Book Review: Lords of the Sith

Lords of the Sith2 of 5 stars

This was my first foray into the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, after checking out two of the graphic novels. Lords of the Sith takes place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, after the fist of the Empire has closed around the galaxy and the seeds of the rebellion are being sown.

This story is about Darth Vader’s reputation being born. People have heard the name, but have yet to take the measure of the man. Throughout the book, he accomplishes unbelievable feats with the Force, some with the aid of the Emporer. But since the Emperor only uses his significant power in secret, the credit for all of these feats serves to build Vader’s legend.

The entire book centers around a planned attempt on the Emporer and Vader’s life by a band of freedom fighters on Rythos. A remote spice planet that has changed owners often, but never had its own independence. The novel is a fast read, because nearly 75% of it is told at the pitched pace of the attack.

Unfortunately, that’s the novel’s primary weakness. When everything is frenetic and action-packed, nothing is. There’s very little character development (and what is there has little to do with the story) and a plot that’s fairly straightforward, (rebels attack, have to change their plans, fail, succeed, fail, succeed, etc.). Aside from being set in the Star Wars universe and being Star Wars action-porn, there’s not a whole lot to this novel.

Hopefully, my next foray into the universe will contain more than blaster fire and light-sabers.

Buy Lords of the Sith

Hiking Yellowstone National Park: Mt. Washburn & Grand Prismatic Spring

Yellowstone is one of the crown jewels of the National Park System.

It’s the 4th most visited national park in the U.S., behind Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. Growing up, I thought it’d achieved pop culture icon status, with Old Faithful making it’s way into countless cartoons, westerns, and vernacular.

I wish I couldn’t shake the bad taste it leaves in my mouth when I visit there.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful landscape. If national parks were a sampler platter, Yellowstone would be it. Vast meadows with undulating grasses. Craggy mountains rising above valleys scored into the earth. Bubbling evidence of forces simmering in the center of the earth. And of course majestic animals – thousands of bison and the titillating promise of elusive bear and wolf packs.

However, it’s next to impossible to feel alone in Yellowstone, especially during the summer.

Old Faithful has a schedule. Showing up to watch it is like attending a sporting event – good luck parking, navigating among the hotels surrounding it, and then finding a shoulder to peer over.

Old Faithful Yellowstone National Park

The Bison may as well be in a zoo. Spot one on the side of the road, and you’ll spot dozens of camera happy tourists with selfie sticks admiring the beasts.

Find a trail, and sojourn with dozens of others through the landscape.

It’s hard to escape the fact that Yellowstone has been designed as a tourist destination, despite the untouched natural beauty. In Yosemite, it’s escapable. Here, it’s a constant low hum underpinning your experience.

Mt. Washburn
Atop Mt. Washburn’s hikable 10K+ feet sits a fire lookout overseeing a significant portion of the park. Stare through the windows, and someone’s secluded home stares back at you. It’s sparse and has essentially no walls to allow whoever is inside and their partner unobstructed views of the park to keep an eye out for wildfires.

Mt. Washburn Yellowstone National Park

Every two weeks, a supply run is made, navigating the two-track that doubles as the trail for hikers all the way up the mountain. If there ever was a lonely existence, it’s this one.

On the way up, I stumbled into a herd of mountain goats grazing on the mountain slopes. They couldn’t have cared less about the dozen or so of us hikers who stopped to marvel and what was basically just another weekday lunch.

Grand Prismatic Spring
This popular Yellowstone attraction has a lesser known (and infinitely better) way to experience it. Driving up to the Grand Prismatic Spring parking lot means you’ll fight for a parking spot and walk along a veritable conveyor belt of tourists past a steaming spring. The color is noticeable, but unimpressive.

Instead, stop at the Fairy Falls parking area and hike along the path for a little over a half mile until you see a series of paths heading up the hill on your left, and Grand Prismatic Spring on your right. A short trek up places you at a small clearing where you can see the spring as it was intended to be experienced – from above.

Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone National Park

Hope for a day of partial clouds, so that you can watch the colors breathe.

I saw thousands of bison in Yellowstone. Everything from small herds just off the road, where you can step out of your car and really get a sense of the size and power of these creatures. And then driving through Lamar Valley, where an expanse between you and the mountain range can hold hundreds of buffalo. Drive a little bit further, and there’s another herd of brown flecks dotting the green pasture.

Bison Yellowstone National Park

It takes a little bit more work, but finding small moments like these are what makes it easy to see how Yellowstone is a crown jewel of the NPS. Even amid the hordes of tourists that are attracted by its beauty.

Happy Pub Day to The Good Divide!

