomed to in Star Wars audio books.

@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

The Descent by Bonansinga

descentThe Governor is dead. Killed by Lily Caul at the battle for the Prison. Woodbury turns to new leadership as it tries to survive the aftermath.

The Descent
The Walking Dead
by Jay Bonansinga
read by Fred Berman
Thomas Dunne / Macmillan Audio

Lily doesn’t want to be the new leader of Woodbury. Not even with a democratic council by her side. After the losses she’s suffered she wants nothing more than to find a capable leader and settle back into the shadows. But there is a hoard coming – the size of which no one has ever seen – so stepping down isn’t an option yet.

As the survivors in Woodbury divert the swarm a young man travelling alone sees the commotion and follows it back to Lily and her group. It turns out his church group is holed up in a small town, surrounded on all sides by the swarm. Lily makes the decision that to survive they will need all the capable, live humans as they can find and this group could help them so they make out to save Reverend Jeremiah and his flock.

After saving them and incorporating the new group into the settlement of Woodbury it looks like everything is going exactly as Lily would like. She has found a new man for herself – and possibly the family that was stolen from her at the prison – and a new leader for the town in Jeremiah. But not everything is right.

[HUGE SPOILERS] Characteristically, Jeremiah turns out to be a zealot cultist who intends to drink the Kool-Aid, literally, and kill everyone at Woodbury in a dark version of communion. I don’t want to spoil the book for you. Hopefully, you read that huge SPOILERS tag. But in order to understand why I didn’t enjoy this book as much I have to go here. Why are all the Christians introduced in the book – and really in this series – insane cultists? Even Lily’s new crush turns into one in the end. Are there no actual religious people who are good, non-crazy characters? It’s a tired trope. There are so many bad guys in this world already. Adding all the Christians to the list is over-kill.

[SPOILERS STILL] And what’s with another book, another dead lover for Lily? This is the fifth book (four if you combine the Fall set) for Lily and she has had three lovers and all three have been killed. There are a bunch of families in Woodbury who haven’t lost a single loved one. It smacks of by-the-book plotting. Help Lily grow! Have her character develop. Not go through the same things in every book! [END SPOILERS]

I am excited about where the series is headed and I’m glad that the series continues with some of our favorite characters still alive from the original trilogy (quad-igy). I’d like to see more diversity of bad guys, less caricatures and some chances taken with plotlines rather than going back to the same well again and again.

@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

10 Ultimate Truths Girls Should Know by Kampakis

10truths_rnd2Teens have it tough these days. I’m sure every generation says that, but how many generations have almost no privacy, the ability to be bullied from anywhere in the world at any time, and live in a world that is so overwhelmingly visual that almost all other aspects of our life take a back seat?

10 Ultimate Truths Girls Should Know
by Kari Kampakis
Thomas Nelson
November 2014

In this world, it’s important to know the truth about yourself and the right and wrong ways to act. With relativism so prevalent it’s tough to sell “ultimate truth” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that we shouldn’t try. And this author tries and succeeds on so many levels!

The 10 Ultimate Truths focus on 10 important ant issues that girls (and boys, to an extent) deal with:

Interacting with Boys
Self Worship
Inner Beauty
Self Talk

As I read the books – as a man with two teenaged daughters and two sons – I found that the truths here applied to boys as well as girls in most cases. The truths exposed were demonstrated and illustrated for girls but they apply to everyone. Consider the “Interacting with Boys” chapter, for instance, where the truth is “Chasing boys doesn’t make you cool. It makes you a nuisance.” While the illustrations may change the fact is that boys are at least as likely to annoy girls buy how they pursue girls as girls are buy how they pursue boys. I don’t believe the point here is not to show interest but a healthy way to show interest is the key. That’s a lesson everyone can learn from.

I loved that when you read through the book you don’t just get answers, you get questions. Self discovery is a key way to make learning stick. The author includes several important questions in each chapter to bring the topic home. Also included are relevant Bible verses that tie these current teachings to the timeless truths of the Biblical teaching. Verses like Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is greater than silver and gold” fits perfectly with the chapter on reputation.

