Book Review: Walking Baltimore

 

WalkingBaltimoreWalking Baltimore
by Evan Balkan
280 pages
Published 2013
Nonfiction – Guidebook

So the first book I want to talk about is a series of walking tours of Baltimore. I’ve only been on two of these walks so far, but I plan to take many more of them. It’s just been SO. HOT. And I’m not a person who likes walking much to begin with! But there’s a new game out that’s made walking so much more fun – yes, I’m talking about Pokemon Go. (Go Team Mystic!) That little bit of motivation of “well, I’ll walk to that Pokestop. Alright, there’s another Pokestop two blocks away, I can make it to that one. Maybe a little further to that next Pokestop. OOoo there’s a Tangela nearby!” It makes it just enough fun that I walk a lot more before I’ve even realized it.

Walking Baltimore gives me general guides for walks so I’m not just wandering Pokestop to Pokestop until I get lost! It has very detailed instructions – turn left at this corner, cross the street here so you can see this monument, then look up at the architecture in front of you – it’s really well done. My only wish is that there was an appendix that rated the walks in order of difficulty – each walk has a rating, from easy to moderate to strenuous – but there’s no way to see all of the difficulties side by side. With 33 walks all over Baltimore, with all levels of difficulty and lengths, there’s definitely something here for everyone, and the history and points of interest covered by the walks are fascinating.

The two that I’ve actually walked are half of #4, Inner Harbor Promenade, and #11, The Civil War Trail: Path of the War’s First Bloodshed. Both are mostly on the Inner Harbor, where my husband works, so I hitched a ride down with him, walked, and caught Pokemon until he got off work and we came home. (We live outside Baltimore City limits.) I’d been down in the area many times, but had no idea the Civil War’s first bloodshed occurred when a mob waylaid Union troops travelling through Baltimore! There are medallions laid in the sidewalks commemorating some of the events of the Civil War march, and most of those are Pokestops too.

Currently I have this book out from the library, but I think this is one I’ll be adding to my personal library soon. I want the walking guides! The author has also written 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Baltimore and Best in Tent Camping: Maryland. So he knows his stuff.

From the back of Walking Baltimore:

BALTIMORE – famous for spectacular harbor views, myriad historical monuments and landmarks, and important cultural institutions. But it’s also much more – a patchwork of small, unique neighborhoods with terrific bars and restaurants, and more recreation and green space than most people realize. All of this combines to make Baltimore one of America’s most fascinating and walkable cities. 

In Walking Baltimore, longtime insider Evan Balkan leads you on 33 self-guided tours from Fells Point to the Inner Harbor, Mount Vernon to Mount Washington, and all the diverse neighborhoods in between. This book will show locals and visitors alike how and why Baltimore was an essential player in the country’s early history and continues to be influential today. You’ll soak up Charm City’s incredible history, culture, architectural trivia, and quirky vibe. Plus, you’ll find tips on where to dine or have a drink. Clear neighborhood maps and vital public transportation and parking details make exploring easy. Whether you’re looking for an afternoon stroll or full-day’s entertainment, grab this book, step outside, and walk Baltimore!

Book Review: Black Heart Loa

BlackheartloaBlack Heart Loa
by Adrian Phoenix
Published 2011
416 pages
Urban Fantasy

This was on my library’s “used books for sale” shelf, on the Christmas sale of 2 books for $1. The premise looked interesting – haven’t seen hoodoo-centered urban fantasy before! So I searched around to find a second book (The Elfish Gene) and bought them both. And I’m glad I did, even if I haven’t read The Elfish Gene yet! Black Heart Loa is actually the second in Phoenix’s Hoodoo series, the first being Black Dust Mambo. Even without reading the first one, Black Heart Loa is easy to follow, and the events of Black Dust Mambo are easily understood, without really having them rehashed to the reader. Part of that, I expect, is because Black Heart Loa is dealing with the fallout of the events of Black Dust Mambo, so things get explained in a natural progression in the book.

BHL was a rolicking fun ride through the swamps of Louisiana. I can’t speak for the accuracy of how the hoodoo belief system is represented, but most religious beliefs in urban fantasy get a vigorous twisting from the author, as miracles and magic become real in the fictional world. So I’m not terribly worried about the accuracy, as long as they’re not portrayed solely in a good or bad light. And in BHL there are both good and bad practitioners of hoodoo, illustrating the point that it’s not the religion that is inherently good or bad, but the person practicing it. So that moral quandary aside, I really, REALLY enjoyed this book. Kallie is a fun, ass-kicking, smart-talking protagonist, though I found myself wanting to know more about her best friend, a mambo-in-training.

