Book Review – Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks

Hike Smart
Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks by Ann Marie Brown and Terra Breeden

4 stars.  Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks by Ann Marie Brown and Terra Breeden draws from the authors’ extensive backpacking experience to present a readable, instructive guide that benefits novices and experienced hikers alike. Topics range from safety to comfort to gear selection to navigational skills.

What I appreciated most about this guide is its conversational tone. Most hiking guides read like a textbook, alternating checklists with dry instructional material. The authors here do an excellent job relating information on a personal level, as if they are discussing what works for them, and most importantly why it works for them. In addition to their own experiences, they relate many anecdotes from other hikers. These anecdotes blend well with the text, either illustrating the rationale of the authors or providing an experience that they analyze and use to teach.

I also am a fan of the authors’ middle ground stance on ultralight gear. Many ultralight advocates are far more willing than I to trade ounces on their backs for substantial reductions in comfort and safety and/or more investment of time in camp and on the trail (and, to their credit, they have mastered the skills and attitude necessary for that). Brown and Breeden favor an approach of understanding and evaluating the trade-offs presented by ultralight gear–shedding weight where it makes sense, yet not being shy to pack something heavier that elevates one’s hiking experience.

Brown and Breeden’s self-deprecating wit adds to the warmth of Hike Smart. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and little asides like “If you’re a worry-wort like Terra, carry both” are a refreshing break from the “ZOMG You’re Doing It WRONG!!!” attitude that’s unfortunately found in many online hiker communities.

The only real shortcoming of this book is that some topics seem biased towards the experience of backpacking either solo or duo. For example, the section on stoves can be summarized with “use a Jetboil/MSR Reactor integrated canister stove.” While that is a good solution for the solo hiker, it’s not nearly as good when cooking for 4 or more.

I’d also say that this book is very western US-centric. This would be a complaint if the gorgeous pictures of all their Sierra Nevada hikes hadn’t managed to take all my breath away! But I did notice that while topics such as how to secure a tent when tent stakes cannot be driven are covered, whereas there is no real discussion of the use of a hammock as bed and shelter, as is popular in eastern US backpacking.

Rather than the traditional hiking guide which focuses on instruction in a particular method, Hike Smart relies on teaching sound decision-making skills for hikers. I found myself agreeing with a great deal of this book. In many cases, the authors have put into words what I have discovered through experience or by accident. I checked this out from the library expecting to skim it, and found myself reading, enjoying, and learning from it.

Book Review – The Solace of Open Spaces

1669903 stars. In the 1970s, Gretel Ehrlich went to Wyoming on assignment for work. After her partner died of cancer, she stayed as a ranch worker, finding comfort in the bleak landscapes, hard work of sheepherding, and tight-lipped but warm residents. The Solace of Open Spaces is a collection of her essays describing the land, people, and animals around her.

Ehrlich’s prose is very lyrical, and she has a good eye for detail. She describes the connections between land and people eloquently. The writing shows her command of language and description with moments of tenderness, humor, and erudition.

The weakness of this collection is that I feel like I’m looking at pretty postcards that are written to someone else. I can admire the picture and the writing, but I never connect with it. Ehrlich talks very little about herself or events that occur, so the vignettes felt flat to me. Given the title of the book and her situation, I perhaps expected something more moving on the personal level.

The Solace of Open Spaces seems, to me, more a book to admire than to enjoy.

Book Review – Some Kind of Courage

255784084 stars. Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart is equal parts adventurous, thrilling, and touching. All that young Joseph Johnson has left of his family is his pony Sarah, and now she’s been sold to a no-count horse trader against his will. He sets off to get her back, encountering bandits, whitewater, a grizzly, and other dangers, as well as unexpected friendship and sense of belonging.

Gemeinhart’s talent is that he writes both action and emotion very well. Told in Joseph’s folksy first-person narration, the book is readable both for the theme and the plot. I tore through it fairly quickly, starting it in the evening and finishing it on lunch break the next day, excited to read both the bittersweet and the valedictory moments of Joseph’s adventure.

