In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryBill Bryson is one of those authors whose work I really should already have read, but I’ve never managed to set aside the time to devour his backlist.  A few years ago I used a couple of plane flights to read his hefty A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is not short but is indeed about nearly everything, and I was like, yes, more please!  And then… nothing.  So when my husband and I finally took our honeymoon (renamed our honeymoonaversary as we took the trip for our 5-year wedding anniversary [omg we’re old]) to Australia, I said to myself, hey, I’m pretty sure Bill Bryson’s got a book for that!

It’s almost fifteen years old at this point, and some of the trips he talks about happened even earlier than that, but it’s still a pretty good read for anyone making their way to the antipodes. I ended up reading it in pieces over several flights to, from, and within the country, so I had a chance both to see how my opinion and Bryson’s compared after visiting a city and to get a tantalizing sneak preview of a future stop.

In a Sunburned Country was definitely a more fun read than the seven million travel guides I had pored over in planning our trip, but I would probably not follow along in Bryson’s steps walking miles and miles to see not very much or driving to the middle of nowhere to see tiny, barely used museums or spending what is apparently a large amount of time getting drunk in pubs. Looooots of drinkin’ goin’ on. Although, if I had a job that paid me to travel to Australia on a regular basis, I might be convinced about those museums.

What I found really useful in the book was Bryson’s take on Australian history. I knew the very basics — prison colony, gold rush, rugby — and Bryson covers a lot of that, but he also takes care to point out the most peculiar aspects of the history and culture, and that’s always way more fun to know about. There was much giggling and making the husband pause his in-flight entertainment so that I could say, “Hey, did you know, there was a sailor who sailed straight between Australia and Indonesia and managed never to see Australia at all?” or “Hey, did you know, Australia could totally have been a Francophone country except the French got there a couple days too late?” or “Hey, did you know, there’s like a zillion spiders in Australia and they all want to EAT YOU ALIVE?”

Scott did not appreciate some of these facts.

Bryson also notes some less-exciting things, like the fact that the Aborigines have had rather a rough go of it since the Europeans came and ruined everything; in a depressing bit of serendipity I read about the fact that Aboriginal children were more or less kidnapped from their homes just days before Scott and I found ourselves wandering an exhibit about the places these kids were kidnapped to, including a video wall showing the apology made by the government in 2008, which is two years after the first time I visited Australia and also just six years ago.

But all that gloom and doom is tempered with stories like Bryson’s attempt at boogie boarding off the coast of Sydney with some friends and very nearly getting killed by a jellyfish, a story made so much better by the fact that one “friend” wrote an account of the event that, let’s say, somewhat differs from Bryson’s, and Bryson saw fit to include said account in this book.

A plus plus, fantastic, would read again, but will probably attempt to read a different Bryson sometime in the next four years. At this rate, I’ll have them all read probably before I’m dead?

Recommendation: For travelers to Oz and those who appreciate dry humor and tiny museums.

Rating: 8/10

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling (25 July — 27 July)

My goodness, this book was long. How did I read this in one night when it first came out? A mystery of the universe, that.

So. HP4: A New Hope. Harry goes to the Quidditch World Cup, where quidditch happens but also some bad wizards do bad things and then the mark of the Bad Wizard shows up in the sky and everyone flips. Then, at Hogwarts, there is a Tri-Wizard Tournament going on with four champions — someone put Harry’s name in the Goblet even though he’s underage, and now Harry has to fight dragons and merpeople and a hedge maze. But, oops, at the end of the maze Harry gets transported to meet the Bad Wizard, who does some magic and is now scarier than ever. Then three more books happen.

A few days ago, I would have told you with absolute certainty that this is my favorite Harry Potter book. Now I’m not so sure. Azkaban may have beaten it this go round, and of course there are still three more books to go. But it was really long, and even though it was really long most of the scenes still felt truncated! I had forgotten just how short the World Cup really is, how little there is to the Tournament, how much I don’t care about house-elves… bah.

But! I did like the fact that, knowing the story well, I could see how things would fit into the ending — Winky at the World Cup, Moody and his dustbins, Bartemius Crouch in Snape’s office. And I like that all of the help Harry was getting was really part of the story, instead of convenient to the end (Dobby bringing Harry gillyweed vs. Ron’s expertise at wizard chess).

Also, Fudge is an idiot. But more on that, sadly, later.

Rating: 7.5/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge)

Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher (30 July − 3 August)

This is the second book of the Dresden Files series. The supernatural culprit this time is werewolves, as you might have guessed by the title. A few people show up dead, ravaged by not-quite-wolves, and Harry is called in to figure things out. He is first lead to a gang called the Streetwolves, nerdy college types who have decided to become werewolves and who are led by a not-at-all-human werewolf called Tera with a proclivity for walking around naked. He also finds a businessman who is cursed to become a wolf at the full moon and who has irked the mob boss from the previous novel. Also, a misunderstanding leads his cop friend to arrest him as an accomplice, making finding out which wolf did it a little more complicated.

Rating: 8/10

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher (4 July − 6 July)

This is the first book in a series called The Dresden Files, about a wizard who investigates paranormal crimes. It was recommended to me by a librarian, and I quite enjoyed it.

The wizard is called Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, and he’s got a lot of baggage − he has killed a few people in his time, had some uncomfortable interactions with black magic, and has a pretty crappy love life. In this book, he’s out on two weird cases: in one, people are dying by having their hearts explode, and in the other, a guy who is sort of into magic disappears and his wife wants him found. The Chicago mob gets involved, and also demons, and a skull that contains a spirit who knows all about potions. It’s a little bit all over the place, but it’s totally fun. I’ve got the next book in the series lined up on my shelf.

Rating: 8/10