May 28, 2020

LionBoy

by Zizou Corder

This book is set in some unexplained future (oil reserves are run out, everything's electric or wind-powered but then there's an animal wandering around that sounds like a sabertooth tiger, from the description). The protagonist, Charlie is ten- though he often sounds much younger. His parents are scientists and get kidnapped, Charlie sets off to find them but is very much frightened by a local thug who appears to be chasing him. However he has a secret ability- Charlie can talk to any member of the feline family (the backstory on how this happened is both charming and rather simplistic). So with cats as allies to spy for him and bring him messages, he sets off on a hopeless-looking quest to rescue his parents. Not very far into the book he winds up with traveling circus, that's on a ship. As in, the ship is permanently decked out to house the animals and people, and give performances in a big top rigged in the center. Very elaborate and imaginative. Charlie is both awed and thrilled by the circus, and dismayed at how the lions in the act are treated- drugged to keep them calm and compliant. He makes a mad plan to help the lions escape the circus, and they in turn promise to help him find his parents again. All along, there's hints at bigger secrets looming than just his cat-communication ability which I'm sure will be explained in further books, as this is the start of a series that purports to be full of adventures.

This was fun, and the cats are just great (better characters than the lions, in my opinion). I certainly enjoyed reading it, although there are some awkward points. Lions don't purr, for example (unless in this future they've evolved to do so?) Sometimes a character in the story suddenly knows something they obviously didn't before, without an explanation, which is a tad annoying. Other times a minor character was taken out of the action for a very silly reason that made no sense. I did like that the author made some obvious points against stereotypes- Charlie himself is from a mixed-race family, and he often comes up against people make erroneous assumptions about his background, or about people of other nationalities as they travel, which he quickly points out are wrong. There's also the thoughtful contrast between Charlie's love of the circus flair and skill of the performers, and his unhappiness at how the lions are kept captive. But then there's this other storyline thread of big business and pharma going at odds against those who are actually trying to cure disease (asthma). It's a strange mesh of themes. Parts of this book reminded me of Heartsease- probably the futuristic setting and all the to-do with canals. I don't know if I quite liked it well enough to seek out the sequels on my own, but if my nine-year-old wants 'em, I'll be happy to read the rest.

I found out it's written by a mother-daughter team, Zizou Corder is their joint pen name.

Rating: 3/5           275 pages, 2003

more opinions: Inkweaver
anyone else?

The Transgender Teen

by Stephanie Brill and Lisa Kenney

The authors are the founder, and the executive director of an organization called Gender Spectrum, dedicated to helping us understand gender diversity. The book has fourteen pages of detailed references from studies, reports, documentaries and interviews. Subtitle: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens. I'm a parent here. We are trying to be supportive but I have to be honest- it's difficult. I won't have a lot to say solid about this book because there's still many things I don't understand, and other things that are too personal to our family right now. When you're still learning about something- a very large and complicated something with a ton of pressure to get it right because your child's health and well-being is possibly at stake- it's hard to even see if the sources I have at hand are accurate or not. How can I judge the material when I don't have a lot of background information or experience with it? It took me a long time to get through this book- I read it in pieces over the past few months. Really, that should tell me something perhaps- the last book I struggled through had its own issues, which I'm kinda blind to while I'm reading. This one sounded great while I was in the pages- definitions explaining unfamiliar terminology, outlines of adolescent developmental stages, reassurances that you're not alone, explanations of the unique stressors gender diverse teens go through, ideas on how to foster resiliency and so on- but when I sit back and think about it all, I feel rather let down. Seems like it touched shallowly on many things but never gave answers to the hard questions or concrete enough details in the examples. Also quite a lot of the material is repetitive so that gets boring, frankly. I was still feeling good about it though until I start looking at other reviews on the big site that's swallowing the world, and Goodreads. Now some scrutiny throws doubts on how biased the book might be, how lacking in critical information or discussion of the negatives. I received this book from a facilitator at a parent support workshop I attended. I'm going to pass it on to another parent- and continue looking for more material to read.

Rating: 3/5               336 pages, 2016

May 23, 2020

a small splurge-

I miss the library. My kids do, too. Third-grader is bemoaning the fact that she's read all the books on her shelves and has nothing new (this is true). Well, except the Magic Treehouse series. She tried a few, didn't really care for them. So I put them up on the book swapping site I belong to, and let her pick some titles for herself. Half a dozen on the way now!

