A deliciously creepy tale of dream worlds, betrayal, and loss, with a “meta” theme about imagination and the creation of stories. The convoluted plot has plenty of twists and turns; events and characters are rarely what they seem. The Riverman contains memorable characters; in particular, Fiona Loomis steals the show with her dry wit and preternatural adventures. This volume, the first of a trilogy, ends on a cliffhanger that answers very few questions if any.
March 13, 2015
March 12, 2015
3.5 stars. The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring is a narrative nonfiction account of researchers who climb to the tops of the largest living organisms on the planet, the giant redwoods. Or perhaps it’s the tale of people so obsessed with climbing these trees that they became researchers; I’m not quite certain which it is. Richard Preston starts with an electric account of a first climb up one of these giant trees, replete with white-knuckled fear, a foolhardy leap of faith, and an encounter with hornets.
Had the whole book kept pace with that searing opening, this would have been a fantastic read. As it was, the book soon went off on the tawdry doings of its cast, who were largely so blinded by their obsession with trees that everything else was discarded in their lives. Their exploits, successes, and failures at climbing would have been much better than the neglects of their social lives.
I also would have enjoyed this book much more had it focused on the trees, especially what they found in them and what it felt like to climb up one. Too much of the text was taken up with the quest for the tallest redwood, seemingly replacing knowledge and science with a world record quest. Some pictures would have been a valuable addition as well!
I certainly enjoyed and learned from The Wild Trees, but it could have been so much more.
March 10, 2015
4 stars. A lyrical, humble recounting of the author’s childhood on a dude ranch in Wyoming, Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction reads like a love letter to open spaces, horses, and freedom. His writing has evocative power to inspire longing for the mountain landscapes of his youth, and his honest and hardworking way of life. I especially enjoyed the gruff warmth and subtle humor of his father, which is frequently disguised with his acerbic tongue. Spragg’s childhood is by no means easy; in addition to the hard labor of ranch work, he faces the unforgiving environment and the consequences of bad choices. The harshness of his upbringing is offset by his moving prose and clear retelling of his emotions.
The book lost steam for me towards the end; the episodes from his adult life seemed to lack the emotional resonance and impact of his childhood. They were still well-told, but seemed to change the focus of the book away from the intense coming-of-age narrative that was so powerful.
An excellent autobiographical read, Where Rivers Change Direction combines raw emotion and a hardscrabble way of life in beautiful narration.
March 9, 2015
4 stars. The story of one of the most fearsome predators on earth turned mankiller and the hunt to stop him is deftly interwoven with the wild history and hardscrabble denizens of the Siberian frontier in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. John Vaillant skilfully sets the scene of December 1997 in the Bikin River area of Siberian taiga, gives an ecological history of the tiger, and highlights the personalities of the main players of his narrative nonfiction recounting.
If there’s one big takeaway from this book, here it is: tigers are ferocious beasts, capable of survival in an unforgiving environment, possessed of claws, fangs, and strength to inflict grievous harm, and the intelligence to be a formidable hunter. These frightening predators are truly marvels. I truly enjoyed Vaillant’s description of their potency–much as I’d hate to meet a hungry one in the wilds of the Amur River valley! He discusses their psychological and cultural impact, from the anthropomorphism and reverence of natives of the area to the demand on the Chinese black market as a potency treatment.
The hunt itself–which really only comprises a quarter or so of the text–is gripping, with a final showdown worthy of a survival movie. The lead hunter, Inspection Tiger conservationist/poaching enforcer Yuri Trush, is the central figure of the hunt. One of the most fascinating things in the book is that after the hunt was over, he is considered as “marked” by the tiger to the point that many denizens of Sobolonye will not sleep in the same house with him.
The Tiger is a book that is a true pleasure to read, with a dramatic central narrative and fascinating, educational asides about environment, man and nature, Soviet and Russian history, and predator/prey relations.
March 8, 2015
3.5 stars. Perhaps the mash-up of Shakespeare and Star Wars is simply exhausted, but I didn’t quite enjoy this as much as the other two volumes. I enjoyed the flowing iambic pentameter, and Doescher does a great job of giving each character his or her own personality. The Jedi Doth Return didn’t seem to have quite the same self-aware snark as the first two; it’s more a straightforward verse interpretation of the movie. Aside from one brilliant comment about midi-chlorians, the inside jokes didn’t have the zing of the first volume. The parts that I enjoyed the most were those that added to the Star Wars canon: R2-D2’s asides, the Emperor’s discussion of his relation with Vader, the Ewok’s hilarious pidgin language. Still, an enjoyable read, and I recommend this entire trilogy to lovers of Star Wars and verse.