The only real flaw of the book is that there are some moments that feel a little “Chicken Soup for the Soul”-esque, slightly overwrought with morality and message. Neither bad nor emotionally manipulative, mind you, just a little sweetly maudlin.

I continue to be impressed with Dan Gemeinhart’s writing; he’s talented with words, characters, and story. Some Kind of Courage is one of those books that is instantly appealing. Recommended for adventure and animal lovers of all ages.

Book Review – Code Name Verity

134817485 stars. Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity is the story of two friends in World War II. Maddie is a working-class girl who is good with engines and fascinated by airplanes. She befriends Julie, a quick-witted woman from Scottish gentry. As war tears through Britain, Maddie becomes a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes and people to aid the war effort. Julie becomes an agent for the Special Operations Executive. Their lives intersect over and over, until the fateful mission that has Maddie flying her best friend to France. They are shot down, with Julie captured by the Gestapo and Maddie hiding with the French Resistance.

The gripping account is told first through Julie’s written confession for the Gestapo and then Maddie’s anguished narration as she tries to both keep hidden and rescue her best friend. Either perspective is a pageturner on its own. The combination of the two is even more powerful. Wein gives connections between the two stories that add depth, explanation, and resonance to what has already been revealed. I suspect that I’ll need a rereading to pick up on some of the more subtle threads that bind the two women together.

Chief among the literary tools that make Code Name Verity such a thriller is effective use of the unreliable narrator. I’m not sure how much truth there is in Julie’s confession–nor do I want her to be truthful! It’s refreshing to read a book where this device is relevant to the story rather than just being used for its own sake.

Extensive research by the author is obvious in the realistic feeling of the era. War jargon, events, atmosphere, and details contribute to the verisimilitude of the book. The attitudes of the times, especially towards women and the service they provided, reflect in the characters. Maddie’s desire to fly, and willingness to do so in whatever capacity she can, is central to her character; I understand and empathize with her.

Code Name Verity packs quite an emotional punch as well. There are plenty of moments of triumph, heartbreak, terror, and suspense. The relationship between Julie and Maddie is central to the story, and the connection between them was well crafted. Their worry for each other heightens the anguish of their separation and drove the tension of the story.

Code Name Verity is a fantastic book that I’ll read again for sure. Elizabeth Wein has created a well-written, compulsively readable story that thrills and moves.

Book Review – Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

93419094 stars. Philip Connors details one year of his eight spent as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico in Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, penning a literate and enjoyable volume on nature, life, history, and philosophy that could only come from someone with a love for solitude and lots of time for reflection. Hiking 8 miles each way to his tower, Connors was stationed from April to August to watch for puffs of smoke. Once smoke was spotted, he coordinated with other lookouts and fire response crews as the fire was suppressed, contained, or allowed to burn.

The main focus of the book is solitude–its effect on him and how he dealt with it. His pleasure at simply enjoying his environment and the companionship of his dog Alice is obvious. His descriptions of the sights that he sees–trees, rivers, mountain ranges, animals–are all evocative without being overly flowery. If you get the idea that there’s not a lot of action in this book, you’re right; read it for the author’s eye and command of phrasing rather than expecting a thrill-a-minute pageturner.

Central to Connors’ writing is an exploration of man’s relationship to land. He gives a good account of how our understanding of nature has evolved from a policy of total suppression of fire to realization that fire is part of the natural course of renewal.

The weakest parts of the book for me were several long passages discussing other writers who have been fire lookouts such as Norman Maclean and Edward Abbey. There’s a lot of hero worship for Jack Kerouac that I found a bit tedious. I wanted to hear Connors’ voice, not the lengthy quotes from other authors!

I particularly enjoyed his recounting of the history of the area, especially that of Apache chief Victorio and his 1879-80 campaign to keep freedom for his people. That story is equal parts noble and heartbreaking.

It’s rare that I enjoy a book about not much happening as much as I did with Philip Connors’ Fire Season. A thoughtful, enjoyable read that I recommend for lovers of mountains and nature.