Then I decided to support an independent used bookstore, and made an online purchase. I looked for titles by some of my favorite authors that I've been wanting to try (most of which are not available at the library anyway). Did the same on the swapping site. Here's all those:
Discovered a fellow member with very similar taste in reading material. Who was offering two-for-one on the paperbacks. So I also chose a ton of unknowns, just for the heck of it. (I have lots of points on that site to use up). In the mood for juvenile fiction, so ended up with this lot, which came today:
Finally, picked these out for my kid. I might read some of them, too! She just got a new book for her birthday, so has something to read now. A family member gave her a gift card and guess what, she used it to order a book by her favorite author- however it's not out in print until July. Now she has more books while waiting for the one she really wants (seventh in the Upside-Down Magic series).
Of course, I'll always let her borrow age-appropriate books from my shelves, but she's not quite as keen on animal stories as I am . . .

May 22, 2020

Lad: a Dog

by Albert Payson Terhune

This was a favorite of mine many years ago, and it hasn't lost much by its age. I didn't realize back then, but it's based on some true stories about the author's dog, a purebred collie. I might be biased due to nostalgia, but I thought the stories really well-told, with great characters some noble and sensible, other foolish or rough around the edges. Lad the collie dog has pretty much free run of a large estate on the edge of a lake. He pays close attention to his master's commands and has his duties as guard dog, but also a sense of mischief and likes to chase squirrels. Suffers the attention visitors give him (because he's so beautiful) only because his master orders him too, attacks tresspassers without pause, and loves little children no matter how much they mishandle him. He's just an overall fantastic dog. Well, some of the stories seem rather over the top- the dog is just a bit too perfect- even when he's accused of some wrongdoing it always turns out to be a mistake- but I greatly enjoyed them regardless. Lad shows his intelligence, grit and sense of honor at every turn. Among the adventures he is taken to a dog show (and hates it), gets lost in the city and finds his way home again, saves a crippled child from a snake, rescues a puppy from drowning, rounds up a visitor's straying sheep without any training (but then doesn't know what to do with them), defends a stranger from a bull at a livestock show, and in the end (getting old) has to defend himself against other dogs on the estate who suddenly decide to overthrow his dominance.

There's more detail and complexity to these stories than you might expect, quite a few have surprising turns and are just as much about the people Lad adores and serves, as they are about the dog himself. It's really a glimpse into the past. Looking at other views on Goodreads reminded me how some of the attitudes in this book will be problematic to modern readers- especially children- the dogs often bite people ("slashed to the bone" is a common phrase), and are beaten by their loving masters to teach them. Although the author gives them limitations, they still understand more than is really possible, (though it doesn't go so far as to make them speak). The attitudes towards uneducated people, those of lower economic standing, and women, is less than stellar. Any child younger than five is referred to as a Baby. It's pretty obvious what the author's attitude about certain aspects of "modern life" in the early 1900's was! And yet, I was glad to read it again. It's that nostalgia. I'm glad I knew this book as a kid. I wonder if I'll like Terhune's other books that I never read before, as much? Going to find out at some point, I acquired several off Project Gutenburg for my e-reader.

Rating: 4/5                286 pages, 1919

more opinions: Semicolon
anyone else?

May 18, 2020

Irish Red

by Jim Kjelgaard

Another re-read from my childhood. I read quite a number of Kjelgaard's books, mostly dog stories, way back in the day. This one is sequel to Big Red, I don't have a copy of that so couldn't refresh my memory, but I recalled enough that I wasn't lost trying to piece together the backstory too much.

It's about a father and son team, Ross and Danny, who live in a mountain cabin somewhere in New York. They make their living hunting and trapping for fur, also occasionally guiding visitors to fishing spots. Nearby lives a rich man with a large estate who keeps bird dogs for show and competitions. Ross and Danny have a cherished Irish setter dog named Red who, as far as I could figure out, was mated with the rich man's dog Sheilah so now Ross and Danny are raising the puppies at their cabin. They want to prove to their employer what great dogs Irish setters are. But there are new men at the kennels, who have brought English setters, claiming these as superior dogs. They put one of the Irish setters and an English setter in a impromptu field trial. The English setter wins (although Danny thinks this is an error, having seen the Irish setter point some wild birds that nobody else saw). So Danny and Ross have to admit the English dog won the contest, and they move the Irish setters down to the kennels agreeing to work with the new man and learn his methods.

