Jun 29, 2010

Moobli

by Mike Tomkies

Story of a man's life with his amazing dog. Tomkies lived alone in a cabin in the remote wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. He decided he needed a dog as companion and protector, so he specifically picked out a german shepherd. Moobli (I can't remember the reason for the silly name, makes me think of a moose though) turned out to be an enormous dog, incredibly strong but also very gentle. Being the man's sole companion, they were very close. Moobli was there whatever Tomkies was doing- observing wildlife (he worked a lot to protect local wildlife, particularly the red deer), making repairs to his house, exploring, etc. Several times Moobli saved his life. I remember one incident where Tomkies was working to fix his roof and named out loud a tool he needed (not wanting to climb down). Moobli went and got it. Surprised, Tomkies asked Moobli to fetch another item, and he did. I was amazed when I read this- could a dog really do that? he'd never been taught to respond that way, but did so on his own. Parts of this book can be hard to read- Tomkies believed in disciplining his dog by hitting him, and in the end (inevitable in any book about the life of a pet, it seems) the dog's health declines and it's sad to read about his suffering. But aside from those downers, this really is an incredible story. I loved reading of the wilderness, of the amazing things Moobli did, of this man's working relationship with his dog.

Rating: 4/5 ........240 pages, 1988

anyone else read it? let me know and I'll link to your post

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Jun 27, 2010

The Plague

by Albert Camus

I thought it would be interesting to read another account on similar subject, after The Dancing Plague. This novel tells about a French town in Northern Africa that suffers a plague outbreak in the 1940's. The citizens are not much concerned when they start to see dead rats everywhere, even when the animals come out and start dying by the thousands in the streets they feel horrified and repulsed but not yet fearful for themselves. Then people start to die of suspicious symptoms- high, raving fever, swollen buboes in the armpits and groin. A few isolated cases which quickly escalate until there are hundreds a day. There are long passages about the emotional unrest of people separated from their loved ones when the city gates are locked, of the preacher's sermons harping guilt into the people, of the magistrate's futile efforts to enact laws that halt the spread of disease. The main characters are a doctor, a reporter and a few other French men. But I found I didn't care much about them. And I kept taking breaks from the book to read other novels in the meantime. Each time I had less interest in coming back to this one until I just decided I didn't want to read any more. I wasn't interested in any of the characters and the long passages were so dull. I read a bit about this book on wiki to find out how it ended, and it said there that the novel was in part a metaphor of French resistance to Nazi occupation during WWII. I didn't see any of that in the novel, but then I wasn't looking for it while reading. Made it halfway through. Moving on.

I had The Stranger on my TBR list but after my experience with The Plague I don't feel very interested in reading more Camus.

Abandoned ........ 278 pages, 1947

More opinions:
Tony's Book World
Nashvaiden79's Blog
I Wish You'd Have Told Me
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Jun 26, 2010

Blackbird

A Childhood Lost and Found
by Jennifer Lauck

Memoir of the author's childhood, from the time she was about five years old to eleven. She had a rough time. As a preschooler she tended to her mother, who was chronically ill but they had a very close relationship, just her and her mom in the house together while her dad was at work and her older brother in school. After many years of suffering her mother died. The grief-stricken little girl was confused by her father's apparent relief and hasty remarriage, their move to a newer, bigger house, her stepmother's unkindness, her father's increasing absence... things go from bad to worse, blow after blow. She's not physically abused by the family, but constantly ignored and made to feel unwanted. Soon it becomes clear that her stepmother doesn't care for them at all, only wants the money from social security checks. Her older brother strikes out in anger and aloofness but Jennifer learns to be self-sufficient beyond her years, sticking it out even when she doesn't understand what's going on. It's really very sad but she's such a determined character, my heart ached and I wanted to know what would happen next, every page. I really enjoyed the way the story was written, from her perspective as a child. The voice felt very authentic. Even though at times I was a bit frustrated not knowing details that were obscure to her as a little girl, but obviously had an answer somewhere- particularly, where were her relatives when she was left alone with the cruel stepmom? I was shocked at different turns the story took- the events at the summer camp, the commune her stepmother dumped her in- how many heartless abandonments could one child absorb? but she comes through it all with gritty determination to show everyone she can survive. I think I want to read the sequel, too; it's the kind of book that leaves you wanting to know what happened after- especially because this one is true!

I got this book at a library sale, read it for the random challenge.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 406 pages, 2000

More opinions:
Girls Just Reading
Ladyslott's Bookspot
novel lovers
Lilac Wolf and Stuff
Brett and Miranda

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last chance

Does no one want my giveaway copy of The Dancing Plague? It appears I've no takers. I'll give it one more day, and if no one comments here wanting it, put it up on my swap shelf.

Jun 25, 2010

Swan's Wing

by Ursula Synge

If you're familiar with the fairy tale in which seven brothers were turned into swans and rescued by a sister who wove them shirts of nettles, you might find this little book interesting. It's a quiet story that contemplates what happened to the one brother whose shirt was unfinished, left with a white swan's wing in place of an arm. His only desire is to be restored, to find a cure. In his journey he picks up two companions- a goose girl who falls in love with him, and an artist who finds his beautiful wing (which the young man loathes) a thing of perfection. I don't remember many details of this story, except that it was full of unhappy people; the man with the swan's wing was continually bitter and miserable, the goose girl loved him without her affections being returned.... it seems the story had an aspect of tenderness to it as well, but my memory is rather fuzzy. Has anyone else read this little book? what do you recall of it? how did it end? I can't even remember if he got his arm back (but I think he didn't and just learned to accept it).

Rating: 3/5 ..... 160 pages, 1981

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Jun 24, 2010

Noble Friends

by Pamela Dickson

Selected for me by random.org, this is another book I probably wouldn't have read for a long time. It's one I picked up a book sale somewhere, just because I liked the looks of it.

Noble Friends is a memoir of sorts, about the life and work of Pamela Dickson, owner of Fursman Kennels. It tells of her childhood on an English farm, her love of all animals particularly horses and dogs. She poured her love into a runt pig she raised by hand, her first childhood pony and the family dogs. When she was sixteen she helped her father run a riding school, then a boarding kennel. Later she moved by herself to America where she made her way across the country working for various stables and got involved for a time in harness racing. She bought a German Shepherd puppy, whom she trained with particular patience and love. The dog learned quickly to perform amazing feats of agility and intelligence, from jumping through hoops and crawling through obstacles to play-acting and identifying colors. Proud of her dog's accomplishments, Mrs. Dickson took him to perform for groups of children and the elderly in nursing homes. She bought some derelict property in Virginia and built her own kennels from the ground up, doing most of the work herself and turning it into a beautiful facility that attracted customers from all over the area. Curiously, at the end of the book there is one chapter told in a more storylike format, form the viewpoint of a dog who stays at the kennel. He describes his anxiety, the care and friendliness of the staff, how everything is kept spotlessly clean, how he watches the comings and goings of different dogs and their owners (mostly wealthy clientele; some dogs were delivered to the kennel by their master's maids chauffeured in a limo!)

It was unclear at first, to me, why the dog Rocky was so famous and admired, in spite of his incredible obedience skills I didn't quite see what all the fuss was about him. It wasn't until I visited the kennel site and read more about him (and his successors) that I learned Dickson was "a pioneer in the field of pet therapy." The idea of pet therapy is so familiar nowadays it was hard for me to remember I was reading the account of someone using it for the first time. I was also surprised to learn near the end of the book that the setting in Virginia was very close to where I live now, out in the beautiful countryside only a half-hour away. I was curious them, to read more because it was so local. Despite all this, the book left me rather unmoved. It's a nice memoir, well-enough written, and all the photos are stunning. The book is beautifully bound, with heavy, glossy pages. But I can't help feeling it won't appeal to many readers unless you know the author personally or have used her kennels. Then I'm sure you'll find it a treasure.

Rating: 2/5 ........ 215 pages, 1996

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Jun 23, 2010

Zoe's Zodiac

by Mary Jo Stephens

I loved this book as a young girl. It was found on a small shelf of paperbacks in my teacher's classroom (I don't remember which grade- fourth maybe?) and I borrowed it to read several times. I think I had my own copy once but it fell to pieces and I've never found another.

It's about a girl who wins a contest at a pet shop. The prize is twelve animals, delivered one a month for a year. Some of the pets are rather ordinary- like the bulldog and guinea pig. Others are a bit more unusual- turtle, duck, caterpillar, etc. I remember in particular a pair of siamese fighting-fish, or bettas. Zoe loves them all in their own unique way, but her family and friends don't always feel the same! Can she convince them to let her keep all the pets, as the household soon begins to feel like a menagerie? More important, can she keep up with the care and attention each deserves? The story is fun, amusing, full of little adventures and unexpected friendships. I know she finally had to let some of the pets go (like the caterpillar-turned-butterfly) and others were found more appropriate homes- but I don't really recall the ending well. I'd like to find this book, so I could read it again... have any of you read it?

Rating: 4/5 ........ 220 pages, 1971

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Jun 22, 2010

The Young Grizzly

by Paige Dixon

A nice enough book that tells the story of a grizzly bear's first three years of life. The young bear lives first with his mother's protection, following her around to forage for food, learning to fish, playing with his sibling. Halfway through his second year the mother bear leaves her cubs to start a new family and after their initial confusion the two yearlings gain in confidence and den together for their second winter. The following summer the siblings drift apart, until our main bear is finally living on his own. The story is mainly just about the bears' daily lives, experiences with the weather and encounters with other wildlife. There's also a subplot of two men who habitually tramp through the woods- a father who loves to hunt and shoot bears, and his son who likes the bears alive and tries to convince his dad not to kill them. When the father gets overeager to go after an older grizzly no matter what the risks, it does not end well. While it's interesting enough in showing how bears live, the story itself is not very compelling, and the descriptions rather plain. The illustrations are poor. One shows two bears and at first glance, one looked to me like a giant hamster, the other rather like a pig! The nicest drawing showed a bear's face with some flowers, and I wonder why they didn't choose it for the cover (it's better than the one on the dustjacket, shown here). Another drawing is downright inaccurate- the story mentions a moose, but the picture shows a caribou. I did learn a few things from the book, such as that groundhogs (also called woodchuck) can climb trees! (Apparently, so can dogs). Well, it was an okay read but not a book I'll be keeping.

I acquired this one free, at the Book Thing. Picked it up for the Random Reading Challenge, random.org gave me #11 off the shelf.

Rating: 2/5 ........ 106 pages, 1974

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Jun 21, 2010

A Year in the Life of a Rose

a Guide to Growing Roses Coast to Coast
by Rayford Clayton Reddell

I've never grown roses, but am a little familiar with them from the ones in my mother's garden. My daughter has been begging me to plant a rosebush, so I figured I should learn a bit more about them before committing to a real live plant. The first thing I learned from this book is that a person who cultivates or has a special interest in roses is called a rosarian.

A Year in the Life of a Rose seems an excellent book for basic, sound advice on growing healthy, beautiful roses. Written by an expert rosarian, it gives clearly-written, straightforward instructions on how to select, grow and care for roses. Everything from how to prepare the hole and plant your rose, check the soil pH, when and how to prune, what to feed your roses (different for every stage of growth) and how to properly cut roses and keep them fresher longer. All these details have specific variations depending on whether you're growing roses for garden display, indoor cuttings or for rose shows and competitions (which he points out, don't judge on scent or color, so I'm not sure what they judge on- form and size alone?) Most helpfully, in the final chapter "rose gurus" from all across the country give their advice on feeding and pruning schedules and other care specific to different climate zones. Not only do they help you know how to care for roses properly wherever you may live, and what varieties do best there, but also show there are many different methods of winter protection, mulching, etc.

Also very interesting is the author's assessments on rose cultivation practices and his theories on how it will develop in the future. As the book was written fourteen years ago, I was curious and looked some stuff up. Reddell thought there would never be a blue rose, but some Japanese geneticists created one in 2004 (still looks a bit violet to me though). As far as I can tell, he's still correct that there are no black roses although some very dark red varieties come pretty close!

So, if you're interested in roses or trying to grow some, this book is short, easy to read and full of helpful information. I'm certainly hanging onto it until I have roses in my garden! Found this book at a library sale. I read it for the Random Reading Challenge, it was #126 off my shelf.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 176 pages, 1996

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Jun 19, 2010

The Dancing Plague

by John Waller

After just finishing Awakenings, it sparked in my mind that I had another book on the shelf about a similar subject. Another account of people driven to move their bodies uncontrollably. In this case, it was dancing. In medieval times. During the 1500's a plague struck several hundred people that caused them to involuntarily dance for days on end- until their feet were bloody and they collapsed. Onlookers were stricken with the same impulse to madly dance. Some even died from dancing in the summer heat with no rest and little food or water. It all sounds very bizarre, but having just read about some very strange human behavior caused by disease in the brain, I was ready to find a reason. I was ready for the author to unravel some clue that pointed to an infection, incomprehensible to the medieval mind but understandable to us today. That's not quite what I got.

Waller thought that the crazed dancing was caused by a psychological condition, a mass hysteria that was somehow contagious. To support this, he builds up a very careful picture of what life was like in the 1500's and how desperate the common people would have been. After years of bad harvests and near-starvation their minds and bodies were weakened, with no hope of succor from the city leadership or the church (who only squeezed them tighter by engaging in usury). Having religious and superstitious beliefs that filled them with terror, the people's minds literally broke and they fell into inescapable trances of dancing. I was pretty skeptical all the way through, until I got to a part near the end that described something very similar happening among some native peoples of Madagascar in 1863. To further solidify his hypothesis, the author then describes other psychological tricks the mind is capable of, even in modern times (phantom pains, hypnosis, etc). It was all very puzzling, really. I don't know what to think.  I still believe it must have been some kind of infection that reached the brain, but there's no way to know.

Well, if anything, the book gives a fascinating picture of what life was like in 1518 (sure glad I didn't live back then!) and made clear to me the impact of Martin Luther's new ideas. I remember learning about him in school but I had no idea how horribly oppressive the church had been, and how groundbreaking Luther's stance. I got this book from C.B. James, who also felt pretty skeptical about its ideas. I'm happy to pass it on to another reader- if you'd like to have this copy, just tell me in the comments and I'll pick (randomly) a name next week.

Note: this book has also been published with the title A Time to Dance, A Time to Die.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 278 pages, 2009

More opinions at:
Adams Country Book Reviews
Bensozia
Mel's Words on Words
Cornflower

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book finds

Doing my friday finds on saturday here again. I added so many titles to my list this week, I'm just going to highlight a few, those I'm most eager to read.

Chrysalis by Kim Todd- this book was on one of Eva's Women Unbound posts.  It's about a woman in the 1700's who was a naturalist and artist- she studied insects and painted them with the plants they lived on. From the book's cover, the artwork looks stunning, and I'd love to read more about this unconventional (for her times) woman.

An Eagle Named Freedom by Jeff Guidry- saw this one mentioned on At Home with Books. It's about the relationship between a man with cancer, and an eagle with a broken wing he nursed back to health.

The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills- it's due to Savidge Reads that I heard about this book centered around the daily work and experiences of city bus drivers. Sounds very interesting, with astute observations of human nature. 

Lucy by Laurence Gonzales- found on The Last Book I Read, this sci-fi novel that sounds reminiscent of Eva is about the genetic mixing of a human and a bonobo- chimpanzee-type apes who have the closest DNA to ours.

Animythical Tales by Sarah Totton- discovered this title at Stuff as Dreams are Made On. Chris says it's "a collection of short, fantastical stories centered around animals" each "a fascinating story that’s written with gorgeous prose that entertains, provokes, and turns the gears in our brains" full of beautiful prose. Unfortunately for me, this book was printed by a small publisher, and sounds hard to find. I already know (because I looked) that my library doesn't have it. 

Crashing Through by Robert Kurson- The Capricious Reader wrote about this book, which is about the life of a man blind since three years old, who regardless of lacking vision drove a car, rode motorcycles and held a record in downhill skiing! Then he became a candidate for surgery to have his sight restored. It sounds like an amazing and inspiring story.

Seven Cats and the Art of Living by Jo Coudert - I saw this book while browsing on Paperback Swap. The Amazon reviews are very mixed- some people love it, others don't because they disagreed with how the author treated her cats. I'm curious what I'd think.

Africa: An Artist's Safari by Fred Krakowiack- my husband heard this book mentioned somewhere and told me about it. It's an artist's diary of his time spent on safari. Not photographing the animals, but mostly sketching and drawing them. It's full of artwork as well as descriptive text.

These last are just two of the many titles I came across while reading the Schaller book:

Serengeti Shall Not Die by Bernhard Grzimek- a memoir of time the author and his son spent flying over the Serengeti in a small plane, to take ariel surveys of the animal populations.

End of the Trail: the Cheetah in India by Divyabhanusinh- describes the evolution of cheetahs in India, how they were anciently kept by Indian royalty as hunting animals, their decline and current endangered status in the wild. I didn't even know there were cheetahs in India!

What great-sounding titles have you discovered this week?

Jun 18, 2010

Awakenings

by Oliver Sacks

This book was tough to read, but also very interesting and moving. I had heard of the title before, and knew there was a film, but was unaware of the premise. So for those of you who haven't heard about it, I'll outline what I can. Awakenings is based on true events. Post-WWI there was a widespread epidemic of encephalitis, or sleeping-sickness. It is a viral infection that affects the brain. Thousands of people ended up with stiff limbs, constricted movement and/or tremors, or so catatonic that those who hadn't known them before their illness thought they were severely mentally disabled. There was no known treatment and most of them were put in asylums or chronic care hospitals, where they remained nearly motionless for decades (one very sad story tells of a man who got encephalitis when he was only three years old. He was ill for his entire life- over fifty years). In the 1960's a new drug was discovered, L-DOPA, which was used to treat patients with Parkinson's disease by supplying more dopamine to the brain. Oliver Sacks was one of the first to try it on post-encephalitic patients, with astonishing results. People who had not moved a muscle voluntarily for twenty years or more suddenly got up and walked, people who had been mute during their entire illness could speak again. Even more astonishing though, was the wide range of reactions to the drug. It affected every patient differently, and to a different degree. Some responded well, others hardly at all. A lot of them experienced other effects- their movements would become extremely hurried or uncontrolled, they would have violent thoughts and hallucinations, they would be completely unable to sleep- a few even died of exhaustion after weeks of sleeplessness or incessant movement. When taken off the drug, they often regressed to being even more catatonic than before, and when given it again as a second trial, they had an entirely different reaction than the first time!

It's all very complicated. I didn't really understand what this drug was doing to the brain, but it obviously had some positive results- many patients begged to be given it again even after experiencing terrifying "side-effects" because they preferred even crazed, uncontrollable movements to feeling "encased in stone". The book is amazing in describing what these patients went through. There is an introduction about the sleeping-sickness epidemic, condition of the patients and the hospitals they lived in. Then brief case studies are included, describing what each of some twenty patients experienced before, during and after treatment with L-DOPA. The edition I have is quite extensive and has several forwards written for different re-issues, a section analyzing in more depth the response of patients to treatment, and an epilogue written ten years after the first publication, describing further developments and what happened to all the patients since the first publication. There's also a very interesting chapter at the end describing the making of the 1990 movie version. Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro visited the hospital where Sacks worked, to meet the surviving patients and learn how to be like them. Sacks made it very clear that while the film director may have added some extra storyline that didn't happen in real life, the actors' portrayal of how the patients moved and spoke was very accurate. We watched the film immediately after I finished reading the book, and it was very moving.

I feel like I'm only scratching the surface here, of what this book contains. I also struggled with reading it. It could get very technical and even philosophical-sounding very quickly, and I didn't discover until I was nearly done that there was a glossary of medical terms in the back, tucked between two other appendices. So for most of the time I was reading I would guess at a meaning in context, or skim a paragraph or two when it got too complicated and I started feeling lost. I would have rated this book a "4" in my little system, if it had been easier to understand. It's not quite as "reader-friendly" as his other books I've read.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 408 pages, 1973

More opinions? When I searched for other book reviews I only came up with posts about the film. If you've posted on this book, please let me know and I'll add your link!

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Jun 17, 2010

Tales from Outer Suburbia

by Shaun Tan

After reading The Arrival, I went and requested all the Shaun Tan titles I could find in my library system (sadly, they do not have The Red Tree). This was the next one that came up available for me. Tales From Outer Suburbia is a group of short stories beautifully illustrated by Suan Tan's distinctive art. Some are only a long paragraph, others a few pages. They're all set in the Australian suburbs, a place both familiar and strange to the reader. Familiar, as things happen there like in any suburb- kids go exploring, fear the mean neighbor lady (who returns toys accidentally dropped in her yard broken in half), neighbors speculate at what goes on in the house that emits yelling arguments, grandparents tell stories to their children, people come outside and gather to gawk at something unusual passing through. Because there's plenty of odd things going on here, too. Strange, dreamlike events either taken for granted or explored as new phenomenon by the characters. A large sea mammal shows up inexplicably lying on someone's front lawn, miles from the ocean. A journey through a landscape of bizarre trials precludes a wedding. A man in a deep-sea diving suit walks across the neighborhood (I think that was my favorite story). Some of the stories are tender, others amusing or just a bit unsettling. I found "Stick Figures" to be a tad creepy. The artwork is amazing, and I particularly like how the endpapers are decorated with many, many tiny drawings (I could spend an hour looking at just them!), information in the back of the book is listed on bits that look like library checkout cards and such, and the table of contents is designed to look like stamps (the cost in cents being the page numbers). It's all very clever and intricate. In that, I am reminded of the series of books about Griffin and Sabine I read years ago, and in the curious quality of the stories, I am somewhat reminded of Kafka's short stories, which are also very dreamlike. All in all, this is not a book to miss!

Rating: 4/5 ........ 96 pages, 2009

More opinions at:
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Bermudaonion's Weblog 
A Striped Armchair
The Zen Leaf
Chandra Universe
Words World and Wings

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Jun 16, 2010

annoying picture books

I've been reading with interest some of the posts lately on other blogs about "bad books". Are there really books that can be said to be awful? Doesn't every book have a merit somwhere, if it has an appreciative reader? I'm not sure. I know there's a lot of books that simply don't appeal to me personally, but no matter what the reason I don't like them, there's bound to be other readers who do. On the other hand, books that have grammatical errors and other flaws seem to me they could have used a stronger editing hand. If the story is poor as well, I sometimes wonder why they ever got published.

So it struck me as kind of funny that on our latest trip to the public library, we picked up two books that disappointed me. They're both children's books, which I don't usually mention here, but they got me thinking so I'm going to write about them.

The first is a step-into-reading book with a Barbie theme. Now, I rarely ever censor my daughter's reading choices. Whatever she chooses at the library that she wants to read, I'll read it to her, even if I think it's silly. But the kid books based on cartoon episodes and movies can really annoy me. Usually the story is chopped up so much to fit into a book format that it makes an unsatisfying story. Barbie in A Mermaid Tale is based on a full-length animated movie (which I haven't seen). It's a book aimed at beginning readers, so the sentences are very short and simple. It begins like this (each line here is one page of text):
Merliah loves to surf. She is the best surfer in Malibu.
Merliah's hair turns pink! She dives into the water. She can breathe!
Merliah meets Zuma. Zuma is a dolphin. Zuma talks!
Zuma tells Merliah about her past. Merliah is half mermaid!
So... the story goes on to reveal that Merliah's mother, the rightful queen, has been imprisoned and her wicked aunt Eris taken over the undersea kingdom. Merliah gets a fake tail to swim, the help of some animal and mermaid friends, and goes on a quest to save her mother. She has to do three three things: find a magic comb and a special fish (dreamfish), and get the necklace her aunt wears. Here is where the story starts disintegrating. I'm assuming the comb and dreamfish are to help Merliah finish her quest and confront Eris, but there's no explanation of how they do that. After finding the dreamfish and getting his promise of help, the rest of the story reads like this:
Merliah has a plan. She grabs the necklace! Eris is angry.
Eris traps Merliah in a whirlpool.
Merliah accepts that she is a mermaid. She gets a real mermaid tail!
Merliah escapes! Eris is trapped in the whirlpool instead. Oceana is saved!
Then Merliah meets her mother, and there's a happy ending.

Uh... what happened here? The pictures give a little more information, but not much. It looks like Merliah is dancing to distract Eris, but then she just swims up and snatches the necklace? that's a plan? how did the dreamfish help? And the statement about accepting she's a mermaid seemed out of the blue. I'm guessing that's what enabled her to escape from the whirlpool, but again, no explanation. Both my daughter and I were left kind of scratching our heads at the end. She had a bunch of questions, and I just had to shrug. I don't know the story in its full context. Silly perhaps to get annoyed over a little kid's book like this, but why can't they make it just a bit more complete? Only two more pages would have fleshed out the story a bit more. I know the plug is to get kids interested in reading by publishing books on themes and characters they're already fans of, but do they have to make it inane?

Needless to say, my daughter likes the book anyway because it has mermaids, and the pictures are all very pretty, pink and sparkly. She doesn't care that the story has holes.

The other book was one I chose, because I loved the illustrations by Beverly Doyle. They're wonderful, lively, textured paintings depicting the environment of the ocean and shore, the waves, sky and creatures all rendered with beautiful attention. I was even more intrigued when I learned they were created with a medium I'm not very familiar with, airbrush. I thought at first they were watercolor or acrylic paintings!

The text of What the Sea Saw by Stephanie St. Pierre, starts out like this:
What the sea saw was sky above. / What the sky saw was sea below... / The sky saw soft, white-feathered wings dip into the foaming sea. / The gull saw fish in the sea swimming in schools, scales shimmering silver. / The fish saw light on the waves weaving into the deep.
Here the book abruptly changes tone. Instead of continuing the thread of what-something-saw (which I was rather enjoying) it becomes prose describing things:
Sandpipers ran across the wet sand leaving a trail of three-pronged footprints. / The gull screeched and flew through the heavy sky.
Then shows the events of an approaching storm and rainfall. Still very lovely, but I was thrown off at the change of rhythm. Then it goes back into the sea saw/ the sky saw thread, until the book closes with nightfall. I was puzzled again. I wanted to love this book. The illustrations are wonderful, and both the what-something-saw thread and the description of how seashore creatures experience the rainstorm are nice. But they don't seem to fit together. I would have enjoyed a book that just described the animals and events of the day on the seashore, or a book that linked everything together by showing what each animal saw. But put together it makes a jump in the middle that made me like it less.