March 7, 2015
5 stars. My favorite of the last few volumes of the Dragonbreath series, combining wit, adventure, friendship, and medieval hijinks. The dynamic between Danny, Wendell, and Christiana is the heart of the series–how they get out of their predicaments through their talents and rapport. Ursula Vernon has quite a bit of fun with refreshing the “knights vs. dragons” theme. Plenty of humor–my favorite moment was a Princess Bride shout-out–and action keep this series going strong.
March 6, 2015
4 stars. My reading goal for 2015 is to read one “classic” a month. The Great Gatsby was an excellent way to kick off my classics reading, characterized by its lush prose and theme of the “American Dream” pushed to the point of total excess. I loved the richness of the writing. Fitzgerald’s phrasing is excellent, and I found many passages that used the perfect words to convey his meanings. I also appreciated that he was able to use such full language without being flowery or wordy. He uses his language to devastating effect in satirizing the society redolent in excess of the Jazz Age.
Ultimately, the reason that I did not love the book is simple: Daisy, as we see her in the book, is not a girl worthy of Gatsby’s quixotic love. Jay Gatsby is, ethically speaking, the best character in the book because he achieved success not for love of wealth, but for love of Daisy, and she in turn chose stability and comfort–and the man who wants her as a prize more than as a person–over this love.
March 5, 2015
3.5 stars. A fast and fun read featuring tales of rangers on the job, ranging in length from a paragraph to a couple of pages. Readers of previous “Bear in the Back Seat” volumes will enjoy these capsule tales, featuring many of the same rangers from other books. First-time readers of the series may find it too anecdotal; this is definitely filler material (but filler material that I enjoyed). One of the best parts of the book are the “stupid questions” passages, in which park visitors ask rangers such thought-provoking, insightful questions as “when do you turn the waterfalls off?” and “at what elevation do the deer become elk?”
A perfect hour-long read for the outdoor lover, nothing more and nothing less.
February 2, 2015
4 stars. Doll Bones is the deliciously creepy tale of the imaginative game of three longtime friends that takes a very eerie twist. Zach, Poppy, and Alice have dealt with the pressures of growing up through their play, but now that they’re 12, the pressure from Zach’s parents to fit in forces him to stop hanging around with his pals. Then the uncanny china doll in Poppy’s house becomes restless, sending them on a quest to bring her peace.
This book has plenty of adventure, well-conceived characters, a good understanding of what is left behind in growing up, and some wonderfully spooky moments. Imaginatively written, and with some sweet moments as well, Doll Bones is a very enjoyable read of friendship and the supernatural.
January 30, 2015
4.5 stars. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is a story about the relation between landscape and people, and the ways that both leave their mark on the other. Robert Macfarlane conveys, through beautiful language, an appreciation of pathways, the feet that make them, and the terrain that directs their course. The journeys are set primarily in England and Scotland, with excursions to Spain, Palestine, and China. Along the way, Macfarlane discusses a variety of topics, ranging from the colorful people he meets to history to geology to literature.
This book is excellent as an inspiration for wanderlust. I particularly loved his descriptions of the Broomway, the pass through Lairig Ghru, his journey on the pilgrim’s way of Camino de Santiago, and the trek at Minya Konka–all of those seem like bucket list hikes!
Macfarlane is very talented with phrases. So many artfully-worded passages ring true:
“Paths are the habits of a landscape.”
“We easily forget that we are track-markers, through, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete–and these are substances not easily impressed.”
“Time is kept and curated and in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them. This discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting.”
So, why not 5 stars for a book that I enjoyed so much? Mainly for Macfarlane’s tendency to use prose and quotations not to enrich his passages, but to show how terribly clever and educated he is. Some parts of The Old Ways plod along, with erudite phrase after phrase, until my eyes glazed over.
I also found the chapters that concerned his journeys to be interesting, and those that concerned his ruminating to be less so. I was least taken with his capsule biography of poet Edward Thomas and his account of two sailing voyages in the Hebrides (this was, after all, subtitled “A Journey on Foot”). This is a “chapter a night” kind of book, not a “sit down and read it all the way through” book. Also, I’m a maphead–where are the maps? This book without maps is like a biography without a portrait of the subject!