The focus of the story is actually Mike, one of the Irish setter puppies. He's the runt, and appears to have the least promise, being headstrong and reckless. Runs around causing trouble, only listens to commands when he wants to. The new men don't see him as worth working with, so he's left alone. But when they show their training methods to Danny and Ross, another of the young Irish setters is beaten with a leash and Danny and Ross are furious. They believe the dogs should work for a man out of love and loyalty, not fear of punishment. They quit on the spot and move to a cabin further up the mountain with only one dog, Red. The puppy Mike escapes the kennels and goes to the original cabin, but nobody's there. He hangs around for several days and then starts roaming the woods, pointing game birds by instinct but unable to catch any. Eventually he comes across Danny's trail and finds the men at the distant cabin.

The climax of the story comes when Danny takes Mike along on a day trip to check a new area for game animals. A storm comes up and they have to survive overnight in unexpected snowfall when Danny is injured by a falling tree branch. At one point a cougar stalks them, hoping to catch and kill the dog, but Mike keeps it at bay. (Danny never finds out what the dog was barking at). The whole experience has a profound experience on the young dog, who starts paying more attention to humans, realizing they can work together for mutual benefit. In the end, Mike participates in another trial against an English setter (the rich man wanting to give them another chance) and proves himself- his knowledge gained in the forest and his independent thinking show up the other dog with its more rigid training.

Really a lot of this story is about character, especially that of the dogs, how the men saw something promising in Mike but waited for him to mature instead of forcing him into obedience when he was young and wild. Some parts of the story are told from the dog's viewpoint, and those were my favorite sections to read. I don't know how much appeal this book would have for kids nowadays- I won't actually recommend it to my nine-year-old- she'd probably be upset reading about how the men butchered a hog, shot at game birds, trapped weasels and foxes. But for the memories and the nice look at character building (in an animal), I enjoyed it myself.

Rating: 3/5          182 pages, 1951

May 16, 2020

The Adventures of Ol' Mistah Buzzard

by Thornton W. Burgess

Haven't read one of these in a long time. It was fun, an engaging little story and I actually learned something new. In Ol' Mistah Buzzard, the little animals of the Green Meadows are nervous. There's a large bird circling high overhead which they don't recognize. They do admire how he can stay aloft for ages without flapping his wings (some call this 'lazy') but fear him as a bird of prey. Turns out it is a visiting buzzard (aka turkey vulture) from 'Ole Virginny' and when the possum hears the vulture is nearby, he hurries out to welcome his friend. As soon as Unc' Billy Possum explains that Mr. Buzzard is harmless, the other animals relax. Peter Rabbit is very curious about the visitor. It's springtime and all the other birds are building nests to rear their young. Peter figures the vultures, being such large birds, must have a huge nest that's easy to find. So he goes looking for it- but is surprised when he can't find any nest evident where the vulture pair (Mrs. Buzzard having arrived at this point) are hanging around, even with obvious hints that they do have a pair of eggs. Sammy Jay helps him discover where the vultures have their nesting site, though he plays a trick on him first- as he's rather affronted that the rabbit keeps asking impertinent questions and poking his nose into matters that others want to keep secret.

So the main moral of the story is: mind your own business and respect others' privacy. Also, things aren't always what they seem. I did find it a little annoying that at the start of each chapter, the author reiterated what had occurred in the prior chapter, but as he meant these as bedtime stories for children, I bet this saved many a parent from having to remind their kid what was going on in the story. It got less prevalent further into the book. Also, the last two chapters felt tacked on, jumping suddenly from the current storyline of Peter trying to learn where the vultures nested, to Peter and a bluebird talking, wherein Peter learns another fact about how the vultures live. Felt like it was just a way for the author to add another snippet of info. I didn't mind too much.

As you can tell by the publication date, this story is dated and it shows in the language. While most of the animals speak "regular English" (as my kid would say), the vulture visiting from 'Down South' has a heavy drawl which is kind of cringe-worthy. I was able to take it in stride, even find a bit of humor in it, but there are newer editions where I think some of that language has been modernized- see the cover image depicted for example.

Rating: 3/5             192 pages, 1919

May 15, 2020

The Cartoonist

by Betsy Byars

A re-read from my childhood. It's about a boy named Alfie who likes to draw, especially cartoons. He's proud of his work and daydreams about becoming famous, but mostly keeps the drawings secret, working in a private attic space in his small home. Shared with his mother, older sister and grandfather, this house sounds really tiny. Alfie learns suddenly one day that his married brother lost his job and might come back home with his wife, to stay in the attic. His mother, indifferent to Alfie's need for private space, has big plans to spruce up the attic for them. Alfie protests, and when no one listens, locks himself in the attic and refuses to come out.