So, this is a case of me not liking one book because I thought it was poorly written, and the other because it didn't quite meet my expectations. Maybe I'm being really picky, about not liking these kid books. If I had to give them ratings, I'd give the barbie book a 1, and the seashore book a 2. For a balance of opinion, do read some of the reviews linked to below.

What the Sea Saw at:
Wild About Nature
Wild Rose Reader

Sorry, couldn't find anything else on Barbie in a Mermaid Tale unless you want to read an Amazon review.

Jun 13, 2010

challenges update

It's halfway through the year, so I figured I should take stock of my reading challenges. I signed up for six this year- probably too many.

Random Reading Challenge - which ends this month! I've read 7 out of 10, so need to do three more. This challenge is really fun.

Non-Fiction Five- I've read one, and currently on another (Awakenings). That leaves three more by september. I know I've been reading lots of non-fiction already, but for this challenge I wanted to read the ones off my list particularly.

What An Animal III - read 4 out of 6

Dogeared Reading Challenge- read 7 of 10

TBR Challenge- read 4 of 12

Support Your Local Library Challenge- read 18 of 25

New Authors Challenge- only one!

So... I have to crunch to finish the Random one! The others I think I'm doing pretty well on, surprised at how much more I've been using the library, too! But I haven't been keeping track of new-to-me authors, so I might have read more than one book that counts for that one, not sure. Most of the books I've been reading so far have been non-fic though, and that challenge is supposed to be for fiction.

Are you doing any reading challenges? How's the progress?

Jun 12, 2010

A Naturalist and Other Beasts

Tales from a Life in the Field
by George Schaller

I'd long heard of the great scientist and naturalist Geroge Schaller but somehow not read any of his books yet. This one caught my eye on a library shelf. It's a collection of short pieces about different studies the author conducted with wildlife, describing his time spent observing the animals and working with conservation efforts. Some were originally articles from other publications, others excerpts from his previous books, and they span several decade's work, from 1964 to 1993.

From the African plains to Brazilian jungles, Asian forests and remote Tibetan steppes, the author takes you around the world with him as he strives to find oft-elusive animals, learn more about them and work with local people to protect them. Among the many wildlife species featured here are giant pandas, great blue herons, the capybara, jaguars, mongolian gazelles, tigers, snow leopards, the pika, takin (an animal I never knew existed until a few months ago when I saw these posts online) and chiru- a Tibetan antelope which, interestingly enough, was also featured in the unicorn book I recently abandoned (its horns long valued and sold individually as alicorn). Whether it was the descriptions of the actual difficulties and tedium involved in biology fieldwork, wondrous close encounters with magnificent wild animals or fascinating new facts learned, this book was engaging all the way through. And of course, it added a slew of new titles to my TBR.

Rating: 3/5 ........272 pages, 2007

Have you written about this book? I'll add your link here

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Jun 11, 2010

friday finds

This meme is hosted at Should be Reading. Here's the books I found this week that are going onto my TBR. Are any of them familiar to you?

An Unlikely Cat Lady by Nina Malkin -I think The Stay at Home Bookworm is my new favorite blog, because the Bookworm reads just as many animal books as I do! This one is about a woman who feeds feral cats. Right up my alley! (ha ha)

Ape House by Sarah Gruen- I liked Gruen's prior book about the depression-era circus, and this one looks even more interesting to me, about apes involved in a language experiment. I found out about it on Caribousmom's post about titles she picked up at BEA.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale- another book about educated chimpanzees. This one caught my attention on The Book Lady's Blog.

Stuff  by Frost and Steketee- a book about compulsive hoarding and collecting of stuff. What caught my interest was that Superfast Reader said it showed her all the different reasons people keep their clutter: they find beauty in it or they're emotionally attached to each item, or other reasons. Sounds fascinating.

The Bucolic Plague by Josh Kilmer - Two blogs have brought this book to my attention, Fizzy Thoughts and Ready When You Are, CB. It's about two men from the city who buy a farm and try to create the idyllic country life.

Damp Squid by Jeremy Butterfield- a book about how language evolved. I always find these kind of books fascinating, if they don't bog me down. Found at Book Chase.

The Marrowbone Marble Company by Glenn Taylor- This never happened to me before, but it was Iron Inkling's Tuesday Teaser that piqued my curiosity about this book. I think I was first attracted to the striking cover. Then I had to go read reviews about it on Amazon. And now it's on my TBR.

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth Von Arnim- I always loved Von Arnim's Enchanted April (must write about it one of these days, or better yet, re-read it!) so when I read just this morning on Nymeth's blog about her wonderful-sounding book that revels in a garden, I got all excited.

A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass- I've only heard a little bit about synesthesia before, a condition where people see colors in association with letters and numbers. So this book looks really interesting to me. I read about it on Bookfoolery and Babble.

Bone from a Dry Sea by Peter Dickinson- When I raved about Eva and asked for more Dickinson recommendations, Sam kindly obliged. She mentioned Bone from a Dry Sea and The Seventh Raven. One is about the life of early hominids, and archeologists (fiction) the other is about kids putting on a stage performance who get caught up in a hostage situation. They both sound good!

The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson- Then I went on Library Thing and looked for more Dickinson books. I found this one, which is supposedly the author's ideas on how dragons could really fly, if they did exist, and other biology facts about the mythical creatures. It sounds really intriguing, but also really hard to find (not in my library system. Out of print?).