I especially want to know more about a character who was introduced late in the book, but the ending of the book implies more books to come, and more focus on the character I’m intrigued by, so I’ll have to see if I can dig up more of this series. Amazon says this book is 2 of 2 in the series, so hopefully the author is still going to write more!

From the back of Black Heart Loa:

“An eye for an eye is never enough.”

Kallie Riviere, a Cajun hoodoo apprentice with a bent for trouble, learned the meaning of those ominous words when hoodoo bogeyman Doctor Heron targeted her family for revenge. Now, while searching for her still-missing bayou pirate cousin, Kallie finds out the hard way that someone is undoing powerful gris gris, which means that working magic has become as unpredictable as rolling a handful of dice. The wards woven to protect the Gulf coast are unraveling, leaving New Orleans and the surrounding bayous vulnerable just as an unnatural storm – the deadliest in a century – is born. As the hurricane powers toward the heart of all she loves, Kallie desperately searches for the cause of the disturbing randomness, only to learn a deeply unsettling truth: the culprit may be herself. To protect her family and friends, including the sexy nomad Layne Vallin, Kallie steps into the jaws of danger . . . and finds a loup garou designed to steal her heart – literally.

Book Review: The Edible Front Yard

This is a book my mother sent me for Christmas this year, and I’m OBSESSED with it. It’s really made me look at garden design in a new way – not just what I can grow to eat, but what I can grow to look good at the same time. So first, the stats:EdFrontY

The Edible Front Yard: The Mow-less, Grow-more Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden

by Ivette Soler
Published 2011
213 pages
I would definitely give this book the full five stars. It’s filled with gorgeous, full-color, glossy photographs that really show off the concepts illustrated in the book. Soler describes both some common vegetables (corn and beans, for example) as well as some things I didn’t even know were edible, like daylilies and nasturtiums! She includes a lot of unusual edibles, like artichokes and bananas, the latter of which I can’t grow outside here in Maryland. She lives in LA, though, and I completely understand how it must be complicated to write a book applicable to the entire United States!

Her chapters range from “Curb Appeal” – WHY should we care what our yard looks like, and what actually looks good? – to “The New Front Yard Plant Palette” which is all about classic edibles that also look great. Another chapter is about helper plants – plants that aren’t necessarily edible (though some of them are), but that serve other purposes in the garden, such as pest repellant or predatory bug attractants. Both of these chapters list a TON of plants, with short descriptions about why they’re on the list, how to take care of them, and what to use them for. EXTREMELY useful.

Soler has her own blog – The Germinatrix – but unfortunately it doesn’t look like it’s been updated since 2012. Her Twitter seems to have died about the same time, and her Facebook hasn’t seen a post since early 2013. I’m still hoping to find her presence online, as I love her writing style and would love to find more of her work.

Book Review: Whispers Underground

whispersWhispers Underground
by Ben Aaronovitch
303 pages
Published 2012
Urban Fantasy

I picked up Whispers Underground mainly because of one paragraph on the back: “…the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah – that’s going to go well.” expecting, well, just what that implied. Yay, a fiery woman who keeps contradicting the main character about things she doesn’t understand! Philosophical discussions! Sparks! ….I did not get any of that. Reynolds was not the main character’s temporary partner, as was implied. She had a bit part in the book. Her religion wasn’t even MENTIONED until very very near the end, and it was just an offhand “she went to go have Christmas dinner with her evangelical family” or something like that. She never dug her heels in and contradicted him. She accepted the idea of supernaturals pretty easily, honestly, and just said she couldn’t put it in her FBI report because she didn’t want a psych eval. WHERE IS MY CONFLICT?

I also did not realize at first that this wasn’t a one-off book or the first in the series – the only indication of that is that it mentions on the front cover that the author was also the author of Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho. (And on the inside front cover, it turns out.) But there’s nothing about “a Rivers of London story” (incidentally, I had to get the name of the series from the Amazon page, it’s certainly not on the book anywhere!) or “Don’t miss the other books in the series” or anything like that. Realizing it’s the third book answered some of my other questions, like Why doesn’t the author say Toby is a freaking DOG until like the fifth time his name is mentioned? I spent most of the book wondering if Molly is a ghost or what the hell she is, and that was never explained. Peter’s actual partner had some accident happen to her face, and that’s mentioned briefly – that there was an accident – but it’s never explained. There’s very little magic in the books, all the non-humans look surprisingly human, and the “gruesome murder” described on the back of the cover is a pretty run-of-the-mill stabbing. Overall, disappointing.

The book attempts to be urban fantasy in the style of Dresden, but fails miserably, in my opinion. For only being 300 pages it DRAAAAAGGED on. Final verdict – don’t waste your time, not interested in the other books.

