Jun 23, 2018

Home Ground

A Gardener's Miscellany
by Allen Lacy

Enjoyed this one very much. It's another collection of little gardening essays, a man speaking from his own experience. He is obsessed with daffodils, praises or criticizes a great many other plants, expresses irritation at silly-sounding plants names in catalogs and limited selection in nursery stock. Describes many doings in his own yard and garden, and also describes a few others that he knew well- even if he never met the gardener. Each little essay feels too short- but rich with insight and lively with humor (even if he's poking gentle fun at himself). I definitely want to find more of his writings.

Rating: 4/5           259 pages, 1980

The Message

Animorphs #4
by K.A. Applegate

The five Animorphs get some strong hints that a piece of an Andalite spaceship may be crashed in the ocean nearby, and the alien enemies are zeroing in on it. Two of them are also having strange dreams, hearing calls for help. They decide they must find what's in the ocean, so they morph into dolphins. They handle the time constrictions a little better this time around; Tobias-the-hawk carries a watch now so he can remind them when they've been in animal form too long. They manage to travel long distances without getting stuck in dolphin form by flying partway as seagulls, and stowing away on a cargo ship as themselves. Still some awkwardness in their plans, complications they just don't think of beforehand. As dolphins they run into sharks, and get help from a whale. I suppose since the Animorphs can communicate mentally, receiving messages in dreams and speaking telepathically with real whales shouldn't be so odd, but it still struck me as a little out there. What they encounter in the ocean- well, let's say the last few chapters did take me by surprise. It looked like they were doomed to fail, but the aliens showed a surprising vulnerability. And they find a young Andalite (Ax is the shortened name they give him) who had been left behind when all his companions died in the war. That character caught my interest again- his apparent standoffish manner, the gulf of their understanding. It made the last two chapters better than all the rest, the foil of alien nature. There's also a kind of moral dilemma arising in Cassie's mind- she feels uneasy with her struggle against the animal nature when morphing, compares it to how the aliens enslave humans. Others point out this isn't a fair comparison: they are acquiring DNA and becoming a new animal individual, not actually taking over the mind of an existing animal. Still, it's something to think about.

Yet for some reason, I didn't enjoy this book as much as the others so far. The writing is not quite as good. There were several parts where the phrasing seemed downright juvenile- not as if it were aimed at a young audience, but as if the writing wasn't polished. The animal transformation scenes didn't captivate me as much, either (and those are really what I read it for). If this is a hint of quality to come, I don't know how far I'll keep reading in the series. The opening scene where Cassie morphed into a squirrel to spy on a fox- that one was a bit funny in spite of her panic.

Borrowed from the public library

Rating: 2/5                154 pages, 1996

Jun 21, 2018

Betrayers

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol 5
by Angie Outis

I didn't realize there was a fifth book out in this poetry series, until it came into my hands. It wraps up the story of what the author went through leaving her husband and filing for divorce. Seeking family help, which wasn't there. Finding cold shoulders and blame, instead of helping hands. Telling the kids, fielding their tears and confusion. Desperately packing the car and moving out when her spouse wasn't home. Scrambling for options. Mourning loss, recovering from fear. Her children gradually realizing what it all meant, expressing some of their own fears. Her awkwardness around men, in raw, new situation as a single woman...  And I thought when closing the book: so few pages, to hold so much pain. I hope she's in a better place now.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 3/5         44 pages, 2018

Jun 18, 2018

The Education of a Gardener

by Russell Page

This volume is about the career of a landscape architect. I am not familiar with the author, but apparently he is renowned in gardening circles. He spent his entire life designing outdoor spaces for the wealthy after creating his first garden at age 18. I read the initial chapter where he tells about how he first became interested in plants and gleaned knowledge from all his neighbors who gardened, and then struggled to stay with the book. It's very strongly focused on design, on balance and form and how the eye is led through a landscape. Stuff on a grand scale. While the principles are something I'd probably benefit from understanding better, personally I found the reading rather dry. And over half the plants were unfamiliar to me. All the photographs are in black and white, which I suppose is okay because you see the form and composition of things, instead of being wowed by beauty and color- but it felt rather flat and dull. I skipped around trying to find something a bit more engaging, but even when he was describing design problems and how plants or sketches solved them, it failed to keep my interest. The last chapter, where he imagines a garden he would build for himself, was more intriguing, however only for the first few pages.