The Dragon Whisperer by Lucinda Hare- another dragon book. Sounds like it has fantastic descriptions, and illustrations too! I read about this one at Wondrous Reads.

I get carried away with all my book lists- too many titles! And maybe next time I'll have enough energy to put cover images up too, which I always love. But for now, you just get a list to drool over. That is, drool if your taste in reading converges with mine.

Jun 10, 2010

A Treasury of Flower Fairies

by Cicely Mary Barker

Over the past few weeks I've been reading this book to my daughter. It's a collection of art featuring fairies and flowers, created by Cicley Mary Barker. I never heard of her before, but when I found this book at a thrift sale I thought it was just beautiful and picked it up. Apparently the artist published eight books of flower fairy art/poems, which have also been compiled into a few different collections.

Each spread in the book has an exquisite painting of a fairy, with its accompanying plant or flower (some are trees, or roadside "weeds" not all strictly flowers). The fairies' clothing echoes the petals or foliage of their plants, and the artist used children from her sister's kindergarten class for models. They're so charming and lifelike. The way each fairy reflects the character of his/her flower or tree is really very well done. I loved looking at the pictures. The paintings are accompanied by poems, which tell something about the nature of the plant. I actually learned a few things from the poems- the names of a few plants I recognize but never knew their identity. Some of them, however, were awkward to read aloud- the lines did not flow easily, and occasionally we came across an unfamiliar word I had to explain to my daughter- like bairn, quagmire or bonnet. It's really a lovely book. I'd be thrilled to find another of the series.

Rating: 4/5 ......... 126 pages, 1923

Visit the website where you can see more of her artwork.

More book info at Powell's and AmazonI am an Associate. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I receive a small commission.

dogeared progress

Here it is June, and I've only read one more tattered book. It was the worst of the lot, so far (in terms of condition). My copy of The Golden Book of Wild Animal Pets is so worn its spine was falling off. I actually had to do a little repair with glue to make it readable, and even then turn the pages very carefully. Here's a few photos of what it was like after the fixing:

Even the untorn corners were quite a bit bumped. This book is rather old, but also looked well-used! (I imagine some little boy toting home frogs in his pocket and wiring together cages for critters to his mother's dismay)

Has anyone else read a dogeared book for May or June? Leave links to your reviews in the comments, if you're participating in my challenge. (It's not too late to sign up!)

Jun 9, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

The Heroic Misadventures of Hiccup the Viking
by Cressida Cowell

I needed a light read. And I was curious about this one because I really enjoyed the film How to Train Your Dragon and saw in the credits it was based on the book. But if you've seen the film, or plan to, know that it's nothing like the book. The story has been almost completely changed.

In the book, there's no girl. There's no war with dragons. Instead, the Vikings have a tradition of catching smallish dragons and training them to hunt and fight for them. The main character and setting are the same, though. A young Viking boy, son to the chief but not typical brawny material. He's skinny and something of a nerd. The other kids call him Hiccup the Useless. Hiccup barely manages to pass the initiation test where he and the other boys must climb into a cave of hibernating dragons and steal baby dragons to train. Then they must prove mastery over their little dragons, in order to be accepted into the Viking tribe. Hiccup finds he's no good at intimidating his dragon into obedience (the usual Viking method). Instead, he treats his creature with kindness, and communicates with it via the dragon-language (which is forbidden knowledge). But dragons are selfish creatures, and when the testing day comes, Hiccup's dragon is still very much of its own mind. Then a monster sea-dragon shows up, and Hiccup's secret dragon-speaking ability is suddenly a much-needed skill. His little dragon shows his true colors as well, surprising everyone with a display of loyalty that might change how all the Vikings think about dragons.

This was a fun little book! I think it would really appeal to kids. There's lots of ridiculous, descriptive names like Dogsbreath, Warthog and Snotlout. There's plenty of bickering, name-calling and competition among the boys. Hiccup has to deal with bullying as well as trying to please his father and live up to the sometimes-senseless Viking rules of conduct, while trying to find his own way. As for how it compares to the movie, the stories are so different I really don't know which I like better. In the film, I really liked that Hiccup was an inventor, that he tamed an injured dragon by helping it fly again, that he learned things about dragon behavior that helped him best them in the arena. But in the book, the dragons' sarcastic remarks and sly personalities added a whole extra something to the story. They reminded me a little bit of Smaug- and they were very fond of jokes, too.

So... I still like the film a lot, even though the two are so different. And for fun, short reads, I just might pick up more in this series by Cowell (there are at least seven books so far). I borrowed this one from the library.

Rating: 3/5 ......... 214 pages, 2003

More opinions at:
Reading for Sanity
The Royal Library
Puss Reboots

More book info at Powell's and Amazon I am an Associate. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I receive a small commission.

Jun 8, 2010

The Natural History of Unicorns

by Chris Lavers

I lost interest in this book. It's not the book's fault. I feel like I'm just too distracted lately with gardening and other stuff to focus on books so scholarly as this. The Natural History of Unicorns is just what its title says: a detailed look at how the legend of unicorns arose (in countries all across the world, no less). It traces ancient reports of strange animals back to their real flesh-and-blood owners (ranging from the rhinoceros and narwhal to various antelopes, goats and the okapi). It searches for the true source of material called unicorn horn that was worked into knife handles and other ornamental articles in antiquities. It examines how the unicorn got worked into religious symbolism and allegory, and where the ideas of its magical properties sprang from. It even tells about experiments that manipulated goat and cow's horns to create a one-horned animal. But I only got halfway through. Somehow all the details were dulling my interest. I'm just not in the right mood for this one, at the moment. I need to find something else to read.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned........ 258 pages, 2009

More opinions at:
Page 247
Peachy Books
The 999 Challenge

More book info at Powell's and AmazonI am an Associate. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I receive a small commission.