Reading through the book I not only thought these were truths that my daughters should know but that I wished that I had known these things when I was a teen. These really are “ultimate truths” as they speak to who we are as created and loved beings and speak to an inner peace that just doesn’t come from any other source but the foundation of God. This is a must read for teenaged girls and their parents. I highly recommend it.

@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

The Blood of Angels by Sinisalo

booldofangelsOrvo, a Finnish beekeeper, has been watching the spread of the collapse of colonies of bees worldwide with trepidation and fear. And now one of his colonies has disappeared as well leaving only the dead queen in their wake.

The Blood of Angels
by Johanna Sinisalo
Peter Owen Publishers
October 1, 2014

In the United States and other places around the world the collapse of bee colonies has heralded economic disaster. No pollinization means no fruits or other plants that require bees to grow and develop. Without that food, domesticated animals and humans don’t have enough to eat. Prices skyrocket. Inflation brings nations to their knees. It looks a lot like the apocalypse to Orvo. But what has his attention as much as his newly collapsed colony is the activities of his son.

[SPOILERS] His son blogs for animal rights and equality. As he moved from basic questions and a call for right treatment to radicalization he ends up on the wrong side people who would rather kill him than dialog. And they do. [END SPOILERS]

Dealing with all the loss, Orvo happens upon a magical gateway to another world in, of all places, the upstairs of his barn. The doorway leads to a pristine world that seems to be without humans but abundantly full of bees and plant life. The question is what to do about the door, the impending apocalypse and his personal struggles.

Sinisalo breaks the narrative of her novel into bite sized – or I should say blog sized – entries. All counting down to the final day after the first collapse. In between Orvo’s story we get blog posts, with comments, to move the story along and fill in back story. Since the book does not move day by day, instead it jumps days, we miss some things only to read of them later. This device serves to add tension and interest to a premise that could be rather tedious. After all, other than visiting the “Other World” Orvo doesn’t leave his home for the duration of the novel.

While the story builds to a predetermined end day after collapse it ends in a way that is not sure to satisfy all readers but in a way that is true to Orvo’s character. Without spoiling the story, we see an outcome that leaves the reader with exactly enough to continue to think of the story but not enough to close it out and put it on the shelf to be forgotten. And I think that’s the point. Whether or not Sinisalo agrees with her protagonists son – especially on some of the more radical posts, the message is clear: are we destroying our planet? What would happen is colony collapse were real?

Oh, yeah: it is real. Search for bee collapse online and you’ll find quite a bit to substantiate that bees do in fact seem to be on the brink. And how that would affect our world would be devastating.

A surprisingly intriguing story about a topic that wouldn’t normally be considered as a thriller. A mix of fantasy, science and family drama this book is worth a read.

@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This game was provided by the publisher as a review copy.


20141218_223020Wisdomantics is a board game for 2 to 4 players where the goal is to learn and internalize the wisdom of Proverbs in a fun way.

Kingdom Games Enterprises

Your goal is to answer trivia questions – fill in the blanks – from 400 DVD questions earning the right to move around a Monopoly -like game. As you move you’ll gain Blessing cards (money), compete activities like telling about ways God has blessed you or paying for others or yourself, and earn resources (cypress, gold and cedar) to be the first to build Solomon’s temple.

20141218_222945I applaud the goal of the game and it can be interesting and engaging for those who use the King James Version. But there are some draw backs. As for the game play it seems odd to collect blessings from God and use them as currency. It’s also a gap where you’ll end up with way too many blessing cards too early making the game less about the board and more about the trivia. In fact, I’d prefer this was more about the trivia instead of the goal of building a temple out of 16 resources that you earn and buy. I’d also have preferred to stay away from the DVDs and go with cards and a timer. I’m not a fan of having to use a DVD without a reason. There are just questions with a timer on the screen so why do we need that? And if you read a modern translation (and you should based on scholarship and accuracy) then you’ll really struggle on the questions at times. But kudos for trying something else with the game. I just don’t think it works well.