The Good Divide by Kali VanBaaleMy first thought after reading the manuscript for this book was “I’ll regret it if we don’t get to publish this.”

Luckily, Kali VanBaale was just as excited to trust us with her work. After lots of time love and energy, thanks in no small part to Robert James Russell, as always, Michelle Webster-Hein, Jessica Dewberry, Lauren Crawford, and the rest of the Midwestern Gothic team, The Good Divide is finally able to be read.

In the lush countryside of Wisconsin, Jean Krenshaw is the ideal 1960’s dairy farm wife. She cooks, sews, raises children, and plans an annual July 4th party for friends and neighbors. But when her brother-in-law Tommy, who lives next door, marries leery newcomer Liz, Jean is forced to confront a ten-year-old family secret involving the unresolved death of a young woman.

With stark and swift prose, The Good Divide explores one woman’s tortured inner world, and the painful choices that have divided her life, both past and present, forever.

“VanBaale presents a vivid portrait of one woman’s lifelong struggle to find peace with what she has rather than what she desires. Fiction doesn’t get more real than this.”
Publishers Weekly

“[VanBaale] creates an intriguing story that handles difficult topics as well as a narrative of struggle and conflict in a skillfully crafted nonlinear timeline.”
—Morghen Tidd, Cultured Vultures

—Kelly Fordon, The Common

“VanBaale’s precise prose and esoteric Midwestern stoicism makes The Good Divide a delightful read.”
—Aram Mrjoian, Book Riot

Shop for The Good Divide Now

Rapid Fire Book Reviews

Out of Translation by Aubrie CoxOut of Translation by Aubrie Cox: 5 of 5 Stars
Aubrie Cox’s collection of poetry evokes a very clear comparison to Ernest Hemingway’s infamous (and probably misattributed) “Baby shoes, never worn” short story. Her haikus pack a heck of an evocative wallop, and many deftly introduce an unexpected turn or contrast to an initial emotion or image with the latter part of the limited syllables. Quite a feat for working with such a limited economy of words.

Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol. 1 (Star Wars (Marvel)): 4 of 5 Stars
My daughter and I’s first foray into the new official canon Star Wars Expanded universe. I’m really playing the long game with preventing unwanted teen pregnancy here folks. Both of us dug it – the story arc covers after Episode IV, when the Emporer loses faith in Vader and entertains supplanting the Sith lord and putting him on the B team.

Naturally, Vader finds a way to not only overpower, but outwit everyone. I thought was a nice unexpected turn for the character. The arc ends with the moment Vader realizes that the presence he felt in the trench run is Luke, his son. Nice.

Blood Song by Michael SchmeltzerBlood Song by Michael Schmeltzer: 4 of 5 Stars
Schmeltzers debut collection of poetry is threaded together with not only the titular themes of blood and song (both literal and lyrical), but also with an undercurrent of the longing for the past. In his unflinching way, he dredges up moments of trauma and stress. Yet he also finds a way to make peace in the lines of Blood Song, but also with the reader’s own past traumas that Schmeltzer’s poems evoke.

Star Wars: Kanan: The Last Padawan Vol. 1 (Star Wars (Marvel)): 3 of 5 Stars
Our second expanded universe trade paperback takes us back to the aftermath of Order 66, one of the few moments in the “new” trilogy that actually managed to make me feel something other than loathing.

It’s an origin story of sorts, with a new (to us, anyway) character. The verdict from my daughter and I – we liked it. Rather than continuing with the comic, I want to delve into the Star Wars Rebels TV series. Though, not because of anything I read in the comic. Maybe it didn’t do it’s job? Or maybe it did, and I’m just not realizing it.

Ghost County by John McCarthy

Ghost County by John McCarthyWe launched a new poetry collection!

MG Press only puts out one or two books a year. So when one does get published, it feels extra special because we’re super-selective about the manuscripts we move forward with, and because we put so much energy into each title.

Ghost County by John McCarthy is his debut, but you wouldn’t know if you read it or see him read live. His energy floods the pages and saturates the air when he breathes a meditation on traversing the midwest in a pickup truck to life.

Here’s some of the early press it’s been getting:

“In John McCarthy’s arresting debut, the middle of America reveals itself to be a belly full of opportunities and frustrations.” —Adrian Matejka, author of The Big Smoke

Ghost County…is a book that never stops opening up.”
–Adam Clay, author of Stranger and Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World

“[I]n these gritty poems, McCarthy exposes a grimmer reality tainted by drugs, alcohol, poverty, and violence. [T]his is a hardscrabble life where time stretches past into future, back into the past, and all seems predetermined to remain the same. McCarthy’s poems pay close attention to a darker middle life, and they do not flinch.”
—Sandy Longhorn, author of The Alchemy of My Mortal Form

Check out Ghost County by John McCarthy

Midwestern Gothic: Issue 21 (Spring 2016)

Midwestern Gothic Issue 21 Spring 20165 years and counting! The spring 2016 issue marks the fifth year we’ve been putting out the journal, and what an insane, amazing journey it’s been. So many people have been a part of it, and there are so many people to thank, but here are just a few.

