Book Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson


Author: Bill Bryson
Title: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
Narrator: Rob McQuay
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 1997
Summary/Review:

My fondness for Bill Bryson’s travel writing was shaken by revisiting The Lost Continent and discovering that it wasn’t anywhere as good as I recalled. So I’m happy to say that my favorite Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods, is still very, very good.  Granted Bryson’s misanthropic crankiness is still off-putting and there’s way too many fat jokes.  But Bryson’s memoir of hiking the Appalachian Trail is enriched by his research into the trail’s history, nature, and various anecdotes of hikers’ experiences.  His narrative is also improved by Bryson sharing the experience with his old friend Stephen Katz, who is endearing as much as he is the total opposite of the type of person you’d expect to hike the AT.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper


Author: Lana Harper
Title: Payback’s a Witch
Narrator: Jeremy Carlisle Parker
Publication Info: Berkley (2021)
Summary/Review:

There’s a lot going on in Payback’s a Witch: it’s a story about confronting one’s past, a comedy about a witchcraft competition and a revenge plot, and a sapphic romance!  Whew!  The story is set in the magical town of Thistle Grove, Illinois, home to four witching families and a brisk Halloween industry.  The novel is narrated by Emmy Harlow, a member of the least prominent of the four families, who has abandoned her magical powers and fled to  Chicago for better opportunities.

The novel begins with Emmy returning to Thistle Grove after a long absence to serve as the judge of a competition among the scions of the other three families to determine the next leader of the community.  Control of the town is typically held by the prosperous Blackmoore family, whose scion Gareth broke Emmy’s heart in their teen years.  Emmy’s best friend Linden Thorn and the alluring Talia Avramov, who’ve also been jilted by Gareth, team up for a revenge plot against the Blackmoores.  Emmy and Talia also begin stirring up a romance.

With hints of Harry Potter and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Payback’s a Witch is nonetheless an original concoction and wholly fun mix of comedy, romance and adventure.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich


Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Title: Nickel and Dimed
Narrator: Christine McMurdo-Wallis
Publication Info: Recorded Books (January 1, 2004)[Originally published in  2001]
Summary/Review:

Revisiting a book from my 100 Favorite Books of All Time list to see if it still holds up.

In the wake of Clinton Administrations slashing of social safety nets in the 1990s, writer Barbara Ehrenreich decided to do an experiment using undercover participatory journalism.  She worked in a series of low wage jobs over several months each in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota to see if it was possible to pay for housing, food, and other necessities.  She went to the latter two states because as a white person who speaks English as a first language she found that in a lot of places in the United States these were advantages that automatically got her better paying work. The results are not surprising in that she struggled to make ends even with the strictest budgeting.

This book shouldn’t have to exist. There are millions of low-wage workers who could tell us their experiences if we only listened so a more privileged person like Ehrenreich shouldn’t have to go undercover.  But since the book exists, it does serve as a proxy for how low-wage jobs are destructive to the bodies of workers who suffer great indignities while remaining largely invisible to society at large.  Ehrenreich is particularly observant of hiring practices rituals such as personality tests and drug tests that serve to emphasize the worker’s mean status.  She also makes interesting observations about how the maid service she worked for trained employees to clean in a manner that was more for the prestige of the client than actually getting things cleaned sanitarily.

Sadly, this book remains highly relevant over 20 years later.  In fact, when Ehrenreich discusses her wages she’s often getting the same hourly rate paid to low-wage workers today despite the costs of housing and other necessities skyrocketing in that time.  As we are living through the Great Resignation and the largest labor organizing drive in decades, hopefully we will begin to see the conditions described in this book fading into history.