I had remembered vividly a lot of the details about Alfie's drawing- how he gets caught in class drawing instead of doing his math, how he imagines ideas and reworks them on paper- frustrated sometimes when they don't come out right. I had forgotten how much of the story is about Alfie's family dynamics- the older sister seems the most sympathetic and responsible, the mother feels overworked and exasperated by the grandfather, who bemoans his feelings of uselessness and tells the same stories over and over again. The family spends a lot of time arguing or sitting in front of the television- all the programs sound really inane and annoying- no wonder Alfie preferred to spend time alone attic- but it really makes me wonder if the author had something against tv viewing. I guess this is on my mind because my nine-year-old has been reading Roald Dahl's Matilda with her class, which also has a dysfunctional family with the parents really enamored of their television.

SPOILER In case you're wondering, Alfie does finally come down from the attic, not because of his mother's threats, his grandfather's cajoling, his best friend's attempts to get him to join activities, or his sister's expressions of understanding. For another reason entirely that erased the conflict. The sad thing is that the whole experience made Alfie realize he was avoiding things by spending so much time in the attic with his daydreams and his cartoons, and he made a motion to change that. It isn't clear at the ending if he stopped drawing altogether, but it did seem like his attitude towards his artwork had changed.

Rating: 3/5         119 pages, 1978

May 12, 2020

Talking to Strangers

by Malcolm Gladwell

I finished a book. I didn't really like it, so am having a hard time thinking what to say. The subtitle: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know. Which seems to be, in a nutshell: you'll never be able to judge strangers accurately. You will misread their facial expressions, truthfulness and intentions more than half the time. This book has lots of examples from famous court cases, encounters with police gone badly wrong, incidents of sexual assault and pedophilia, meetings between enemy leaders of countries, high ranking FBI agents who were duped by spies for years and so on. All about how people who are trained to pick out the lies and find the wrongdoers are so very often wrong. There's a part about studies that show how deprivation and torture makes prisoners very bad about providing information- it affects the brain, the memory- so the info they do give is probably inaccurate. So why do people keep getting tortured in order to extract information? There's another section all about suicides- in particular with details on Sylvia Plath- which I found educational to read in one sense, and very upsetting in another. The takeaway seems to be: as a human race we're bad at judging people we don't know. We guess wrong. So stop trying? It doesn't really give any suggestions on that. Only that we shouldn't be too harsh on people who were taken in by strangers or misled, because it's so very easy to fall prey. I found the implications depressing honestly. There's a lot more, but I don't really feel like thumbing through the book to remind myself of them right now. Check out Goodreads, or some of the links below. Lots of different opinions on this one.

Borrowed from my sister.

Rating: 2/5            386 pages, 2019

more opinions:
Book'd Out
Rhapsody in Books Weblog
anyone else?

May 1, 2020

shelf glimpse

A peek at one of my TBR shelves, although the focus when I took the photo was a plant (this was on my garden blog).
Some time ago I rearranged all my TBR shelves (there's twelve now, with three additional stacks on the floor). Mostly by subject- so if I was in the mood for fiction, fantasy, a memoir or natural history, it would be easy to find something. But I also shelved all the books I've heard about from other bloggers, and those already on my written TBR from other sources, together. Figured it would give me some motivation to read ones I can cross off an actual list. This selection comprises four shelves out of the twelve. Sadly, I keep looking at them but have not felt like picking any up yet. Still working my way through stacks of Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife. Tried to read more of Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell last night, made it through only three pages.

Apr 1, 2020

my other reading

Like many of you, I thought I was going to make a large dent in my TBR shelves these weeks, but have found it difficult to maintain focus and enjoy books. Instead I've been reading periodicals.
Three of these we have regular subscriptions to- National Geographic, Tropical Fish Hobbyist and Amazonas. The rest I got free once off CL- two large cloth shopping bags full. I gladly took it because most were exactly the subject matter I enjoy- environment and nature. Audubon, World Wildlife, Nature Conservancy, National Parks, Sierra, Defenders of Wildlife and more. The stack of them all on my bedroom floor is literally more than a foot high. I assumed when I picked these up it would take me years to get through them all- dipping in here and there, between regular books. Now it's kind of my mainstay. For how long I don't know.

They're all relatively recent- I think the oldest issue is from 2016- and it's nice that a lot of them have stories about positive change and progress. Monarch butterfly numbers on the rise. Wolves and cougars repopulating into new areas of the country. Land set aside for wildlife, species protected, operations harming ecosystems altered or shut down. Of course a lot is about things that need to be done, raising alarm for problems around the world. But I am glad to read the positive stories- people do care, and a lot of good is happening out there.