From the back of Whispers Underground:

It begins with a dead body at the far end of Baker Street tube station, all that remains of American exchange student James Gallagher – and the victim’s wealthy, politically powerful family is understandably eager to get to the bottom of the gruesome murder. The trouble is, the bottom – if it exists at all – is deeper and more unnatural than anyone suspects . . . except, that is, for London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant. With Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, tied up in the hunt for the rogue magician known as “the Faceless Man,” it’s up to Peter to plumb the haunted depths of the oldest, largest, and – as of now – deadliest subway system in the world.

At least he won’t be alone. No, the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah – that’s going to go well. 

Book Review: Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns

pradaRevenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns
by Lauren Weisberger
433 pages
Published 2013
Modern Fiction

I probably should have read The Devil Wears Prada first – I haven’t even seen the movie! I do know the basic premise, though, and reading this book does make me want to see the movie sometime soon. Perhaps I’ll check Netflix for it. (Though I just went to the library and brought home a new load of books, so perhaps not!)

It was an okay story, I suppose. Not my usual fare, though. Andy Sachs, the unfortunate assistant whose story was told in The Devil Wears Prada, returns, a decade after the events of the first book. She’s started a wedding magazine with her best friend, and it’s become wildly successful. Then Elias-Clark, the publishing company headed by Miranda Priestly (the “Devil” from the title), makes an offer to buy the magazine and it goes downhill from there.

I really was not thrilled by this book. Miranda only makes a few appearances, and while her influence is felt through the entire book, it’s more Andy’s fear of her that permeates the book rather than Miranda’s own driven personality. I wanted to see more of the Devil herself!

Reading other reviews on Amazon, I’m not alone, and apparently the first book was FAR better. Which is good to know, I suppose, but I still probably won’t bother to read it. I might watch the movie – I remember the previews were hysterical – but I won’t waste the time on the book. That’s also my recommendation for this sequel. Don’t waste your time.

From the back of Revenge Wears Prada:

Almost a decade has passed since Andy Sachs quit the job “a million girls would die for” working for Miranda Priestly at Runway magazine—a dream that turned out to be a nightmare. Andy and Emily, her former nemesis and co-assistant, have since joined forces to start a highend bridal magazine. The Plunge has quickly become required reading for the young and stylish. Now they get to call all the shots: Andy writes and travels to her heart’s content; Emily plans parties and secures advertising like a seasoned pro. Even better, Andy has met the love of her life. Max Harrison, scion of a storied media family, is confident, successful, and drop-dead gorgeous. Their wedding will be splashed across all the society pages as their friends and family gather to toast the glowing couple. Andy Sachs is on top of the world. But karma’s a bitch. The morning of her wedding, Andy can’t shake the past. And when she discovers a secret letter with crushing implications, her wedding-day jitters turn to cold dread. Andy realizes that nothing—not her husband, nor her beloved career—is as it seems. She never suspected that her efforts to build a bright new life would lead her back to the darkness she barely escaped ten years ago—and directly into the path of the devil herself…

Book Review: The Odyssey

odysseySo with John Green starting his second run of Crash Course Literature, I realized there are a few classics I’d never read. The Odyssey by Homer being one of them. I snagged Robert Fitzgerald’s translation from the library and became enthralled. I wasn’t expecting it to be so easy to read! For being a 462 page poem, it flowed incredibly well and kept my attention the entire way through.

The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who went away to fight in the wars in Troy caused by the abduction of Helen. This story takes place after the war is over, when everyone – or almost everyone – has gone home. Odysseus, through a series of mistakes and misfortunes, has been marooned on an isle for many years, and his family has begun to think he’s dead. Sons of most of the nobles in Ithaca have taken residence in Odysseus’ palace, courting his queen while eating his food and drinking his wine. His queen still waits for him, and puts off her suitors in a variety of ways. (The most famous of which being her claim that she must finish a weaving before taking a suitor, and while she weaves every day, she unweaves her work at night, but the suitors figure that one out and make her finish it.)

One thing kept bugging me through the entire story, though – while much is made of Odysseus being gone, and his trials, and the people waiting for him at home – the fact that his ENTIRE CREW OF SHIPMATES, heroes all, dies on the journey is somewhat glossed over. Maybe it’s my history as a military spouse, but what about THEIR families? There are surely women and children waiting in Ithaca for them as well, but nary a mention is made of them. Only the King’s story is important enough to talk about. In a 400 page book, is a paragraph about the other families too much to ask? I suppose, given how long ago the book was written, the fact that Homer writes sympathetically (albeit briefly) about a woman’s suffering for her husband might have been revolutionary on its own, and asking for some concern for anyone lower than a Prince would be unheard of.

That aside, it’s an amazing story. Here’s John Green’s take on it: