Book Review: The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett


Author: Terry Pratchett
Title: The Carpet People
Narrator: Stephen Briggs
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Summary/Review:

This book was Terry Pratchett’s first published novel, written when he was 17, and then rewritten in 1992. The people in this story, a tribe called the Munrungs, literally live in a carpet.  Their world is a forest of hairs, they mine dropped coins for metal, used matchsticks for wood, and remove varnish from “achairleg.”  Their world is threatened by a natural phenomenon called the Fray, which is most like a vacuum cleaner.

After their village is destroyed by the Fray, the Munrungs journey across the carpet under their leader, Glurk.  They encounter other peoples including the Mouls, who worship the Fray, and the Wights, who know the future.  Together they need to work out a solution for mutual survival.  There’s a lot of humor here  about monarchy and bureaucracies as well as working in references to ordinary life in our world.

Rating: ***

Book Review: From a Certain Point of View: Star Wars by Various Authors


Author: 40 Authors
TitleFrom a Certain Point of View: Star Wars
Narrator: Multiple Narrators
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Summary/Review:

This book celebrated the 40th anniversary of Star Wars in 2017 with a collection of 40 original short stories by 43 authors. Each story is told from the perspective of a different character in the Star Wars universe, hence the title cribbing Obi-Wan’s famous line “From a certain point of view.”  The authors include a lot of well-known writers such as Rae Carson, Claudia Gray, Chuck Wendig, Wil Wheaton, Elizabeth Wein, Jeffrey Brown, Kieron Gillen, Nnedi Okorafor, Jason Fry, and Greg Rucka.  I suspect that if you are a bigger fan of science fiction/fantasy writing, you will recognize even more of the authors!

No character is too small to be a point of view character, thus there are tales told by droids, Jawas, Tusken raiders, bounty hunters, rebels of various ranks, stormtroopers, Imperial officers, a numerous other sentient beings.  A few bigger characters including Greedo, Obi-Wan, and Biggs get their stories as well as characters like Yoda, Palpatine, and Lando Calrissian who don’t even appear in the movie!  Perhaps the strangest story of all  is “Of MSE-6 and Men” by Glen Weldon, told from the perspective of a Death Star mouse droid and written in some kind of machine language, that tells the story of an ill-fated romance between a storm trooper and Grand Moff Tarkin.

Some stories are better than others, and I like it when the author takes a small character and builds a whole world around their life before and after their appearance in the film’s narrative.  Other stories are less successful because they basically just have the scenes and dialogues repeated from the movie interspersed with the thoughts of the point of view character.  The stories are arranged in sequence to the movie’s plot and things really get bogged down with five different stories about characters in the Mos Eisley cantina, and again during the Battle of Yavin.

Some of my favorite stories include:

  • “The Sith of Datawork” by Ken Liu, about an Imperial bureaucrat who is able to fix things in the records for the gunnery captain who failed to shoot at an escape pod.
  • “Laina”  by Wil Wheaton, which tells of a widowed rebel sending his young daughter away for her safety in a story which packs a lot of emotional punch.
  • “An Incident Report” by Daniel M. Lavery, in which Admiral Motti files a formal complaint against Darth Vader for force choking him.
  • “The Baptist” by Nnedi Okorafor is a life account of Omi, the creature that grabs Luke in the trash compactor.
  • “Time of Death” by Cavan Scott details Obi-Wan’s experience of joining with the Force immediately after his death.

I get why they wanted to go with 40 stories for the 40th anniversary, but this book could be improved with some judicious pruning.  Nevertheless, this is a fun book and I’m sure Star Wars fans will find something in it they like.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Revolution Song by Russell Shorto


Author: Russell Shorto
Title: Revolution Song
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Recorded Books: 2017
Summary/Review:

This history of the American Revolution is in fact the parallel biographies of six individuals whose lives came in contact with the war and the underlying ideologies of American independence.  I really like this approach to writing history because while it is unwieldy to attempt a comprehensive history of the American Revolution, by focusing on six individuals you get a better sense of how the war affected different kinds of people.  And as Short tells their entire life stories we get a lot of detail beyond just the 8 years of the war of their lives before and after the conflict.  Finally, we also get to see how these six historical figures dealt with the ideals and challenges of freedom.  I should add, and Shorto makes this explicitly clear, that these six individuals are not representatives of greater populations but simply their own American Revolution stories.

The six subjects of Revolution Song are:

  • George Washington – The most obvious figure of the story of the American Revolution, and yet Shorto is able to get beneath the “great general and first President” story to get an understanding of a many struggling to find his place in society and the opportunities that military leadership bring.
  • Venture Smith – Born in modern-day Ghana as Broteer Furro, Venture Smith was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, eventually living in servitude in Rhode Island, New York, and Connecticut.  Venture purchased his freedom and that of his wife and children and became a successful farmer in Connecticut. One of his son’s would serve in Washington’s army during the war. His A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America was one of the first published slave narratives.
  • George Germain – The only figure in the book who never set foot in the Americas is George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville.  Having been court martialed during the Seven Years War, he was disgraced in aristocratic circles.  Nevertheless he was a favorite of King George III and was able to claw his way into politics and get appointed Secretary of State for the American Department. His aggressive approach to attempting to suppress the rebellion and lack of familiarity of the reality of the situation in the colonies is blamed for the British failure in the war.
  • Cornplanter – The chief warrior for the Seneca people who fought in both the French & Indian War and the Revolution allied with the British forces. He and his people suffered greatly when General Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to carry out a scorched earth campaign destroying Iroquois Six Nation villages throughout New York. After the war, Cornplanter protested against the Treaty of Paris ceding Iroquois land to the United States that had never been under control of Britain, and met with President Washington in person in 1790.
  • Abraham Yates – A revolutionary lawyer and politician from Albany, Yates took a more radical position on individual liberty and mistrust of government.  He became a rival to Alexander Hamilton and a staunch opponent of Federalism and the Constitution.
  • Margaret Moncrieffe – The only woman in this book, Margaret Moncrieffe was a child when the Revolution started living in New York as the daughter of a British officer.  Her father arranged her marriage to the cruel British Lieutenant John Coghlan although she was in love with Aaron Burr. After moving to Britain, she separated from her husband and found a measure of independence as the mistress of several prominent men in Britain and Europe.

I think the stories of Venture Smith, Cornplanter, and Margaret Moncrieff are the most interesting since they are the type of people that don’t appear in histories that focus on military and political leaders.  Nevertheless, the whole book reads very well and is an interesting addition to Revolutionary War historical studies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson


Author: Bill Bryson
Title: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
Narrator: Kerry Shales
Publication Info: BBC Audio, 2005 [Originally published in 1989]
Previously Read By The Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Revisiting an old favorite of mine leads to wonder what I once saw in this book.  The Lost Continent is the first of the many travel books that Bryson wrote and the first one that I read way back in 1993.  I’ve included it on my Favorite Books of All Time lists but will have to reconsider that.  Bryson’s schtick is that he’s often cranky but in this book he’s just downright nasty and describes everyone he encounters as dumb.

Bryson (who may be a distant relation since I have Bryson’s in my family tree) grew up in Iowa, but as a young adult emigrated to England.  The premise of this book is his return to the United States and driving around the country to recreate the vacation travels of his childhood while looking for the amalgam of the American small town.  He finds that most towns have been eclipsed by strip malls and highways.  And he makes some good observations about why it is that some places can be made beautiful – Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Colonial Williamsburg – while the ordinary places are the drab and ugly right up to their edge.

I’ll have to review Bryson’s later books but I feel that he becomes less of a nasty misanthrope and more of a cuddly curmudgeon.  More importantly, he also begins to research the history of places he visits, interview local experts, and incorporate that into his travelogue.  At any rate, the last time I read this book was 2001, when I wrote a more positive review, so I will include that so you can see how my feelings have changed over time:

One of Bryson’s earliest travel books and maybe one of his best since at this point he’s writing from the perspective of an average person driving around America as opposed to the famous travel writer he’d later become. Bryson’s search for the perfect American small town is also very pointed in its satire and criticism. The view of an American expatriate has a special appeal to it.

Rating: **

Book Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston


Author: Casey McQuiston
Title: One Last Stop
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2021)
Summary/Review:

After a troubled childhood with an obsessive mother, August finds it difficult to connect with people.  Things begin to change when she moves to Brooklyn to attend college and is pushed out of her comfort zone by her eccentric housemates, Myla, Niko and Wes.  She also finds herself enraptured by a beautiful punk woman she meets on the Q train, Jane.  However, finding love and happiness is challenged by three strange things about Jane: 1. she can’t seem to leave the train, 2. she can’t remember her past, and 3. she hasn’t aged at all from a picture taken of her in 1976.

This book is great fun as it uses a unique time slip story mixed with a queer romance and a story of New York’s gentrification.  It’s particular interesting to read the contrasts of Jane’s experiences in the early LGBTQ+ liberation movements of the 1970s compared to the more accepting contemporary times.  There are a lot of subplots in this novel that get things a bit confused, and perhaps there’s just a bit too much “deep conversation,” but all is forgiven because I love the characters.  McQuiston does a great job of bringing to life a community of fun, creative, and really horny young adults in the city.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb


Author: Ben Goldfarb
Title: Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter
Narrator: Will Damron
Publication Info: Chelsea Green Publishing (2018)
Summary/Review:

Beavers are important!  That is the message that you will get repeatedly while reading this book, although author Ben Goldfarb does not skimp on providing detailed evidence behind his thesis.  What we learn from reading this book is that the beaver’s most identifiable trait, building dams on rivers and streams, has a profound effect on the landscape.  When beavers were hunted for their pelts in colonial times it lead to the loss of beaver-facilitated habitats for numerous fauna and flora.

Daming also helps in preserving groundwater and preventing flooding and runoff as some farmers and ranchers have learned where managed beaver populations have been reintroduced.  Unfortunately, the benefits on the macro level can be damaging on the micro level, causing local flooding and damage despite being better for the region overall.  This contributes to the beaver being seen as a nuisance animals and extermination policies of many local governments.  Goldfarb documents the efforts of ecologists and scientists to convince people to learn to live with beavers.

