Aug 15, 2018

Challenger Deep

by Neal Shusterman

I am tired. I am probably not going to do this book justice, but I actually finished it two days ago, and need to say something. It's a story about mental illness. A teen who suffers from schizophrenia. He has feelings of paranoia and confusion about what's really going on- half the time living in his own head, an elaborate inner world which increasingly overlaps with reality. Gradually relationships with his family and friends erode, until finally his parents make the tough decision to commit him to a mental hospital. I thought this book was really well done. The depiction of the inner universe the kid often inhabited was fascinating- he thinks he's on an oceangoing ship (that usually gets nowhere), peopled by a half-mad captain, a talking parrot and variety of nameless crew members (all full of suspicions and delusions of their own). Things there get stranger and stranger (some parts reminded me of Kafka's writings) while he struggles to keep a grip on reality, to discern between one world and the other. The dialog and wordplay is wonderful, the narrative often very sad, but also full of hope. He has snarky conversations with his therapist, struggles through the effects of different medications, makes a few friends among other patients and staff, and finally emerges at the end- not completely better, but definitely more in control.

The book brought to mind one I had read long ago- I Never Promised You a Rose Garden- aptly enough, as they're both about a teenage schizophrenic. I think it was the convincing elaborateness of the inner world that reminded and intrigued me.

The one thing I did not like about the book was the artwork. In the story, the main character designs computer game characters with his friends, who proclaim him "a great artist" and the loose line scribbles did not at all seem to represent the kind of art I imagined. Then I read the afterword: the drawings were made by the author's son, who himself had a mental illness. I immediately felt ashamed of my criticism.

Rating: 4/5            308 pages, 2015

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Aug 10, 2018

Plumbelly

by Gary S. Maynard

A group of kids, a few friends on a South Sea Island. Each in their own way struggling against oppression, neglect, abuse. Parents with heavy hands, unseeing attitudes, teachers who take advantage. They're white kids- resented by the natives. The few of them stick together, and when events suddenly pitch rapidly south, they take what seems like the only option: running away on a small, abandoned sailing vessel- claimed as salvage. The story moves quickly, but is packed with so much. First love. Loyalty between siblings, between friends. I was taken aback at the amount of violence, and how casually some of the characters shrugged it off- but then, they'd seen a lot. Fair warning: quite a few people die. Some by accident, some not. The kids take their lives into their own hands, rocking on the sea. I really liked their voices (in spite of the profanity) and the details of life at sea, work at sailing, were explained just enough for me to get a picture, without overburdening the reader with tons of explanation. Quite a few turns took me by surprise. I was reminded a lot of The Outsiders. And of other books set on sailing ships, that I've enjoyed. Plumbelly is from a small publisher, it could have used more careful editing- a few typos jumped out at me, but the story and characterization are strong enough I wasn't distracted by it. The people felt vividly real, the situations hard to face, the surroundings beautiful and harsh by turns- I loved the descriptions. It's the kind of book you can't put down, and you think about for a long time afterwards. In spite of its brevity there's a lot going on in there. I'd certainly read more by this writer.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 4/5          217 pages, 2018

Aug 2, 2018

Thirteen Moons

by Charles Frazier

I eagerly anticipated reading this book, based on my enjoyment of Cold Mountain. Unfortunately, Thirteen Moons couldn't hold my interest. It's a historical novel surrounding the time when Cherokees were forced off their land by the American government. The main character is a twelve-year-old orphaned boy Will, who is sent by his aunt and uncle to work off years of bond in a trading post on the edge of the Cherokee Nation. He has a fine horse, and loves reading, but not much else in the way of prospects. He soon meets a Cherokee man who basically adopts him into the tribe, and gradually he gets introduced to the culture. For me the most vivid, memorable scene was when he attended a tribal dance where the native americans impersonated the various foreigners who had invaded their land. One of the author's aims seemed to be showing how varied the abilities and stations were among Cherokees- Will spends winters among the Cherokee in an earth-and-wattle hut surrounded by dim smoky light and storytelling, but later in the story he visits a fine plantation run by a wealthy Cherokee man who has slaves and a beautiful young girl (and he falls in love). He muddles around trying to find his place in life, eventually settling on pursing law (because he has law books) and trying to fight for the Cherokee to stay on their land. His visits to Washington are eye-opening: the portrayal of the capital as a small, muddy town full of pretentious and self-absorbed folk, quite a different picture of our early government than I ever had in mind. His efforts fail, the girl leaves him (several times) and he starts to watch the forced removal of his adopted people from their homeland. I struggled to get through the chapters where he started pursuing law, my attention to the story lagging, and hoped it would pick up again with this depiction of dissolution and despair. But I couldn't bring myself to keep reading- two thirds done, and I had no more attachment to the characters than at the very beginning. It's a slow book and I failed to stick it through.

