Sep 27, 2016

Silver Boy

The Gray Fox of Topanga
by Vance Joseph Hoyt

This book came into my collection over the weekend (a library sale find) and went into the swap box just as quickly. Which is kind of sad. I have a fondness for animal stories in older books and out-of-print junior fiction. Some of them I enjoy for the storytelling, even if the events are improbable. But in other cases- like this one- it seems the author was trying hard to write an authentic nature story, but got some key details so wrong that it totally lost me.

The story is about an avid naturalist in California (near Los Angeles) who so admires a wild gray fox he plans to trap it and keep it as a pet. Supposedly the author himself once had a pet fox and based a lot of his story on first-hand observations of wildlife. He describes trapping the fox and slowly gaining its trust so he can let it roam his cabin, and can hold and pet it (although the fox doesn't seem to enjoy this). Then the fox kills a rattlesnake that found its way into the cabin, and the man is so grateful he feels guilty for keeping the animal captive. He lets the fox go and continues to observe it in the wild, knowing where the den is.

His next venture is to trap a wild condor, in order to send it to a zoo. The strange thing is that the condor was described as a "modern roc" terrorizing all the small animals of the canyon. While the physical description of it was accurate, the bird's behavior was not. In the story it would stoop to catch prey like a falcon, and chase it actively like a hawk, using its talons like "grappling irons". Um, no. Condors are vultures, they eat carrion, already-dead animals. They don't actively hunt the way this story describes. Unfortunately that inaccuracy was so ludicrous, it killed my interest in reading any more of the book.

Abandoned       265 pages, 1929

Sep 26, 2016

The Tigris Expedition

by Thor Heyerdahl

Once again Heyerdahl set out to prove that ancient peoples could have used reed ships to travel the seas. This time, he started on the Tigris river and built a boat from the local reeds (different from the Egyptian papyrus). The book has the same pattern as the other two I've read: an explanation of his theories about contact between ancient cultures (in this case Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley), his efforts to research and find people who could built him a ship of local materials, the building process, and the journey. It was interesting to read about how the reeds were used and tested, how locals reacted to seeing the reed ship built, and how it was launched across the Persian Gulf. A large part of the journey is about navigational difficulties- they had to avoid a lot of shipping traffic until got free of the Gulf, and it was not always to steer the ship in tight quarters. Reeds under sail (which float excellently- he kept describing it as riding high on the water like a rubber duck) respond differently to wind and maneuvers than wood hulls powered by engine. So a lot of the narrative is about narrow misses with other boats, tricky maneuvering and encounters with locals along the way- in many places they were told certain areas were hostile- they did run into extortioners- and so could not always land when needed. The boat rode out storms with ease- although it could not always be steered in bad weather, there was no fear of sinking or capsizing.

The part where they cross the Arabian Sea was more to my taste- the going became easy and the writing was more about oceanic life they encountered- particularly the movements of fish that sheltered near their hull and small creatures that lived off the sea grass and shellfish that started to grow there. I really liked reading about that micro-environment that developed under their boat and the various fishes and sharks they observed. More distressing is to read about the pollution encountered. By the time they reached the tip of Africa- making final port in Djubouti- the waters on all sides were banned from travel due to warfare and hostilities, so although they had been five months at sea and the boat was still in great condition, they ended the expedition, setting fire to their reed boat in protest against the war.

Throughout the narrative there is a lot of history interspersed, in particular about ancient Sumerians. And about ancient building sites they visited, and stonework Heyerdahl was interested in. These parts weren't as engaging, and I started skimming quite a lot before I got to the end where the marine life is described when they finally cross the ocean. I'm sure I would have learned a lot from it, but my mind wandered when the history got more and more detailed, so I actually skipped reading about a third of the book.

You can read a little more about the expedition here.