20141218_223051Other than game play I’m worried that games like this don’t succeed in their worthy goals because they come off as cheesy or a parody of Christianity. A Christian I showed the game to actually said they thought the game was someone playing a joke on Christians. I see where they are coming from. The chits (game pieces we move) are a dove, a bible with a cross, the 10 Commandments and (for Doctor Who fans) what looks like a weeping angel. (Why? Do we really want people playing as persons of the Trinity? And who gets stuck with the fourth token? Just go with four colored tokens in my opinion.) The artwork on the box and low production value on the DVDs also set the bar really low. And this is a shame.

20141218_222928I get what the developers are going for and if this game serves to help people remember and hold on to the Proverbs then great! I’m just worried that the game isn’t that fun to keep people coming back, is a little clunky to play with odd design choices, and isn’t very appealing so I’m not sure it’s going to get that chance.

The good news is that if you’d like to try this out the developer and the publicity company, FlyBy Promotions, are willing to send out a copy of the game to one winner. One winner only. We will randomly select the winner from these comments or on Facebook. The winner cannot have won from this same publicity company in the past 60 days.

This contest is now closed.

@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This game was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

Hard Carbon by David M. Salkin

hardcarbonIvan “The Butcher” Bulovski has found a way to manufacture diamonds to use in a super computer that is so advanced it can be used to unsettle world markets, destroy economies or execute the largest bank heist in history – double digit billions stolen and untraceable. Can the FBI or the world stop him?

Hard Carbon
By David M. Salkin
Post Hill
September 2014

There are actually three stories here that are fairly unconnected: the FBI’s pursuit of the fake diamonds in the United States, the Butcher’s chase after technological supremacy (and unlimited wealth) and finally Max’s flight from the Butcher to freedom. All three happen simultaneously and all three feature the Butcher but they don’t overlap. And because they don’t tie together in the end I’m left with the impression that these are actually different stories. Unfortunately, the different stories don’t hold up well on their own or together.

[SPOILERS] For instance, the FBI agents, Still, Walker and Hollohan, never encounter the Butcher or even more than a couple mafia thugs. A non-FBI task force takes down a single cell while they watch and then when the Butcher is caught – I called SPOILERS – he is sent to Guantanamo Bay where he is held by the CIA and military. Basically, the FBI agents have a very small role in the story where they serve as a plot device to explain the diamonds to the reader. In that case, it is acceptable that they are not very well developed – they are military-jargon speaking macho-men who mostly speak in cliché. And they don’t come across as heroes when they ignore the law by not giving arrested men their Miranda rights, access to lawyers, and use techniques like you’d expect in a country less developed and less moral than the United States. Walker says, for instance, “Let’s get something straight. This isn’t a Hollywood movie and you won’t be under the protections of the US constitution where we take you… What is going to happen is that you are going to answer a very long list of questions, and then maybe we can discuss how you can survive afterward… You know, a—hole, before 9/11, we might have had to get you [a lawyer.] But the public is pretty fed up with illegal alien scumbags that come here to cause damage to this country… that’s right a—hole. You’re going to Cuba” (p146). On the next page Walker admits that what he is doing is illegal. All this setting aside of laws and morals to, what, find a fake diamond selling ring? The dialogue by the FBI agents and their actions are over the top and I never found myself rooting for them.

[STILL SPOILERS] Ditto the bank heist plot by the Butcher and his computer scientists. I looked it up and diamonds can be used in computers to speed up processing. So that part is fascinating. The use of scientists and the diamond material by the mafia boss to make a ton of money makes a ton of sense as well and the potential to use the new super computer to cause global cataclysm was intriguing but the Butcher never goes there. All he wants is money. The guy who has more money and unchallenged power than anyone in Russia wants only money and retirement. Huh? But why would he take a few billion dollars after a single heist, kill everyone, then move out of his safe zone to an island off the coast of America? Did it not cross his mind that the CIA or any other government agency for almost any Western country (or even Russia) would immediately take an interest in an international terrorist who happens to be on a boat with minimal defenses? It was a death sentence at best as soon as he left his country. It didn’t make sense to me.