Abandoned              422 pages, 2006

Jul 22, 2018

A Matter of Feel

Dressage Chronicles Book II
by Karen McGoldrick

So many horse books I read are written for kids; this one is for adults. The narrator is a young rider, working in a dressage stable in exchange for lessons. It's got all the details about working around horses, rigorous training, travel to shows, the hectic tense atmosphere there, stiff competition, backbiting among staff and so on. There's wealthy patrons, shady horse deals, down-to-earth stable hands who just love the animals, a bit of romance, and a lot about horses. Which I liked, except I often didn't know what they were talking about. All the precises moves and terms, I was just clueless. I'm at a disadvantage not having read the first book, where the main character ditches her normal life to work at the stable and takes the first steps to learning dressage. That one probably laid out the basics. And introduced the characters better. Here, I never really got a distinct feel for the narrator herself, or the other human characters either, actually. I kept struggling to understand why certain people despised others, not knowing their history. So the people stuff was a bit awkward - and sometimes boring. The personalities of the horses themselves, stood out a lot more clearly. Some of the passages that describe distinctly how a rider learned to work with the horse, to teach it a new move, to understand its behavior and reshape that- very interesting. But then the book would slide back into stiff dialog and choppy narration that often fell short of holding my interest. Unfortunately, the writing style overall didn't quite work for me. I had to make myself finish this one, even though some intense drama crops up in the end.

I borrowed this book from a member of my extended family, who is herself a dressage rider. She says the details are fairly accurate to what goes on in the sport.

Rating: 2/5                 463 pages, 2013

Jul 19, 2018

GoatMan

How I Took a Holiday from Being Human
by Thomas Thwaites

I have read some strange, outlandish books in my time. This one tops them all. It's about a designer's unique project: to turn himself into a goat. Literally. He wants to escape the stresses of modern human existence, by experiencing life as an animal. He visits a shaman to explore what animal he could connect with more easily (the original plan was to become an elephant), studies the mystical connections people have tried to make with animals over the centuries, goes to a goat sanctuary to learn more about their behavior, visits a neuroscientist to find out if he can alter his brain using magnetism or electricity to reduce his ability to talk, goes to a prosthetics lab to have extensions made for his arms, and designs springs for his legs to make himself walk on all fours kind of like a goat, and goes to another specialist about making himself an artificial rumen, so he can chew up grass, ferment it during the day to break down cellulose, and heat it in a pressure cooker over a campfire so he can eat it at night. You'd think it all a huge joke, except there are photographs documenting the whole process. He also visited a university dissection lab- they had never autopsied a goat before- so he could take part in that and see for himself how the animal was put together. (Even so, his attempts to reassemble the skeleton later were laughable- I don't know why he didn't look at photos a complete skeleton; instead he made up some outlandish sculpture of it standing in human posture, with the leg bones in all the wrong places).

In every single case, the specialists he consulted strongly advised him not to do what he was planning. He did it anyway. He got his prosthetics made, had a small team of supporters, made a kind of costume, and travelling to the Alps to join an actual herd of goats. (The goats' owner was, understandably, very surprised). While earlier in the book there was plenty of philosophical thought on the state of animal minds and such, at the end the narrative is very short on details. He found the prosthetics and unnatural posture very painful over time, that he couldn't keep up with the goats, and even though he said the grass stew he made was tasty, I bet it wasn't good nutrition for a human. Evidently he spent a little bit of time mingling with a goat herd on a pasture, and then climbed a mountain path by himself. None of this is described very well, the text at this point is so brief, although there are plenty of photos.

