Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler


Author: Octavia E. Butler
Title: Parable of the Sower
Narrator: Lynne Thigpen
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2000. [Originally published in 1993]
Summary/Review:

Set in the near future (Butler published the book in the 1990s, but it’s set in the 2020s), Parable of the Sower is a dystopian science fiction novel about the societal collapse caused by climate change, peak oil, and corporate greed. Things are in a bad state already when the novel begins but conditions gradually deteriorate for the characters in the story much like they do for the mythical boiling frog.  Butler also makes it clear that the dystopian state affects some people far earlier, much like they do in our real world, with the homeless and addicted gathered in the edges of the community.

The narrative begins in a walled community in Southern California.  The novel is written as the journal of Lauren Oya Olamina, a teenage girl as the novel begins and the daughter of a minister.  Lauren has a condition called empathy which causes her to feel the pleasure and pain of people near to her, a condition that can be crippling.  She also develops a belief system called Earthseed based on the concept that God is change, and thinks that Earthseed could be a means to saving humanity.

As Lauren grows into young adulthood, she faces tragedies in both her family and greater community.  But she also shows great resilience and leadership as she pulls together a group of allies (or as she would call them, the first Earthseed congregation).  The novel is a grim depiction of a world that doesn’t seem as far removed from our own reality of the 2020s as I would like.  But it is also a novel that offers a lot of humanity and hope.

Favorite Passages:

“No. No, Donner’s just a kind of human banister.” “A what?” “I mean he’s like … like a symbol of the past for us to hold on to as we’re pushed into the future. He’s nothing. No substance. But having him there, the latest in a two-and-a-half-century-long line of American Presidents make people feel that the country, the culture that they grew up with is still here—that we’ll get through these bad times and back to normal.”

“That’s all anybody can do right now. Live. Hold out. Survive. I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.”

Freedom is dangerous but it’s precious, too. You can’t just throw it away or let it slip away. You can’t sell it for bread and pottage.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Treason
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019) 
Summary/Review:

In the finale of this trilogy of books, Grand Admiral Thrawn finds himself in the middle of a conflict between Governor Tarkin (of the original Star Wars fame) and Director Orson Krennic (of Rogue One fame).  Even more pressing is an incursion by the war-like Grysks from the Unknown Regions into Imperial territory.

To fight this new threat, Thrawn must work with his own people, the Chiss, with Admiral Ar’alani leading a fleet in an uneasy alliance with Thrawn and the Empire. This book also marks the return of Eli Vanto, who has defected to the Chiss, and it is great to have him back.  Commodore Karyn Faro is established as another great character who becomes a great leader under Thrawn’s tutelage.

It’s interesting that Thrawn is associated with the evil Empire, because he’s an excellent example of leadership in the way he establishes Vanto and Faro as his proteges and then trusts their experience. It’s very different than the rest of the Empire where the “leaders” either step over one another or cower in fear. Brierly Ronan, Krennic’s deputy who is sent along to watch over Thrawn, is a slippery character who is more typical of the Empire we know, although his character also develops in interesting ways.

This book is excellent at building intrigue and gamesmanship.  The only flaw in my mind is that when the story finally builds to a climactic battle, it’s not all that interesting to read about, compared with how exciting it would be depicted in film.  There is more Thrawn to read, as Zahn is now publishing an Ascendancy trilogy about Thrawn’s experiences before he joined the Empire.  And this trilogy of novels I just completed also tie in with the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, so I’m going to have to catch up on that too!

Rating: ****

Book Review: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Poland

Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Title: Flights
Translator: Jennifer Croft
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2018
Summary/Review:

Flights is a collection of 116 vignettes, some of them exceedingly brief, while others are short stories.  They all focus on a theme of travel and are narrated by a nameless woman who practices an old Orthodox Christian belief of constant movement to avoid evil. There’s a lot of variety in the vignettes ranging from contemporary stories to historical fiction.  In addition to the theme of travel, with a focus on travel psychology, there is also a reoccurrence of the theme of anatomy and dissection.  This is a weird and wonderful book, although I did struggle mightily to keep up with the fragmentary narrative.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Alliances
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, [2018]
Summary/Review:

This second book of the new trilogy, after Star Wars: Thrawn, teams up Grand Admiral Thrawn with Darth Vader. In a parallel narrative, a younger Thrawn still with the Chiss Ascendency meets up with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars. In both stories their mission brings them to the remote planet of Batuu, which just happens to also be the planet used for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney theme parks (if Disney’s going to Star Wars synergy like this, at least they did it very well!).

Thrawn and Vader make an interesting pair because they seem to be the only individuals who can trip one another up. There’s a lot of tension due to their mutual mistrust and competing goals.  While I didn’t think it was a good as the first book as it gets bogged down in plot details, it’s still a compelling novel.  I also felt Eli Vanto’s presence was missing from this book.  Still, I’m looking forward to book 3.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Del Rey Books, 2017
Summary/Review:

Grand Admiral Thrawn, the antagonist introduced into Star Wars literature in the now non-canonical Heir to the Empire, is reintroduced in this Disney canon novel. This story serves as something of an origin story, beginning with Thrawn being found by the Imperial Navy after apparently having been exiled his mysterious species of people, the Chiss Ascendancy.  The novel depicts his rapid rise through the ranks in the years after the end of the Clone Wars. Thrawn is known for his brilliant observational and strategic skills, and throughout the novel the reader gets  to see his internal monologue on how he unravels the words and mannerisms of others.