I'd like to like this book, but I don't. Why is it that whenever I don't care for a classic, I feel disappointed in myself? Urg. It's quite dense, and not just with the words- it's also surprisingly heavy for the size of a standard hardback book- so I became physically weary of handling it. Nothing against the author for that, but it did make it harder to try and appreciate a book I just didn't want to be holding for long.

Abandoned          382 pages, 1962

Jun 17, 2018

Onward and Upward in the Garden

by Katharine S. White

This gardening book is a compilation of articles originally written as a column for The New Yorker magazine. It took me by surprise. The individual essays are not actually about gardening per se, but are for the most part, reviews of seed catalogs. I have done this once myself, so I was a bit intrigued. It turns out Mrs. White is quite opinionated about gardening and the development of new plant varieties- especially how showier flowers and bigger produce seem to be all the seedsmen are aiming for- at least that was her take on it. She disparages a lot of trends in the seed catalogs, which makes for some amusing reading. Here and there she mentions her own experiences with certain plants, which were the parts I really enjoyed. She doesn't just talk about plants, though. She criticizes (or praises where it was merited) the paper quality, choice of typography and clarity of photos in the seed catalogs. Later in the book are a few reviews of different types of publications regarding plants- field guides to wildflowers and oversized gardening books meant to be decorative (I call them "coffee table" books). I admit I was totally uninterested in the two chapters about books on formal flower arranging, styles in flower arrangement, and flower shows. I kind of skimmed through that. I puzzled a bit at how often she made a point of telling which supplier had what particular variety of a species, until I recalled the publication date: there was no internet back then. You couldn't just do a search and find where to buy the rose your grandmother used to grow or anything. So of course she made notes on which seeds suppliers grew, developed and sold what particular strains of plants. Specializing in roses, or azaleas, or herbs, etc. Helpfully, in the back of the book is a listing of all the catalogs and suppliers mentioned, with brief notes if they are still in business or have changed their focus. Only the last two chapters review gardening books of the kind I like to read- and here I did note down a few titles that sound particularly good. And on a different note, the introduction is written by her husband, a lovely portrait of Mrs. White and some of her gardening habits.

Rating: 3/5         362 pages, 1958

Jun 13, 2018

the Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady

by Edith Holden

I am not familiar with this author/illustrator, but I do know she has written a Country Diary, which this compilation predates by a year. I expecting something like Wildlings, but this book is much simpler and I admit to being slightly disappointed. While it does have daily notes, where Holden jotted down the wildflowers and bird species she saw on walks through fields and hedgerows, it's really just like a list. Very few and far between are any actual incidents or descriptions of wildlife behavior. Most of the text is a collection of poems and quotes about the seasons, or flowers, or the beauties of nature. Wordsworth, Longellow, Shakespeare, Tennyson . . . . but I don't read a lot of poetry, especially this type, and personally I did not care for much of it. There are a few interesting tidbits about where the names of the months originated, or special holidays and folklore particular to each season. It was slightly reminiscent of the Treasury of Flower Fairies.

What I really like about this book is the artwork. The detailed paintings and drawings of many different types of wildflowers (quite a few I recognize, considered weeds in my yard!) and birds are just lovely. Delicate, lively and carefully done. It's apparent from her notes that Holden carried flowers and foliage home to study and paint from; I wonder if she just had a quick eye or some other means to attain the accuracy of her bird sketches. A few mammals: rabbits, ponies, one fox, but mostly it's birds and some butterflies. They really are very nice.

The notes and drawings are from 1905; the book was first published in 1989.

Rating: 3/5             192 pages, 1905

Jun 12, 2018

Antar and the Eagles

by William Mayne

This book has a rather unique premise: a young boy refuses to go to school and instead climbs up to the church steeple, where his father is working on the roof. He is snatched by a golden eagle which carries him off to an aerie on the mountainside. There the boy is raised alongside the eagle chicks. It is a very uncomfortable life, needless to say. Several times he fears he will die. But gradually he adapts to his new situation, learns to stand his own against the aggressive eaglets, and starts to understand the eagles' communication. It turns out they abducted him for a very specific purpose: they have a mission only he can carry out, to rescue a special egg that was stolen. But first they have to teach him to fly.

It's rather weird and delightful all at the same time. At first I thought the dialog was rather stiff, and wondered if the text had been translated. But a brief reference to bison and a quick look at the authors' ouvre made me realize it's probably set in North America, in some unnamed, simple town. Further into the story I began to appreciate how real the characters feel, how very human Antar's reactions to everything, and the odd situations just made it more interesting. I was really not at all sure how the story was going to end. It has a few unexpected turns near the end- in part caused by the fact that the eagles nest close to an active volcano... . . .