I was intrigued in a kind of disbelieving way through the first part of the book, it was so darn wacky- but hugely disappointed at the ending. He didn't discuss at all whether or not he found peace of mind hanging out with the goats. After all the effort he made to actually put the project into action and be there, I expected some kind of evaluation about how it all turned out, what he learned, something. Nope. Nada. I got the sense he was probably ready to be done with it all- but annoyed that he didn't discuss it or make any kind of conclusion. That was really frustrating for the reader.

I got this book at a library sale.

Rating: 3/5                207 pages, 2016

Jul 15, 2018

The Android

Animorphs #10
by K.A. Applegate

Ten was flat for me. And it must just be me- because according to Goodreads, it's a favorite in the series for lots of other fans. It's certainly packed with action, and the storyline moves swiftly- a bit too quick, as I really felt a lack of detail. Note: there are spoilers below, if you haven't read this far in the series.

In a nutshell, the boys morph dogs to sneak into an outdoor concert, and run into an acquaintance of Jake's who seems- weird. They witness a decidedly strange incident that convinces them the guy's not human. Later they morph spiders and flies at an outdoor event to spy on him- and nearly get exposed when Marco-as-spider is eaten by a bird and has to escape by morphing back to human form in mid-air (and mid-bird, which could be gross except it's light on description). Of course someone sees him falling to earth, but it's the very guy they suspected. Who knows exactly what they are, and tells them he's infiltrated the enemy forces but is really on their side. Suspicious, they still have to learn more, so they visit his supposed home- and find another huge underground living space, this one for the alien race- which are androids. The history of this android race and how it fit into the fight against the Yeerks was just- a bit out there for me. Granted, in a kid's series about alien war, I should expect to meet a lot of strange scenarios and invented alien species, but I just couldn't suspend disbelief enough for this one. Even more than the android storyline, was the idea that dogs had absorbed the essence of another, entirely peaceful race of aliens that had gone extinct due to the Yeerks. Yes, the idea here is that aliens turned wolves into dogs. Anyhow, it gives some of the androids a reason to oppose the Yeerks even though complete pacifist mentality is written into their code.

So they need the Animorphs to steal back a special crystal the Yeerks have in a stronghold, which would allow them to control all the computer systems on Earth. Stakes are high and the Animorphs don't have time to prepare. They sneak into the building as roaches and spiders, narrowly avoid being eaten by a rat, and navigate a pitch-black room of tripwires as bats, only to find when they reach the crystal, that they can't carry it out of the room without using another form. So they morph into their 'battle animals' and blast out of there, only to be met by enemy forces with machine guns. This time there's no easy way out- they battle and are all about to die except in a final moment Marco manages to get the crystal into the android's hands, who then rewrites his code so he can fight, and annihilates the Yeerk forces singlehandedly. It's so awful the scene isn't even described because Marco (our narrator) went unconscious after nearly dying. Just mentioned in passing. And the memory of what he's done is so horrific for the android- who can never dull or forget a single memory- that the androids withdraw, vowing not to get involved again.

Traumatized androids. Lots of heavy discussion in this book about the ethics of warfare. No easy answers. Even that didn't make it interesting enough for me; I kind of had to make myself finish the book. The two new animal forms- spider and bat- were introduced and utilized so quickly, I wasn't able to enjoy that aspect of the story. It was all just fast-paced, action-packed and meh for me. Not my kind of read. I'm taking a break from Animorphs for a little while.