Rating: 2/5      349 pages, 1984

Sep 18, 2016

The Ra Expeditions

by Thor Heyerdahl


This book was a re-read for me. Seven years ago I was kind of floored when I read about Heyerdahl's trips across the Atlantic in handmade boats, to test his theories about how ancient peoples might have travelled the oceans, in particular going from Egypt to the American continent. For some reason I had this book on my TBR shelf next to The Tigris Expedition and decided to read one before the other (chronologically). I was only a few chapters in before incidents and descriptions began to feel familiar, and I realized I'd read it before. It was still pretty darn interesting, and is sticking around in my collection (this time properly shelved).

In Kon-Tiki Heyerdahl crossed the ocean on a balsa wood raft, in this case he built papyrus reed boats. He travelled the world to find men who still built reed boats on various lakes, and with their expertise handling the materials, followed the design of reed boats depicted in Egyptian tombs- he was convinced by their shape they must have been seaworthy. However he didn't know the purpose of certain parts of the design, so although they copied the images faithfully, once at sea they made some mistakes which caused the boat to start falling apart. They made it most of the way across- just a few hundred miles short of their goal before being rescued by a ship. The bulk of the book details the research, how the boat was constructed and the first trip- how the men settled their differences on board (being from seven different nations), how they learned to steer the reed boat, sightings of whales, porpoises, sharks, jellyfish and other oceanic life, difficulties with the weather and all things you'd expect to read about an ocean voyage. Mostly it's about how the structure of the boat held up (or didn't) to the rigors of wave and wind, and how their provisions held out- they took only foods that ancient Egyptians might have had, and packed them the same way- clay jars and baskets. It all worked out surprisingly well.

Thor Heyerdahl launched a second trip not long after, to prove they could make it all the way with the boat built and loaded properly. This time they didn't have nearly as many difficulties, and the second trip is told in a mere one chapter. It wasn't as exciting because not so much went wrong- the boat still took on water and they broke steering oars, but it didn't fall apart like the first one.

While I liked reading this again, I did notice it got really repetitive telling about all the historical similarities between ancient cultures Heyerdahl was trying to prove. There's an entire chapter or two in the middle of the book where he just reiterates all the arguments he brought up at the beginning of the book, fleshed out from some reading the crew did while on board to while away calm moments. Then he rehashes it all again at the end. I didn't really want to read a bunch of history, I wanted to read about the adventure- I could have done with all that just told once and summarized again...

Rating: 3/5        341 pages, 1971

My earlier review is here.

Sep 12, 2016

Wither

by Lauren DeStefano

In the not-so-far future, every continent apart from North America has been annihilated by nuclear warfare.  For a time afterwards America was like a utopia- cancer and other diseases erradicated, only  perfectly healthy babies born due to genetic manipulation. Then the dark reality sets in- those born in the next generation die in their early twenties. All of them.

What this means for the story is that our main character finds herself kidnapped at age sixteen, taken to a mansion and coerced, along with three other girls, to marry a wealthy man who is among the desperate- they want to breed as many children as possible in hopes of finding a cure before humanity dies out. The main character is one of these girls kidnapped to be a bride. She is suddenly jerked from being in poverty and uncertainty to living in luxury and being well-cared for. But she isn't free, she's not happy, and she knows when she's going to die...

It's an interesting idea, but this one didn't work for me. The characters were uninteresting. I never got a sense of them as real people. And I didn't quite buy the premise. If everyone was suddenly dying young, would the reaction of wealthy men really be to kidnap young girls and marry them in order the get lots of progeny? To me it was an odd idea. Another issue I had was that the story is told a lot in flashbacks, so the background events are revealed in pieces. I prefer my narrative to be linear. I think if I'd had chapters describing the chaos, the sudden flux of orphans when people started dying, the struggles the main character faced before suddenly being shoved into this mansion... it would have made more of an impact for me.

But again, I'm not the target audience for this book. It's the kind of thing my near-twelve-year-old might gobble up. Except when I started to tell her about the premise (to see if she wanted to read it before I return it to the library) she said "wait, so all these girls are getting raped by a rich guy?" Well... they got married to him, but against their will, so yeah, rape. The whole idea of it is pretty distasteful once you start seeing past the descriptions of opulence hand-in-hand with oppression. However, as far as I read in the book, I didn't come across any sex scenes at all. The girls discuss consummation, who spent the night when with their husband, one of them gets pregnant, that's it. I can't be sure though- I started to feel distracted around thirty pages in, and just skimmed a bunch after that before ditching this one.