[STILL MORE SPOILERS] Max’s story was the most intriguing but also serves to highlight how many of the characters in the book are caricatures. When Max starts running from the Butcher we start cheering for him. It’s easy to ignore the fact that he is a crook who was working for the mob and a murderer like the Butcher and focus on him as the little guy trying to escape. His capture seems inevitable when the Butcher sends his best man plus his two best bodyguards on the chase. I can’t stress enough how unsatisfying it was to see the ex-special forces thugs get gunned down by a single shot from a shotgun by a factory worker in the middle of the night. Why would they all be lined up at the door while breaching? Why wouldn’t they have taken out the guys in the room quickly (like we’d expect from Special Forces guys?) An ancient shotgun from across the room aimed at the door and fired once and all three are basically dead. End of tension. Everything after that is superfluous. We know no one is chasing Max even if he doesn’t. Even rooting for him seems a shallow victory as we know all along that he’s going to make a ton of money off his fake diamond – again, setting aside the fact that he is also a thief – and live happily ever after. But we are given no reason to care after that. [END SPOILERS]

I was a huge fan of Salkin’s Deep Black Sea. The writing was tight and the setting and plot created tension and made for a fun survival horror story. I read in the author’s note that this was the book that Salkin wrote first and then came back to after publishing seven others. I hate to provide negative feedback on what is surely a labor of love but it is my opinion after comparing the two most recently published novels that Salkin is a much better writer now than he was when he started this one. There are a bunch of plot holes, the story doesn’t seem to go together, and the characters aren’t well fleshed out.

I’m sorry but this one is a pass for me.

@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

Nnewts by Doug TenNapel

nnewtsThe Nnewt city is beset by evil Lizzarks in an unprovoked attack that devastates the people and leaves young Herk alone and on the run. The problem is that Herk is handicapped by under developed legs. As he struggles to survive he also searches for a way to restore his legs and find his destiny.

#1 Escape from the Lizzarks
by Doug TenNapel
January 2015

At times the story seems disconnected and problems are solved too conveniently and quickly. For instance, Herk has a disability but instead of overcoming it he [SPOILERS] fights the god of the Lizzarks who stole them from him as a child. It’s over with a single blow off a rock to the head. How did he get there? At a temple in the ruins of the Nnewt city, where he finds nnewts2himself after his family is murdered, and guided by an old king who appears and disappears just as quickly. Then he’s at a huge city of Nnewts ams is saved by an arrow from a constellation. [END SPOILERS] I know there is a lot left untold at this point as this is only book one but I felt things really moved quickly with very little back story. Hopefully future books clear some of this up.

This is a book written with 8-12 year old kids in mind and I think that’s the nnewt3right age group for reading skill and interest. It may be rough on some to see the content depictions of Herk’s parent and siblings killed. As my 8 year old said, [SPOILERS]  “The book is interesting but a lot of people die.” (See pictures to the left for the death of the mother.) [END SPOILERS]

The art is great – something you’d expect since the author created Earthworm Jim – and the story, while abrupt is fun and complex. I recommend it to older – 3rd grade and up – readers.

@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

Meet the Bigfeet by Sherry

bigfeetBlizz Richards misses his yeti family reunion but with George Vanquist, self styled cryptozoologist, on the prowl for pics of bigfoot can it be risked?

Meet the Bigfeet
The Yeti Files 1
by Kevin Sherry
September 2014

The family get togethers ended when Vanquist got a pic of fellow yeti Brian. Now everyone is too afraid to get together and no one knows where Brian is. Blizz and his pals travel across the globe to find Brian, get the family back together and avoid Vanquist.