Rating: 2/5          170 pages, 1997

Jul 13, 2018

The Secret

Animorphs #9
by K.A. Applegate

This one wasn't as strong as the last. Cassie struggles to catch up on homework, and morphs a rat to figure out why her rat in a science project won't solve a maze. Then she and Rachel as rats scare some boys who come to torment them. Not long after the Animorphs discover that their enemies are attempting to log the entire forest behind her family's farm, in order to expose them (they know the Andalites must live away from human habitation). So they plan to sneak in and sabotage the logging operation, by morphing into termites. Even though they're terrified of being social insects, from their prior experience as ants. This doesn't go any better. The description of how submerged their sense of self becomes, and how horrifying that is, more vividly written this time. Meanwhile, Cassie fixates on a different goal: to save a litter of baby skunks- their mother is being treated at the wildlife center- and Tobias as a hawk already ate one of them. But then, he's willing to help save them after Cassie makes a point how important it is to her. In fact she gets all the Animorphs involved, which sidetracks them from more important stuff. While I liked hearing Cassie's viewpoint- she's very passionate about protecting wildlife and natural environments, and her growing doubts about their arbitrary desires to save the human race above all raised some good questions- the ending of this book wrapped up way too easily. Their battle with the aliens in the final chapters was actually rather silly. I expected a bit more conflict. Plus, I'm not sure why Cassie is shown morphing into a wolf on the cover when she was far more often in a skunk body. On a more serious note, it's becoming evident that the kids are starting to feel some real strain and trauma from constantly fighting a war it seems they are hopeless to win. Cassie, in particular, is getting very tired of lying to her parents. They are all struggling very much to keep it together...

Rating: 3/5              176 pages, 1997

Jul 12, 2018

The Alien

Animorphs #8
by K.A. Applegate

This one was great. I really enjoyed reading a narrative from Ax's perspective. He spends much of this storyline trying to fit in, and learn more about Earth and its inhabitants- so while in human morph, the team of kids takes him to the movies, to the mall, to school for a day, into their homes to meet their families. They give him an encyclopedia and he devours the information, then spits it out again at odd moments. His combined awkwardness and confusion at human culture is a nice foil against the superior knowledge and technology he possesses. It quickly becomes clear that Ax is keeping secrets from the Animorphs, which understandably makes them upset, as they openly and share everything with him. Being inside Ax's thoughts helps the reader understand why he is reluctant to share information, what strictures the rules of his own culture have placed upon him, and also how very lonely he is, being the only Andalite survivor on Earth. Serendipitously, he plays around with a computer when visiting Marco's house, changing some code which allows him to communicate with his home planet, except he can't get caught- his meddling with human technology is strictly forbidden. His reception when he finally makes the long-distance call home, is less than welcoming. He takes heavy blame for some serious events, and starts to wonder if some things he has been taught are right or not. It's pretty heavy stuff. And through it all, he falls apart with ecstatic excitement when faced by a new flavor: chocolate. Popcorn. Chili peppers. I thought this was funny at first, but it makes sense that Ax has trouble controlling human senses, just like the Animorphs do when they use a new animal form. It's interesting to read how Ax experiences the morphing process. (He's not as skilled at it as Cassie, who appears to have a natural affinity for morphing). They all use previous animals in this book, but some new ones for Ax are a harrier hawk, and more significantly, a rattlesnake which he attempts to use against one of their greatest enemies.

My favorite quote (I'm not alone), from Ax: Books are an amazing human invention. They allow instant access to information simply by turning pieces of paper. They are much faster to use than computers. Surprisingly, humans invented books before computers. They do many things backward.

Many aspects of this story were reminiscent to me of situations in Enchantress from the Stars. I think it has to do with the conflicts and difficulties that arise if two cultures in different stages of their evolution encounter each other. And of course, the teenager perspective.

Borrowed from the public library, as an e-book.

Rating: 4/5                    176 pages, 1997

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Jul 11, 2018

The Essential Calvin and Hobbes

A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury
by Bill Watterson

This book came up on swap, so I have been enjoying some chuckles, reading more Calvin and Hobbes. I noticed right away the strips in this volume are from early on: the drawing style- especially the main character's faces- are slightly different and Calvin is meeting Susie the girl next door for the first time. It's got similar subject material as later strips: arguments with parents, avoiding homework, getting bored in class, acting out his wild imagination, teasing girls, being grossed out at dinner, a kid being a kid. Really obnoxious kid, with witty comebacks and plenty of funny remarks. And of course, his tiger companion Hobbes is a charmer. I recognized most of the panels from reading these long ago when they were featured in the newspaper, but some were new to me (or I had forgotten them): the episode where Calvin is an onion in a school play about nutrition, the one where they find an injured raccoon, another serious one where Calvin and Hobbes come across a clearing in the woods for a new development, and rant about how wildlife is being displaced. I liked it.

Rating: 3/5          254 pages, 1988