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.

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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.

Book Review – The Honest Truth

22571259Dan Gemeinhart’s The Honest Truth is sweet, meaningful, heartbreaking, and hopeful. Feeling overwhelmed due to a return of his cancer and facing its harsh, uncertain treatment, 12 year old Mark and his dog Beau slip away on a bus to climb Mount Rainier.

The strength of this book is that Mark is easily believable and likeable. Gemeinhart makes us understand why Mark makes the choices he does, and invites us to empathize with him. We’re not sure whether to root for him to make it to the top, die on the mountain on his own terms, or be found by the searchers. We admire his strength and his carefully considered plan, as well as his resilience when the plan meets reality.

The Honest Truth is a little pat, a little hokey, and a little predictable in an afterschool special sort of way, but its earnest sweetness is enjoyable nonetheless.

Book Review – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

227337293.5 stars. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is character-driven sci-fi that tries very hard to be pleasing, and mostly succeeds, but feels both a bit derivative and saccharine-sweet. Becky Chambers’ misfit crew of the Wayfarer is tasked with building a shipping lane to a planet of contentious aliens, and the story follows their year-long trip to complete their task.

What I appreciated most about this book is Chambers’ obvious imagination and care for her world. The universe is rich with aliens of various physical descriptions, cultures, and personalities. Their interactions provide the depth to the story, as well as its most uplifting and redemptive moments. Ultimately, this is a story about relationships and the stumbling, well-intentioned yet sometimes hurtful ways we seek to overcome differences and make connections.

I fear that reading this book without comparison to Firefly is next to impossible; there is too much in this book that toes the line between homage and derivation, and the story and characters are paler in every instance. Dialog lacks the snap of Joss Whedon’s touch, and characters don’t have the same life to them.

My main complaint is that the story is not terribly compelling, and the characters feel disconnected from it. The central story–the long trip to build the wormhole–is barely mentioned through large swaths of the book, and the characters seem to have no impetus to be involved other than that they were hired to do it. There is little conflict between characters–naively sweet but not anything that kept me turning pages.

This book also has a bit of a message-y tone (let’s check all the diversity checkboxes!), but fortunately it’s never preachy about it.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a decent read with an interesting cast of human and alien characters set in an intriguing world. I enjoyed it, yet wish there was a little more storytelling to go with the rich world-building.

Book Review – Girl Waits with Gun (Kopp Sisters #1)

237193785 stars. Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun is the fictionalized story of Constance Kopp, one of the first female law enforcement officers in the US. In 1914, a motorcar precariously driven by silk factory owner Henry Kaufman strikes the buggy of the Kopp sisters, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette. When Kaufman refuses to pay damages, responding with threats and violence, the Kopp sisters unite to defend themselves.

Sometimes a random book find proves to be exactly what I wanted. I ran across this book via Rachel’s review on Pace, Amore, Libri, and the subject matter combined with her glowing review had me quickly checking it out from my library. I was thrilled to find that this book is a rollicking, charming, and thrilling read that works so well on so many levels. As a character drama, the relationship between the three sisters is deep and heartfelt, and the way they respond to events keeps the pages turning. The story itself is a well-told tale of taking on corruption and malfeasance. As historical fiction, it’s an enjoyable capsule of society, place, and time.

What I really enjoyed about Girl Waits with Gun is Constance’s gutsy, cheeky personality. The first-person narration from her point of view shows her strength of character, and her dialog is full of sly humor–especially her repartee with her opinionated, outspoken sister Norma. Constance’s narration also allows the story to maintain a lighthearted tone, even when the events are grim and threatening. It also amplifies the emotional impact of the story by demonstrating the depth of Constance’s love for her sisters, fierce streak of independence, and innate sense of fairness.

Constance’s brave encounters with Kaufman are of the “stand up and cheer” variety; she’s a great character to root for. No less cheer-worthy are her refusals to comply with social norms of the time. Another crux of the story is the respect and compassion between Constance and Bergen County, New Jersey Sheriff Robert Heath; I suspect (and hope!) the sequels will offer a much broader look at their association.

While this is definitely a fictionalized account, primary source material is presented–newspaper articles, text of the letters, physical locations, court records, etc. The central plot of the book (the accident and the sisters’ attempts to bring Kaufman to justice) recreates what is known of the events. The afterword states that the secondary plot (Lucy’s tale) is completely fictional, though it flows well with the rest of the work and has historical basis. The author’s website contains a wealth of historical background that added to my enjoyment of the story.

Girl Waits with Gun is a satisfying read that successfully blends action, character, historical interest, and societal themes. I completely enjoyed the adventures of the Kopp sisters, and have already purchased Amy Stewart’s next volume of their tale.

Book Review – The Rest of Us Just Live Here

229109003 stars. The concept of The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness is that Mikey and his friends are “normal” high school seniors working through the choices and uncertainty of what comes next while an epic battle against supernatural forces is waged by classmates with superpowers. The chapters start with a well-used conceit, describing the events of the supernatural world, then narrates the tale of Mikey and his crew. Knowing the brief description of the supernatural events gives reference to the unexplained things that the “normal” kids observe.

To me, this book came across as an entertaining teen drama, with complex, real-world teen issues of friendship, sexuality, and what comes after graduation. The story was interesting enough to stand on its own as the characters develop and mature.

There were also nicely-handled themes of mental illness, sexuality, homosexuality, politics, and complex parent/child relationships that are very applicable to today’s teens. Ness presents them without “messaging” and their inclusion felt natural in the storyline.

The real joy in The Rest of Us Just Live Here, in addition to seeing the characters forge their relationships amidst uncertainty, is Ness’ straight-faced skewering of pop culture. This book is worth the read just for the scene with a concert by boy band “Bolts of Fire”; his descriptions of the band members and the stages of ecstasy experienced by the squealing pre-teen girl audience is hysterically funny.

The downside of this book is that I always had a feeling that there was a much bigger story going on that we weren’t being told. Perhaps that’s part of its wit; we know important deeds transpire but the day-to-day quest for happiness is higher priority.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is an enjoyable read for its characters, charm, and sly pop culture references.