The story is fully illustrated (greyshade watercolor) it looks suitably comical. Characters are wild and wacky and sometimes overly so. Vanquist is called “evil” but until the very end when he [SPOILERS] mistreats his dog and threatens to send him to the pound do we see why he would be considered evil. Prior to that, he was simply a human looking to take pictures of a bigfoot, which doesn’t seem evil at all. [END SPOILERS]

Reading level solidly 2nd to 5th with very few long or difficult words. I provided this book to my son, who is in second grade, and he had no trouble reading the words. He did have some trouble finishing it because it just wasn’t very interesting. While it is an easy read, it really isn’t an exciting read. The story bounces between the elf/goblin parts to the wolf parts to the yeti parts to Vanquist with little or no explanation as to why it jumps so frequently. It seems scattered and in the end there is no lesson learned, no character development, and very little excitement.

This is a numbered series with the second book, about the Loch Ness monster, set up on the final pages. But unless it is more exciting and more happens I’m not sure this series will be successful.

@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

Jesus is the Question by Copenhaver

JesusQuestionTrue to the title, Copenhaver asks questions of the reader to come to a deeper undertaken of who Jesus is to us and who we are to be for him.

Jesus Is the Question
The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered
by Martin B. Copenhaver
Abingdon Press
September 2014

Each of the 8 chapters on the questions of Jesus is filed with anecdote anger story after parable all towards the goal of asking the questions in just the right way to get the response Jesus was going for originally. Starting with “what are you looking for?” and moving through topics dealing with compassion, identity, faith and doubt, worry, love, heading and abundance.

Starting with chapter 9, the author takes us through the very important, eternity impacting questions for us that Jesus answered: who Jesus is, what happened on the cross and what the resurrection. The book ends with nearly 10 full pages of all of Jesus’ questions listed out then some study questions.

A worthy read that should prompt growth and understanding.

@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

The Lumo Project: John

With the popularity of so-called Biblical movies this year is so very refreshing to see a movie that actually issues the Bible as its source. The Lumo Project’s The Gospel of John is narrated with the exact text of the Gospel of John in the versions: NIV (David Harwood), KJV (Brian Cox) and in Spanish via the Reina-Valera 1960 Version (unknown). Visually all three narrations are over the same film.

The actors chosen are a revelation – they look like they should. This is not a European looking cast. Actors have missing teeth, come in all sizes and shades of brown. Even Jesus looks like he should, solving a problem that troubles so many Bible films.

It is also set in a very realistic Palestine. The settings from markets to outskirts are very respectful of the actual text.

johnThere are some well done connections to the other Gospels as well. John doesn’t have the first communion, for instance, but the filmmakers add it in during the last supper while Jesus is talking. The Lumo Project will ultimately show all four Gospels in the same way and based on this film will be doing some tying together of them to show the consistency without hiding the differences.

Not everything is perfect, however. As a teacher in my church I am sensitive of and cringe when I see condescension to tradition show up, like the wise men in the manger. There are some casting decisions like Jesus’ brothers looking older than him that I also wondered about. And when Jesus does miracles he acts like it drains him, which is in contrast to his diety. My thoughts are below about this and other situations.

The biggest gap was in how the crucifixion was depicted. Mel Gibson ruined every future movie that will try to demonstrate the anguish of Jesus and this movie pales in comparison. It also fails to show Jesus’ anguish. The actor who did such a good job elsewhere really disappoints on the cross. Very tame.

Theses are minor quibbles compared to the ridiculous films that have come out so far this year. 2014 is the year of the missed opportunity when it comes to showing off the actual Bible. Be it films that take Bible stories and reimagine them in their creator’s own unbiblical image (Noah), or just start and stay extra biblical (Heaven is For Real), or disappoint because of substandard writing (God’s Not Dead.) And dont forget Christian Bale as Moses. But this film is exactly what we needed. A strong retelling of the Gospel that treats its watchers as adults and doesn’t shy away from trusting the source material.

imageI’m very impressed and looking forward to the other films. When it comes out on Netflix give it a shot. Fans of the Bible will undoubtedly love it.

The Lumo Project presents The Gospel of John – coming soon to Netflix. I was given advance screening for review purposes by the production company and FlyBy Promotions. Live blog thoughts below:

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