Jun 5, 2010

Digging Deep

Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening
by Fran Sorin

This was a lovely book. I'm glad the Random Reading Challenge put it in my hands this week! It's about the creative process and gardening. It's been a long time since I read such a clearly-explained, inspirational book about creativity. Even though the focus is gardening, the author also draws examples from people she knows who are creative in many other ways: writing, composing music, cooking, knitting, solving problems at work, etc. It's written in a very friendly, encouraging style. And unlike other books about gardening, which feature how to grow healthy plants, or control pests, or improve soil, this book only touches lightly on those things. It's mostly about how to make your garden a reflection of yourself. How to discover what reflects the innermost you, and put it into living practice in the garden. There are sections on finding your style, experimenting with design, following your instincts, inviting helpful input, redoing things and also continual working and simply enjoying what you've made. I have to say, if a garden was a true living embodiment of what I liked best in plant life, color, scent, etc it would be a joy to just be out in it. Not that I don't enjoy my garden, but it could be so much more! The book inspired me (among other things) to make a list of plants I dearly want to have growing in my yard, in spite of not knowing yet where to put them, or how they'll do there: ferns, geraniums, roses, fuschia, coneflowers, forsythia, butterfly bush, lilacs, snapdragons... well, I've already got the hosta!

I got my copy of this book free, at the Book Thing.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 200 pages, 2004

More opinions at:
California Fever
Awakening Desires
Anne McAllister

More book info at Powell's and AmazonI am an Associate. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I receive a small commission.

Jun 4, 2010

The Life of the Skies

Birding at the End of Nature
by Jonathan Rosen

A musing sort of book about birdwatching. The author describes some of his own experiences engaged in birding, and his thoughts on it, while also examining the presence of birds in poetry, literature, religious writings and the minds and lives of past Americans. The words of Darwin, Audubon, Robert Frost, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt, Emily Dickinson and others are threaded throughout the narrative, all in relation to birds. Honestly, I struggled with this book. I liked reading the parts about Rosen's personal experiences with birds, particularly his trips to Louisiana swamps hoping to see an ivory-billed woodpecker (supposedly extinct now). But the parts on history veered between being outright dull or meandering off-topic. The nature writing was uninteresting. The bits about poetry I simply could not focus on. Eventually I found myself skimming through the book, looking for the parts that were about direct experience, or interesting historical tidbits, and just reading those. I feel like the only thing I really got out of this book was a realization how many poems are about birds. It seems this book was just not for me. Plenty of other readers appreciated it well (see links below).

I borrowed this book from the library.

Rating: 2/5........ 324 pages, 2008

More opinions at:
The Nature of Things
Nature Calling
Birdfreak
Science on Tap

More book info at Powell's and AmazonI am an Associate. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I receive a small commission.

Jun 3, 2010

Eva

by Peter Dickinson

I've always marveled at how differently other species experience the world. What would it be like, I wondered countless times as a child, to flex your wings and navigate the air like a bird? to follow a scent that tells you a thousand things, to feel the smallest tremor of movement via your whiskers...? Thus Eva was a book that really intrigued me as a teen. Warning: I may be unable to resist a few spoilers. If you want to be surprised, just read the book without finishing my post!

This is a futuristic story, set in a time where most large animals have gone extinct in the wild, only existing on film or in zoos. Eva, just thirteen years old, suffers a horrific accident and wakes up after a lengthy coma in the hospital. She's disorientated, confused by strange dreams. She's unable to move, and can hardly speak. At first her parents try to keep her from realizing what's been done to her, but soon she learns that through some freakish advanced medical science, her mind, her very self, has been put into the body of a chimpanzee. Suspend your disbelief and jump into the narrative, and the ensuing story is fascinating.

At first Eva struggles just to make sense of her new experience. How to move her limbs, how to communicate, etc. It's not too difficult for her to accept her new reality, as she grew up among chimps (her father did research work with them). But the fame is another thing. People react to her with pity, or horror, or even trying to turn her situation into a media opportunity. Some want to make her a scientific study, others the pivotal figure for an environmental movement. But she really just wants to find herself, and live fully this new experience. Eva eventually gains access to a compound where chimpanzees are captive, but pretty much lead their own lives. It takes time and patience for her to become accepted by them, and at first she just sits quietly to observe. She can't help ending up interacting with them, and her presence begins to change their behavior as well. Drawing on primal memories she feels in her dreams, she starts to long for the natural environment chimps used to live in, and begins to incite her primate companions to break out and try to find that way of life again. It's not a move that will be met with acceptance by most of the people that surround her, however.

Well, I think I've said too much already! If you like dystopias and animal stories, this book is a perfect mix of the two. It's got well-drawn characters, sticky environmental issues, wonderful descriptions and page-turning events. Just putting all this down makes me want to pick it up and read again right now. I've looked but never found another Dickinson book I liked quite as well. Has anyone read other titles by him? got a recommendation?

This book is part of my permanent collection; I bought my copy used.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 219 pages, 1988

More opinions at:
Parenthetical.net
Eating YA Books
little book review

More book info at Powell's and AmazonI am an Associate. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I receive a small commission.