Book Review – The Girl Who Drank the Moon

281108522017 Newbery Medal recipient.

5 stars. Kelly Barnhill hits all the perfect notes for a satisfying middle grade fantasy in The Girl Who Drank the Moon. The story combines fantasy and fairy tale elements with dear characters, told with a sense of wonder and whimsy.

The Protectorate keeps its citizens safe from the surrounding forest and the witch who rules it by an annual sacrifice of the youngest baby in the community. The witch, Xan, is a kindhearted soul who rescues the babies, living in harmony with the world-wise yet sweet swamp monster Glerk and the hilariously hyper, undersized dragon Fyrian. Xan accidentally gifts one of the babies with magic. As Luna grows into her gifts, a madwoman in a tower and a young man in the Protectorate both seek to confront the witch.

After the initial scene where Luna is left in the woods, the plot is slow and meandering at first–interesting and pastoral, but not driven by events. The author takes the time to let the story unfold, and about halfway through I found myself reading it breathlessly to see how the threads would come together.

Barnhill’s world is creative; she builds it well through the eyes and ears of her characters. Her system of magic is interesting. The hints of the world beyond the scope of this story make it feel large; I’d love to hear some of the stories that are only mentioned in passing here.

What makes this book so darn likeable is the characters. Dialog is rich, and each character has a distinct personality and behaves in accordance with that personality. And the heart of the book is the bonds between Luna, Xan, Glerk, and Fyrian; they act out of love for one another. Even the bad characters can be understood (an improvement over the usual fairy tale tropes).

Themes are weighty: deception, safety vs. freedom, coming of age, the cost of our decisions. They are thoughtfully presented, and not dumbed down at all. I also appreciate that Barnhill respects the maturity of her audience enough to allow the dark moments to come through in her story. And there are certainly some moments that have intense impact; bad things definitely happen and there are characters who are truly evil.

Prose is warm, presented with a unique voice: a little rambling, a little whimsical, and always a pleasure to read. I particularly enjoyed the dialog. The interplay between Glerk and Fyrian is wonderful. Check out this little gem of warmth and humor:

[Glerk:] “We are going on a journey.”
“A real journey?” Fyrian said. “You mean, away from here?”
“That is the only kind of journey, young fellow.”

Everything about this exciting, wise, kind, and well-written gem of a story worked for me. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is well-deserving of its many accolades, and it just might become a classic of children’s literature.

Book Review – The Forever War

216113.5 stars. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is a mixed bag for me: great concept, intriguing themes, and well-written, but I just didn’t connect with it. Perhaps it’s a case where the expectations of a book with “sci-fi classic” status left me looking for more than I found?

First, Haldeman’s premise is well-done. William Mandella is a grunt in humanity’s first interstellar war. He’s not a mover and shaker, just a guy drafted to fight in a war where his greatest desire is simply to return home. The nature of interstellar war causes a relativistic time dilation effect–although weeks and months have passed for Mandella, centuries have gone by on Earth.

The thematic content is rich, drawing from Haldeman’s service in Vietnam and shock at the cultural changes the country underwent while his life was in suspension as he simply tried to survive day-to-day. He touches on themes of the root cause of conflicts, the perspective of civilian vs. soldier, and the perverse economic buoyancy that wartime economy provides. As his objective age increases, so does his seniority, leading him to command position over young soldiers that he can barely understand due to language changes. They consider his ancient societal outlook to be hideously antiquated.

For all the depth of theme and setting, I never identified with the characters. As Mandella ages, the characters are significantly more different from him, and he never develops any relation with them other than as the object of curiosity. His only real relationship, with his lover Marygay Potter, is the only part of the book that resonated with me on a character level. Mandella himself, despite being the narrator, is rather sparsely written. I never felt like he had much personality or gave me any particular reason to care about him.

The Forever War is a book that is important in the science fiction pantheon, and I’m glad I read it… though I don’t know if I’ll feel the need to read it again.