Favorite Passages:

I make no claims for the relevance of my experiences to anyone else’s, because there is nothing typical about my story.  Just bear in mind, when I stumble, that this is in fact the best– case scenario: a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health, and motivation can conder attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economy’s lower depths.” – pp. 9-10

 

It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage.  But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and an again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.”  pp. 68-69

 

What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re really selling is your life.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: Cobalt Squadron
Narrator: Kelly Marie Tran
Publication Info: Listening Library (2017)

Other Books Read by the Same Author:

  • Code Name Verity
  • Rose Under Fire

Summary/Review:

When browsing downloadable audiobooks on my library’s ebook app I immediately hit borrow when I saw that Elizabeth Wein wrote a Star Wars novel! As an added bonus, the audiobook is narrated by Kelly Marie Tran who portrayed Rose Tico in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. Wein’s expertise at writing stories of women pilots and the relationships among them is perfectly suited for the story of sisters Rose and Paige Tico.  The story is about their involvement in a covert Resistance effort to provide supplies to a planet under the thumb of the First Order.  But overall it’s a character story about Rose learning to emerge from her sister’s shadow and assert her own skills.  It makes me wish all the more that we got to see more of Paige in the movies than the one scene in The Last Jedi and that Rose wasn’t done dirty in The Rise of Skywalker by having her screentime cut to appease MRA manbabies who whined about a woman of color having a prominent role.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

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: Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Audio, 2021 
Summary/Review:

Picking up from Chaos Rising, Thrawn and his crew are cleaning up from the the last great threat to the Chiss Ascendancy.  But a new threat appears in the form of the Agbui who work as kind of conmen to infiltrate Chiss society and gin up conflict among the ruling families with hopes of provoking a civil war. Caregiver Thalias, sky-walker Che’ri, Admiral Ar’alani, and of course, Thrawn return for this middle novel of the trilogy.  But we also spend a lot of time with Captain Lakinda, an ambitious young officer from a minor family hoping to gain prestige for herself and her family.  Since Thrawn is inept at dealing with family infighting and politics, a lot depends on her loyalty to her family or the Chiss.  We also spend a lot of time with Haplif, the smarmy Agbui spy and his marks.

After reading so many Thrawn novels, I finally made the connection that Thrawn is a lot like Sherlock Holmes.  He sees things that others cannot see and then explains it to the point of view characters.  I like that this novel builds the world of the Chaos with seemingly a whole galaxy of planets and alien races seperate from the rest of the Star Wars universe (who it easy to forget are engaged in the Clone Wars at the same time as this novel).  However, it does get a bit confusing keeping all the characters and the families, planets, races, et al straight, but I’m not the most attentive audiobook listener. Nevertheless, this is a fun and engaging story.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Last Olympian: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5
Publication Info: New York : Disney/Hyperion Books, 2011.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorThe Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s CurseThe Battle of the Labyrinth
Summary/Review:

The final book of the series leads to the culminating battle to save Olympus from the Titans in the streets of Manhattan. The book builds well to get to that point with a natural ebb and flow in the narrative between fightin’ and more contemplative stuff. Themes that have been building across all five books play out hre and Percy, Thalia, Grover, Annabeth, Tyson, Clarisse, and Nico all show great character development.  I particularly like how Percy plays his reward from the gods.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Battle of the Labyrinth: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 4
Narrator: Jesse Bernstein
Publication Info: [New York] : Listening Library, 2008.

Previously Read by the Same AuthorThe Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s Curse
Summary/Review:

The Battle of the Labyrinth is another great quest story, this time primarily underground in the mysterious labyrinthe.  Annabeth leads the quest with Grover, Percy, and Tyson with an angry and dangerous Nico playing a part as well.  The book is well constructed as each characters has a role to play that leads to a specific goal.  The war with the Titans begins in earnest with a battle at Camp Half-Blood that concludes the novel.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Titan’s Curse: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 3
Narrator: Jesse Bernstein
Publication Info: New York : Random House/Listening Library, [2007]

Previously Read by the Same AuthorThe Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters 
Summary/Review:

Book 3 of the series once again features a coast-to-coast quest (literally Bar Harbor, Maine to the Bay Area of California) as Percy Jackson seeks to find his friend Annabeth and the goddess Artemis.  The book introduces half-bloods Nico and Bianca di Angelo, features Zeus’ daughter Thalia for the first time, and brings in Zoë Nightshade and the Hunters of Artemis.  All of these characters will be significant to the course of the narrative in the ensuing novels.  But I feel The Titan’s Curse doesn’t work as well as a stand-alone adventure and feels a bit formulaic.  It’s still clever and fun, though.

Rating: ***