Robert James Russell is a top notch partner in crime. Wouldn’t do it with anyone else.

Christina Olson brings the noise to poetry submissions, book fairs, and so much more.

Katie Marenghi, Lauren Crawford, Jon Michael Darga, Laura Hulthen Thomas, Kayla Silverstein, Emily Paull, Hannah Bates, Hannah Gordon, Giuliana Eggleston, Rachel Hurwitz, Allison Reck, Ally Wright, Stephanie Bucklin, Jamie Monville, Stephanie Mezzanatto, and Michelle Torby (among others) have all played small and large roles in making this possible.

Plus too many contributors and readers to thank. You guys are all awesome.

And of course, my wife, Sandi Pfaller, for doing an infinite number of things to give me the time and energy for this little side project.

Check out Midwestern Gothic: Issue 21 (Spring 2016)

Book Review: Lonely Planet New Zealand’s South Island

Lonely Planet New Zealand's South Island Travel Guide4 out of 5 stars

I’ve never used a guidebook to plan a trip.

Granted, I haven’t done a multi-destination international trip since high school, where every step was already plotted out for me. My first instinct was to go to the internet.

Before barely any time at all, I was paralyzed.

There were too many sites. Too many options. Too many different perspectives. I spent days poking around without making any real decisions.

A few days later, I had lunch with a friend who had just visited New Zealand for two-weeks. She introduced me to several guidebooks she and her sister used to plan something that was the envy of everyone she knew on social media.

I decided to narrow my sources down to three things. The Lonely Planet Travel Guides, NZFree Guides, and a Lord of the Rings resource for movie locations.

First up: The Lonely Planet New Zealand’s South Island Travel Guide. It’s over 600 pages filled with tips on activities, places to stay, and things to eat. This book has a little bit of everything for all the major regions and cities of note in New Zealand, with short 3-4 line write-ups of each. You won’t really get a good sense of the place from this limited info, and there are precious few pictures. It still left me with way too many options, but at least I had narrowed it down to a few dozen points of interest.

Each region has a quick visualization of the 8-10 highlights it has to offer. The book makes it easy to quickly get a feel for what each one is about (Queensland: Adventure. Fiordlands: Jaw-dropping Mountains.).

I didn’t use any of the recommendations on places to stay and eat (I’m planning on using Air BnB), but there were hundreds. The back half of the book was a super helpful logistical guide – what outlets they use, what time of year to visit, how to avoid causing an international incident on the island, etc.

With my list of “maybes”, I can dig in further on the internet and the other books. The ZNFree South Island book will help me make sure I don’t miss any “off the beaten” path sights.

My end goal is to plot everything on a map, see where my clusters of ideas are, and then plan my 5-6 days on the South Island around that.

Buy Lonely Planet New Zealand’s South Island

Book Review: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko4 out of 5 stars

And now, for something completely different.

I’ve been bingeing on Tim Ferriss’ podcast for a few months now (Seth Godin and Scorpion founder Walter O’Brien will straight up blow your mind). Every episode he asks his guests which books have been most influential to them, and which one they give most often as gifts.

The result – I’ve got a huge backlog of non-fiction books to pore through. This one isn’t your standard NYT-bestseller-with-esoteric-title-and-person-in-mid-power-move cover.

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need reads like a manga, but without the backwards panels and page turns. It’s a quick read. For folks about to start their careers, it’s invaluable reading. Though without context, it may be hard for some of the situations and lessons to resonate.

This book is perfect for mid-level to senior professionals, who are probably hitting that 7-year-itch and asking themselves – why the hell am I doing all this?

For these nine-to-five warriors, the story arcs and illustrative examples Diana, a magical Asian genie of sorts, helps Johnny work through will seem pulled straight out of corporate America. The lessons are stripped down to their most essential parts. There is little waste and all the analogies are crystal clear.

For those who already have a healthy perspective on work and work-life balance, this book might feel superficial. But a refresher can never hurt. There may be something in the book that reinvigorates and inspires you. Or, you may only take one of the lessons away as valuable. Given how fundamental these notions are to happiness and career, just one lesson would be well-worth the price of admission.

Buy The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need