Aside from the moment when the adult eagles pushed the young ones off the nest to make them fly, the behavior of the wild raptors in this book felt very authentic. Well, overlooking the fact that they talk to each other, and have a leader, and send a boy to save a missing egg... . . . It was quite a nice mix of fantasy and naturalism, and I liked the writing style enough that I will be on the lookout for other books by this author.

Rating: 3/5            166 pages, 1989

The Encounter

Animorphs #3
by K.A. Applegate

It seems these books switch, each one written from a different viewpoint. Most of the plot in this one is about Tobias' struggle with his fate in the form of a hawk. More and more he feels overwhelmed by desires to live as a wild bird- to associate with a female hawk nearby, to hunt and eat prey. He's still part of the team and involved in their plans, but checks out now and then as he wrestles with his animal nature, sometimes acutely missing the things he used to do as a human, at other times having difficulty even remembering what that was like. In one very dark moment, he despairs about being a hawk forever and attempts a suicide move.

Meanwhile, in the ongoing conflict with the alien forces, the Animorphs discover their enemies' cloaked ship and attempt to sabotage it, but their plan is not very well-thought out and once more they barely escape with their lives, accomplishing nothing. There are casualties in the fight that occurs- although just a side character, it saddened me, because I liked the complexity that individual had raised with Tobias' situation.

There are some inconsistencies, though- now all of a sudden they can't communicate mentally when in human form, only if they are morphed- but in the previous two books whole conversations took place between morphed and fully human Animorphs. The descriptions of them going through stages of morphing are pretty good at making you realize what a disturbing and unsettling sight it would be- but at one point the author gets something very wrong about animal anatomy. There were a few other small details that momentarily jarred me out of the story because they just sounded inaccurate, but for the most part I enjoyed it, and once again found it a bit more complex and gritty than expected. With a nice dash of humor in the banter between characters. The new animal morph in this book was fish- and I was disappointed to not get a more detailed depiction of that experience, as the main character -of course- remained a hawk.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5          154 pages, 1996

Jun 11, 2018

The Visitor

Animorphs #2
by K.A. Applegate

In the second book, the five Animorphs decide to spy on one of their alien enemies, whose host is the parent of Rachel's friend Melissa. Well, Melissa used to be Rachel's friend, but gradually a distance has grown between them and Melissa seems cold towards her, unhappy overall. When Rachel takes the form of a cat to spy on the enemy in Melissa's house, she finds out why. Her mission becomes more than just gathering information, she now feels compelled to help her old friend- even though it means risking exposure, or staying too long in the cat body. The friends discover more about the alien Yeerk's organization, see at close hand how the parasitic Yeerks destroy families from the inside out, and come uncomfortably close to the worst of the bad guys- narrowly escaping with their lives. Unfortunately they don't really save Melissa- her parents are still enslaved by the aliens- but they do prevent a worse fate happening to her.

I can see now why some other readers mention these books are dark. There are battles that can be gruesome, I see moral dilemmas arising, and so far there are no happy, neatly-tied up endings. The kids try hard to fight the enemy, but they are still arguing a lot among themselves, still figuring out how morphing works, and one of them- Tobias- got trapped in the body of a hawk permanently. There's an interestingly dark irony to the fact that Rachel recognizes her struggle to control the animal brain she takes on as a morph, is similar to the struggle the alien Yeeks exert to control their human hosts. The main animal experiences in this book are Rachel's as a cat- her quickness to notice movement, her indifference to things people care about, her supreme self-confidence. There's also a scene where she transforms into a shrew- and has a terrible time controlling the shrew's frantic panic at any threat and desperate drive to find food. You'd think, then, that Jake's transformation into a flea would also be a frightening experience (he found it very unsettling to be in the body and mind of a skittish lizard in the last book) but on the contrary- his senses were so limited in comparison to a human experience- visual input he couldn't interpret, sounds just loud, muffled reverberations- that he couldn't really tell what was going on. I found all this pretty interesting, and although the alien battle storyline still strikes me as rather juvenile, the kids' strong emotional motives to continue the fight (after all, the Yeerks don't know who they are, so they could easily fade back into anonymity if they wanted to) are made to feel very real.

Borrowed from the public library. (This is the only one of the newer issues where the frozen-hologram image on the hardcover works for me.)