Abandoned         374 pages, 2011

more opinions:
Presenting Lenore
Rhapsody in Books
Dear Author
There's a Book

Sep 11, 2016

TBR 63

Kid Artists by David Stabler- Bookfoolery
The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell- Shelf Love
Evicted by Matthew Desmond- Caroline Bookbinder
I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows- Book Chase
Jonathan Unleased by Meg Rosoff- Bermudaonion's Weblog
Make the Bread Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese- Caroline Bookbinder
The Unwritten by Mike Carey- So Many Books
A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron- Book Chase
Mutt's Promise by Julie Salamon- Puss Reboots
Beside Myself by Anne Morgan- Opinions of a Wolf
Home and the World by Rabindanrath Tagore- Shelf Love
Raising the Barre by Lauren Kessler- Caroline Bookbinder
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are by de Waal- Reading the End
Follow That Bird! by Bill Oddie - Read Warbler
Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk- the Indextrious Reader
Drawn from Life by Stella Bowen- the Neglected Books Page
Waer by Meg Caddy- Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails
The Secret of the Blue Trunk by Lise Dion- the Indextrious Reader

Did you write about one of these books recently? I have lost part of my list of links. Was able to remember whose blogs I saw most of these books on, but not all. They're from the past month and a half. I like to link to the source of interest (your blogs!) so that I remember what first caught my eye about any particular book, and link to your review if and when I finally read the book myself... If it was on your blog, do let me know and I'll update this post.

I figured them out, thanks!

Sep 9, 2016

The Magic Circle

by Donna Jo Nopali

I often enjoy re-tellings of fairy tales that have some new twist to them, or that tell it from the villain's point of view, like this one. It's the story of a midwife in a small village, a medieval setting as far as I could tell. She has a weakness for beautiful things, jewels in particular, but can rarely afford them. Which desire enables a manipulative neighbor to push her into seeking new skills of healing. This didn't mean using herbal remedies, but driving devils and evil spirits out of ill people. One mistake lets her fall into the clutches of the devils, and to flee their influence (voices in her head demanding that she eat a child she has just healed) she runs away to a remote forest, where by keeping her house meticulously clean (because spiders and other small creatures have eyes that spy for the devils) and shielded with homemade candies (not sure of the significance of this part, it might have just been nostalgia) she stays free of their controlling influence for years. Until two lost, starving children come across her sweet-bedecked house. Their names are Hansel and Gretel.

This story did not unfold the way I expected it to, and I enjoyed that. Some of the intuitive actions the midwife made while trying to heal people surprised me, I wondered if a person in her position would really have guessed at such measures. But no matter. It's the kind of intense, thought-provoking story you can read in one sitting. And the ending makes you want to cry.

Some parts of the story reminded me a lot of Barbara Hambly's Dragonshadow.

Rating: 3/5       118 pages, 1993

more opinions:
Reading Rants

Sep 8, 2016

Seaglass Summer

by Anjali Banerjee

I liked this book. It's about an eleven-year-old girl who goes to spend the summer with her uncle on Nisqually Island, which is off the coast of Washington state (where I grew up). Poppy Ray is excited to visit her uncle because he's a veterinarian, and she's always wanted to be one too. She is determined to help out at his clinic, even brings along her own instrument kit. But work at the clinic is harder than she thought- prickly clients to please, messes to clean up, creepy specimens in jars the tech's son shows her. She feels queasy watching her uncle do wound care and is emotionally shaken when an older, ailing pet is brought in to be put down. Poppy starts to wonder if she really wants to be a veterinarian after all.