It’s a very interesting and fact-filled book and definitely gave me new respect for the beaver!

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Picturing America : The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps by Stephen J. Hornsby


Author: Stephen J. Hornsby
Title: Picturing America : The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps
Publication Info: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, in association with the Library of Congress, 2017.
Summary/Review:
I’ve always loved those little maps you get for free at tourist destinations that have lots of little comical people doing touristy things on plan clearly not drawn to scale.  In fact, when I was a teenager I had two pictorial map posters, one of Greenwich, CT (the town next to my own where I attended high school) and one of Williamsburg, VA (where we went on lots of vacations before eventually moving there).  Stephen Hornsby breaks down the history of pictorial maps in this book which he says peaked in the United States from the 1920s to the 1960s.  Pictorial maps were used for education, for civic and industrial promotion campaigns, and to help people on the homefront keep up with the battles of World War II among other things.  Although this is a richly-illustrated coffee table book, my one complaint is that the images were often still too small to see the details.  Nevertheless this is a fun and interesting book about an esoteric topic of my interest.

Recommended Books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Ship of the Dead
Narrator: Michael Crouch
Publication Info: [New York, New York] : [Listening Library], [2017]
Summary/Review:

This is a terrific conclusion to the Magnus Chase and the Guards of Asgard trilogy.  Magnus Chase and his allies must stop Loki from bringing about Ragnarok.  To accomplish this, they sail on a banana-colored ship to various locales including the court of the ocean god Aegir, York, England, the frozen lands of Norway, and the palace of the winter goddess Skadi.

Magnus is once again joined by the Islamic Valkyrie  Samirah (who is fasting for Ramadan), the elf Hearthstone, the dwarf Blitz, and the genderfluid child of Loki, Alex Fiero.  In fact, Magnus takes a romantic interest in Alex which I think is wonderful for the children reading this, both children learning about their own gender expression as well as cisgender children who get to see a positive representation of a transgender character in a book.  Three more characters who had smaller roles in previous books join the team and play a bigger part in the finale: Thomas Jefferson Jr., a young Black soldier who died fighting in the American Civil War, Mallory Keen, who died attempting to defuse a bomb in Belfast during The Troubles, and a Norse mercenary berserker  Halfborn Gunderson.  Each member of the team ends up having a task that leads them to their final confrontation with Loki.  And Magnus draws upon their teamwork in his battle of words, or flyting, with Loki that serves as the novel’s terrific climax.

I highly recommend all three of these books to readers of any age.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Hammer of Thor
Narrator: Kieran Culkin
Publication Info: Listening Library (2016) 
Summary/Review:

I really enjoyed The Sword of Summer, Rick Riordan’s first installment of the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Series, and there is no sophomore slump in The Hammer of Thor. Magnus Chase is joined once again by the Valkyrie Samirah, the dwarf Blitzen and the elf Hearthstone.  The book also introduces a new character, a genderfluid teenager and child of Loki recently arrived to Valhalla as an einherji.  Together they are tasked with finding Thor’s missing hammer Mjolnir, while Loki attempts to trick and tempt them to his

Their adventures take them to Provincetown, Hearth’s unhappy home in Alfheim, a bowling alley for giants, and the bar from Cheers.  Like the predecessor the book is full of humorous mythological allusions, impossible predicaments, and a lot of Boston or Boston-ish locations.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Sword of Summer
Narrator: Christopher Guetig
Publication Info: Listening Library (2015)
Summary/Review:

Magnus Chase is a 16-year-old boy who’s lived on the streets of Boston for 2 years since his mother was killed in a supernatural attack.  He’s avoided his estranged Uncle Randolph, who lives in a Back Bay mansion opposite the Leif Erikson statue and is obsessed with Viking artifacts, but as the book begins Magnus is forced into contact with his uncle.  This unleashes a series of events where Boston is attacked by fire giants and Magnus dies in battle.  And that’s just the beginning.

Much like Rick Riordan’s books about Camp Half Blood where Greco-Roman myths are real and demigods are trained on Long Island, The Sword of Summer incorporates Norse myth.  In fact, the two series are in the same universe as Magnus is cousins with Annabeth Chase of the Camp Half Blood books!  We follow Magnus as he is brought to Valhalla, learns of his godly parentage, and goes rogue on a quest to prevent Ragnarok, or the apocalypse.  I think Riordan is even more clever in how he winds Norse myth into a young adult fantasy adventure, and most of all this book is funny as Helheim.

Magnus travels with a great team including the Muslim Valkyrie Samirah “Sam” al-Abbas from Dorchester, Blitzen, a dwarf with a great sense of fashion, and the deaf and magical elf Hearthstone.  I’m definitely biased, but I love how Boston is set as the “hub” of the Norse worlds and that many scenes are set in Boston, or in an alternate version of the city.  Although it should be noted that Eben Norton Horsford’s discredited theory of  Norse navigators sailing up the Charles River were rooted in the white supremacist belief that an Italian like Christopher Columbus was unworthy to be the person who “discovered” the Americas.

I think this is my favorite Riordan book yet, and I look forward to continuing the trilogy of Magnus’ adventures.

Rating: ****