Rating: 3/5              174 pages, 1996

more opinions:
Arkham Reviews

Jun 10, 2018

The Invasion

Animorphs #1
by K.A. Applegate

I think I would have been wowed by this series as a kid. I saw them around and for some reason never read any before. Thistle's review perked my interest so I borrowed the first few of the series from the library. I pretty much agree with her assessment: the plot and characterization is rather juvenile (to be expected, looking at the age group these books are written for), but the scenes where the kids turn into animals are really cool and worth reading it for.

Let me backtrack: it's about five kids who cut through a construction site walking home one day, where a spaceship suddenly lands and an alien grants them powers in a last effort to protect the human race, before he dies. There's a war going on in space; some slug-like aliens crawl into the brains of other species and control them. The Andalites have been fighting them, and this one gives the kids abilities to change into whatever animal they touch, by absorbing DNA material. Sounds hokey, and the kids think so too, until one of them tries it out. Unbelievable, the freedom and far-distant sight of a hawk. The speed of a horse. The lithe power of a cat. The discerning nose of a dog. They realize that nature has powers they can really use. But when they change into animals, they also have to fight that animal's natural instinct, and be careful not to stay too long or they are stuck in the morphed form. For example, when one kid is spying on the bad guys in form of a dog, he has to really concentrate not to get distracted by all the intriguing smells and small creatures to chase and so on. Because yeah, they find out quickly that already many people on Earth have been taken over by the slug aliens (Yeerks) and there's no way to tell who. They have to keep their abilities secret, because any Yeerk who knew would kill them.

But at the same time, they are still dealing with real life: school, family issues and so on. Some aspects of the story felt lame or overly-convenient (how nice is it that one of the main characters, Cassie, has parents who work at both a wildlife hospital and a zoo? so they sneak in and touch all different kinds of animal to gain the abilities to morph into those species)- but I was neatly surprised at how real the dialog felt, and the humor that cropped up now and then. Mostly I really liked the switching perspective- what's it like to suddenly be a lizard smaller than a shoe? or a massive elephant?

I do think I'll continue the series- it's great light reading- until maybe it deteriorates in quality. I see that there's sixty-four books total, but many of the later ones ghost written so I don't know how good those are. And my library only has the first eight... The cover image I posted here is from the original paperback issues- it shows the morphing process (which caught my eye decades ago). My library has newer re-issued copies, with holograph type covers which oddly enough, only work on the paperbacks- you can see the image change when you tilt the book. But the hardbound issues don't have that effect- the image is in-between and rather disturbing on some of them. I happen to really like this version printed in Brazil.

Rating: 3/5            185 pages, 1996

more opinions:
In Bed with Books
Arkham Reviews

Jun 8, 2018

Coleus

Rainbow Foliage for Containers and Gardens
by Ray Rogers

For a book about plants, this one is informative and engaging. It even made me laugh quite a few times. I like a bit of humor in gardening books. It's all about coleus. I acquired my first coleus by accident- it was an abandoned plant someone gave to me and I didn't even know what it was. I almost killed it with improper care. Then I learned how to take cuttings, and got a few more varieties. Now I have a list- mostly from this book! - of other types I'd like to have. I must be picky, though, because my window space is limited in winter time, to keep them going for spring...

Anyway, this book gives a little history of the plant, explaning why there are so many varieties of coleus out there (with a confusing number of common names as well). It tells, of course, how to care for coleus- some of them are more finicky than you'd expect- and how to take cuttings or grow from seed- if you want something totally unpredictable. Helpfully, there is a wide range of photographs demonstrating how coleus can be featured in the garden- a lot of them have very gaudy, even shocking colors, which can be difficult to harmonize. I don't really care for the appearance of coleus topiary- but if you aspire to that, there are instructions in here. The gallery of cultivars at back has clear photographs and descriptions telling you what plant might actually be another by the same name, what types of sun/shade they can stand, how they behave differently if the lighting or temperature is not to their liking, the stability of pattern throughout a growing season or when taking cuttings and so forth. The notes are brief, but very helpful. Already I noted that a few which caught my eye while reading the book, might not really be worth the trouble to grow long-term.

I also gained some tips on their care, things I didn't know before. I discovered that the oddly round leaf I found on one of my orange-and-red coleus must have been a 'sport'- and I should have cut it to grow out into its own plant! also that the individual plants will drastically change color intensity depending on what kind of lighting they are in. I've seen that happen, too.

Borrowed from the public library. One I'll gladly add to my own shelf, if I ever find it at a sale.

Rating: 4/5          228  pages, 2008