The novel is also told from the perspective of Eli Vanto, a young cadet from Wild Space who inadvertently becomes Thrawn’s translator and assistant. At first resentful of the interference in his own career path, Vanto grows to respect Thrawn and also rises in the hierarchy of the Imperial Navy.  They have Holmes and Watson kind of relationship.  In a parallel story, Arihnda Pryce rises to become governor of her homeworld Lothal through similar skills of cunning.

This novel is less war story or space opera and more a work of political intrigue.  Zahn does a great job at taking these putative villains – Thrawn, Vanto, and Pryce – and making them captivating and even sympathetic characters.  The audiobook has great production values and Thompson does great voicework, giving Thrawn the reserve of Anthony Hopkins and Vanto a Appalachian accent befitting his background in Wild Space. This is an excellent novel and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Rating: ****

Book Review: George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones


Author: Brian Jay Jones
Title: George Lucas: A Life
Narrator: Jay Snyder
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2016)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Jim Henson: The Biography 
Summary/Review:

This is a straightforward biography that traces the life of filmmaker George Lucas through his childhood, education, and various creative endeavors.  As a child of a strict father in Modesto, California, Lucas took an interest in old movie serials, comic books, and fast cars. When he went to University of Southern California he chose to study cinematography because he wanted to do something in the arts and it sounded like something his father wouldn’t immediately dismiss. Young Lucas showed a talent for experimental filmmaking, especially editing, that made him stand out in his class.  

After graduation, Lucas befriended other up and coming young directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. Jones does a good job of explicating the creative process Lucas went through in creating his most famous films including THX-1138, American Graffiti, Willow, Red Tails, and of course the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. There’s also considerable detail on Lucas developing  LucasFilm, Industrial Light and Magic, and The Skywalker Ranch, all enabling the type of creativity and independence he sought out of reach of the Hollywood moguls.

Qualities of Lucas such as perfectionism and weak interpersonal skills are shown to be both his strengths and weaknesses in film making. His workaholic nature proved too much for his troubled first marriage with the skilled film editor Marcia Griffin, but later in life he would have a more successful relationship with business woman Mellody Hobson.

Jones does a good job of getting inside the life and influences of a private and complex person without being gossipy about it. Lucas’ contributions to movies and the world of entertainment are uncontestable, even if people – including his director friends – believe he was capable of much more. Lucas for his part remains confident in his choices and accepts that audiences may not always be pleased with his vision. 

Recommended books:

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

Rating: ***

Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland


Author: Justina Ireland
Title: Dread Nation
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This novel is set in an alternate universe where the dead rose from the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War ended because of the zombie apocalypse. Twenty years later, the surviving society has adapted by training Black and indigenous people to become “attendants” who protect the white elites from attacks by the “shamblers.” Among these are this books narrator, Jane McKeene, a student at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore as the novel begins.

Jane is a highly-skilled but outspoken student often ending up in trouble. A series of events lead her to being exiled to a new model town on the prairies of Kansas with her colleagues Catherine and Jackson. The town of Summerland has its deep secrets, though, and is under the rule of the virulently racist sheriff.  The book works as metaphor for the slavery and Jim Crow periods, and how the ruling caste seeks to perpetuate social divisions even under existential threats to humanity.  But the book also works as a straight up adventure and horror story, with no shortage of humor, especially in Jane’s wry narration.

Recommended books:
Rating:

Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean


Author: Susan Orlean
Title: The Library Book
Narrator: Susan Orlean
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:
Susan Orlean’s excellent work of narrative nonfiction focuses on the Los Angeles Central Library, particularly on the April 29, 1986 fire that severely damaged the building. Orlean examines the history and aftermath of the fire and reconstruction through interviews of past and current library employees and an examination of the library’s history to its origins over a century ago. The book also tells the story of Harry Peak, a young aspiring actor and attention seeker who became a leading arson suspect. The cause of the fire remains unsolved to this day.

I actually visited the Los Angeles Central Library on my visit to Southern California in 2007, and I’ve included a couple of photos below.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin


Author: Samanta Schweblin
Title: Fever Dream
Translator: Megan McDowell
Narrator: Hillary Huber
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This weird and creepy horror novella set in a resort town in Argentina.  It’s narrated in a conversation between Amanda, the novel’s protagonist who slowly uncovers dark secrets from a boy named David. The book doubles as an environmental fable as the children of the town, starting with David, are poisoned by a toxin that spreads through the community, including Amanda and her daughter Nina.  The sparse novel serves as an attempt to unravel the source of the problem.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Empire of Shadows by George Black


Author: George Black
Title: Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story Of Yellowstone
Narrator: Jack de Golia
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc, 2019 [originally published in 2012]
Summary/Review:

I’m planning to visit Yellowstone National Park for the first time this summer, so I was excited to read this history.  I failed to read the small print, though, since it turns out this book is the history of Yellowstone over the six decades from the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Congressional establishment of the first national park in 1872. It is primarily a military history of the conflicts between Native peoples and the U.S. armed forces sent to defend the interests of white American explorers, exploiters, and settlers.  Part of me rolls my eyes at another history that focuses entirely on military actions, while another part feels shamed that I wish to avoid the bloody background of a place special to all Americans.

Key figures in this history include Jim Bridger, a trapper known for his tall tales, although later many of his descriptions of Yellowstone’s natural wonders would be proved true.  William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, known for their adoption of total war tactics in the Civil War, are key military leaders in the effort to “tame” the West.  The first thorough expedition to explore the future park by the United States was lead by Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane, and the exploits of his team make up much of the latter part of the book.

The message of the book is clear in that creating a National Park preserved a unique ecosystem, but it only happened after extermination of the buffalo and removal of the Native tribes.  The buffalo have been reintroduced to the park, but the legacy of the Native people is still hidden.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***