May 30, 2016

Joust

by Mercedes Lackey

A young boy living in servitude to his enemies is randomly picked by a Jouster to be his new dragon-boy. In this world- something like ancient Egypt but with magic and dragons- the Jousters train dragons and ride them in battle. This kid nurses lifelong hatred towards his overseers, but makes the best of his lot and turns out to be good at working with dragons, and a quick learner. The Jouster he works for is different than the others- he doesn't want fame, gold or awards, and doesn't like killing innocents in his line of duty- and so is his dragon. All the other dragons are caught as wild fledgelings and then forcefully trained to accept human riders, but this particular Jouster took the extra trouble of raising a dragon from the egg, so his relationship with it is different. The boy figures that his best bet for freedom is to steal an egg himself, and raise a dragon in secret. Right in the middle of this dragon/soldier compound. There were a lot of things I wanted to like about this story. I liked the character of the main Jouster, he had good morals and a different outlook on everything. I liked the boy- aloof from his peers, eager to learn, smart and good with the animals. I liked the idea of different ways of training dragons being introduced- not only raising them from an egg, but other methods mimicking falconry came into play later on. (Interestingly, the dragons in this world don't breathe fire. And they are usually controlled with compounds extracted from plants- routinely drugged into complacency).

But I didn't like the writing style. I should have known, from having tried this author once before. There is too much telling and explaining. The main character does a lot of brooding over things, most of what you get is him thinking- musing on others' motives, figuring out how and why things are done by eavesdropping, planning and daydreaming his future. There's also lots of explanation about the culture and history and setting, some of it repeated quite a few times. It really got in the way of enjoying the story. The interesting parts where the kid hatches his plan to raise his own dragon, doesn't occur until you're more than two-thirds through the book. By that time I was bored with a lot of it and mostly skimming to read the parts that interested me. The pacing is really odd- I swear the first hundred and fifty pages of the book cover one day. Then it moves through a reasonable set of days and weeks, and suddenly it's been a year and the kid knows how to do everything with dragons better than people who've been trained in it longer than he was alive. A lot of it seemed just unlikely, or way too convenient. The whole basic storyline was very familiar too. Different enough that it could have been a good read, if it had been better written. There were even some errors that really threw me off- the wrong name used for a character in the middle of the book, a mistaken homonym, a bunch of %% symbols in a sentence where someone is speaking!

I know this author has lots of fans, has written lots of books, very successful. But not for me- I just couldn't like it.

Rating: 2/5       373 pages, 2003

more opinions:
Stella Matutina

May 28, 2016

The Turquoise Dragon

by David Rains Wallace

He used to work for the Forest Service. And then he did a stint growing marijuana. Now George makes a living raising and planting trees. On a whim he goes to visit an old friend and finds the guy dead. The case seems to be dismissed by police as nothing of importance, but George keeps finding things out that eventually lead him into a complicated mess. At surface it looks like an environmental battle over the grounds of a creek. Rumors of an undescribed, rare species of salamander. Then he meets his buddy's old girlfriend, and discovers that a lot of stuff he thought he understood, is not what it seemed. Ends up in a remote canyon in the Klamath Mountains looking for the rare blue salamander. There's some odd, violent characters also looking for said salamander. There are earthquake tremors and frightfully confusing moments in underground caves. Some weird things happen near the end. And I found out why I don't really like reading mysteries. I get annoyed at never knowing what is really going on, being offered little bits and pieces in an endless trail. I get tired of reading conversations that are series after series of questions, people questioning other people and answering questions with more questions. I made myself finish the book just to know what happened, but I pretty much lost interest in the second half. I liked the landscape a whole lot more than the people. I actually enjoyed the writing style and the many asides the narrator made about wild places and the process of reforestation, but then the story took a different direction and became something I didn't enjoy anymore. Oh well.

Rating: 2/5     230 pages, 1985

May 26, 2016

The Turtle Warrior

by Mary Relindes Ellis

Story about a broken family on a poor, hardscrabble farm in Wisconsin. The father is an abusive drunk, the mother appears to suffer from mental illness, the older son has a definite mean streak. It's the younger boy you really feel for-  trying to protect his mother, avoid his father, looking up to a brother he also fears. The older son enlists to fight in Vietnam, and the war touches the whole family. Letters home, and then a report of MIA... It really jumps around a lot, maybe that's why this book didn't work for me. Told from one viewpoint and then another- the younger boy, the mother, the neighbor who tries to watch out for them, the older son in Vietnam, sometimes another minor character. I was unable to feel very interested in any of them, and I just did not want to read another story right now about a dysfunctional family, abuse and tragedy. The writing style also felt a little flat to me.

I can find lots of remarks about this book on Goodreads and Amazon, but not on other book blogs. Have any of you read it?

Abandoned          368 pages, 2004

May 25, 2016

Mutant Message Down Under

by Marlo Morgan

An American woman is visiting Australia to work in healthcare when she notices the scarcity of Aboriginal people around her, and the desperate condition those few she does see appear to be living in. She sets up a program to help young Aboriginal men use their skills to create items they can sell, and set up a small business. She admires their cooperativeness and tells of listening to stories of how their culture is being lost. Then she gets a summons from the other side of the continent to attend a meeting of an Aboriginal tribe. Thinking she is going to be recognized at some kind of luncheon, she gets in a jeep with a man who takes her to a remote location in the Outback. Before she realizes what is happening, she has been told to leave all her belongings behind, donned a rough strip of cloth, and is accompanying the tribe on a months-long walkabout.