The story is really well-told, author Banerjee has a nice voice authentic to a pre-teen's concerns and snarky remarks on things that don't seem right to her. I was glad that the story wasn't all completely focused on the vet clinic- there are walks on the beach, troublesome moments between Poppy Ray and the boy at the clinic (he teases her at first, then starts to befriend her, then puts her down in front of other kids...) and an interesting character in one of the clients, a woman who claims to be a clairvoyant, wants to give Poppy a palm reading and some advice on her life's path. Poppy isn't so sure about all that. She has some growing up to do, and comes to realize that, just as her uncle tells her, the wonderful moments in veterinary work- saving injured animals, helping at the birth of some puppies, etc- make up for the difficult ones.

I only wish there had been more pictures. The few pencil drawings that front the chapters - one shown on a simpler cover version I found- have a lot of charm and I would have liked to see more of them. Also one small annoying detail threw me off. I really liked all the descriptions of riding the ferry, whale-watching for orca pods and other details that place the story in a locale I know well. But quite a number of the characters call Poppy "hon" or "honey." I never heard anyone use that term, growing up. It took some getting used to when I moved to the east coast and heard people calling my then-toddler (or myself!) "hon". It's just an east coast thing, am I right?

Rating: 3/5      170 pages, 2010

more opinions:
Book Bits
Mother Reader

Sep 6, 2016

There's an Owl in the Shower

by Jean Craighead George

Another middle-grade level book. I borrowed this one up from the library, saw it next to Julie of the Wolves on the shelf. It's about a kid whose father is a logger in the Northwest. He looses his job because of spotted owls, when they are declared an endangered species. Full of anger, the kid goes out to shoot a spotted owl, but instead rescues a young owlet that has fallen from its nest. He takes it home (thinking it is a barred owl- it doesn't have adult markings yet) and his family begins raising the owl. They don't quite know how to feed it at first but the daughter learns how to take care of raptors from one of her teachers- who also happens to be into falconry and who once got into a heated altercation with her father. Which resulted in a threat of a fine or jail time. The father decides he will care for the owl and take it with him to court, to soften the judge's heart and show all the environmentalists that he can be kind to owls (as long as they aren't the spotted owl). There's quite a bit of irony in that his daughter is learning about raptor care from the guy who got him in trouble, and also that he's really harboring a spotted owl. It all comes to a nice, tidy conclusion.

While there is a lot of information packed into the story about how baby owls grow, what they eat, how they behave, etc. most of it felt a little forced. Lots of characters take it upon themselves to explain it all to others, so the reader can learn. Didn't quite feel smooth. There is also a lot about how the owl is important to the ecology of the forest, what improper logging does to other parts of the ecosystem, how it affects the other wildlife and other people and industries and so on. The most interesting part about the owl is, of course, why it gets in the shower. Other than that, it's kind of dull. There are also a few parts of the story told from the viewpoint of the parent owls in the forest, and that feels pretty slow too.

So it was an okay read, I learned some things, but it wasn't terribly enjoyable.

Rating: 2/5       134 pages, 1995

more opinions:
Buried in Print

Sep 5, 2016

Julie's Wolf Pack

by Jean Craighead George

This sequel to Julie of the Wolves and Julie continues the storyline from the wolves' perspective. There are frequent glimpses of Julie and other people, which informs the reader what is happening with her as well. Also some insight into research with wolves, and efforts made by Julie and wildlife biologists to protect the wolves from a rabies outbreak with vaccines. Disease is not the only challenge in the wolves' lives. The story follows them through several generations, showing how the animals adapt to shifting membership in their pack, to the movements of prey animals and the changing seasons. Some wolves die- young pups acting recklessly from inexperience, older adults running risks to feed their families and conflicts with rival packs at the boundaries. Overall it was a good picture of how wolves live and the concerns they must face in their everyday lives. It also shows the interconnectedness of the various wildlife species and the landscape itself.

It was just a little dry. Lots of the wolves went here and then they went there and then they did this. In the first book I found the author's understatement to be lyrical and fitting for the setting- the people speak in brief sentences and settle their problems quietly. But by the time I got to this third book in the series, the simple writing style and descriptions felt rather boring. However, I'm not the target audience it's written for middle grade readers- so that well could be the reason this one didn't quite captivate me. I'm still glad I read it, though.

Rating: 3/5         192 pages, 1997