The rest of the book is her telling about learning how the people live in the desert, their spiritual outlook and their opinions on modern ideas (what few she is able to convey to them, or they have heard about from their 'scouts' who go into cities). She describes going through various 'tests' the people use to ascertain her readiness for information, being taken to sacred sites and taught cultural secrets. It presents a really interesting idea of how people can live in perfect harmony with each other and the landscape, in a belief system that promotes each person becoming their own best self. I was interested to read the parts that described the desert landscape and weather, the methods of finding and preparing foods, and how they merged their lives with nature. Other things struck me as a bit hokey or hard to believe- in particular her description of 'dream catchers' made from spiderwebs and of mental telepathy communication among the tribe members.

Well it turns out this book is reputedly a fake- but I didn't know about the controversy until I was done reading it. My copy (found at a thrift store) has an introduction and afterword that make you think it's a true story, but the publication information clearly denotes it as fiction. Look up the title online and you can find lots of sites that discuss it. It's said to be an insulting misrepresentation of the Aboriginal culture, and Aboriginal groups have tried to ban its publication. Ultimately, after reading more about this book, I've decided not to keep it. While I enjoyed my first reading of it, I don't want to shelve something that might give future readers such blatantly false ideas about another culture. Meaning my kids, mostly, if they were ever interested in reading books from my personal library.

Rating: 2/5        187 pages, 1991

Criticisms:
Review by Michael Kisor
A Guardian of Aboriginal Culture?
The Anarchist Library
Helping Yourself: Fabrication of Aboriginal Culture
The Book Designer

more opinions:
BHPL Book Blog
Bibliophile's Corner
A Reader's Journal
Scads of Books
Spooked: Books to Run From

May 24, 2016

Aquarium

by David Vann

Caitlin lives alone with her mother in poor housing near the docks in Seattle. They have just enough to get by. Instead of paying for after-school care, her mom buys her a yearly pass to the aquarium. I loved this aspect of the book- twelve-year-old Caitlin is enthralled by the fish and other marine creatures she sees everyday. She dreams of being an ichthyologist when she grows up, and interprets everyday visuals in terms of fish behavior, the boundaries of rooms as aquarium walls or the ceiling of the sky an ocean surface. It was a really interesting perspective. Reading a book set in Seattle engaged me as well- I recognize the places and atmosphere (though I disagree with the weather assessment- it does not rain every day).

But the story turns dark. Caitlin meets an elderly man at the aquarium who also seems interested in fish and gradually becomes her friend. She wants to introduce him to her mother, and is shocked by the violent reaction this triggers. The encounter unearths secrets and deep resentment from her mother's past. It was hard to read the second half of the book. I really did not like the way Caitlin's mother tried to force her daughter to relive her own miserable past. Really disturbing. Considering the depth of emotional trauma, the ending seemed wrapped up pretty quickly, how this family resolved their issues. And there's a secondary theme going on at the same time- Caitlin's growing attraction to a classmate who is also her best friend and a girl. Her mother's recovery from the shock of finding this out also seemed way too quick. I could have easily read a few more chapters exploring how they really went through the healing process and worked out new family dynamics.

While I really like the way the author uses words to create unfamiliary, vivid imagery, I'm not sure if I want to read more of his books. A glance at a few more reviews tells me most of his books have dark themes. I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5       266 pages, 2015

more opinions:
Bermudaonion's Weblog
Bibliophile by the Sea
Leeswammes' Blog

May 22, 2016

The Inheritors

by William Golding

A small band of neanderthals comes in contact with a larger group of primitive humans, more sophisticated in their use of materials and language. For the neanderthal family, the encounter is inevitably fatal. The story is mostly told from their perspective (except for the final chapter, which is from the human viewpoint) and one of the more powerful aspects of the novel was seeing how each group viewed each other. A lot of things the humans do, their very appearance and method of locomotion is completely foreign to the neanderthals and often incomprehensible. So it's difficult for the reader to grasp what is happening at well. In fact there were a lot of scenes I never really knew what was going on. It's one of the times I'm actually glad I stopped and read a few reviews and synopses online, because if I hadn't I might not have figured out some of the events and actually given up on this book. The dense, image-heavy prose is also one of its strengths. You get a very real idea of what it might be like to live in the moment, and with heightened senses- the motion of leaves in a breeze, of sunlight over a rock, the feeling of moisture in the air, the ability to recognize and track things by scent- intense and close to the earth. The neanderthals are portrayed as being peaceful foragers with strong family ties whereas the humans they encounter who keep slaves, invoke spirits and use fermented drinks- appear to be cruel. They are afraid of the neanderthals, steal their children (for the relief of a woman who lost her own child and their amusement, it turns out) and act quite brutally. At least, that's as much as I could grasp. It's really a book that merits a second read.

Rating: 3/5         233 pages, 1955

more opinions:
the Asylum

May 18, 2016

The Last Dragon

by Silvana de Mari

Sometimes you come across a kid's book by chance that happens to be pretty good. I found this one at a thrift shop. It's a story of a quest in a dark, miserable world where it always seems to be raining. People in this world despise and fear elves, and all the elves have been forced into camps or slain. One young elf escapes when his camp is flooded, is helped by a man and woman who pity him- in spite of their many misunderstandings due to language differences and the little elf's naievety. The elf realizes he is the last of his kind and is in despair until he reads a prophecy written on the wall- foretelling that the last elf and the last dragon together can bring about a great change. Determined to fulfill the prophecy, he starts searching for a dragon, but what he finds isn't at all what he expected.

A lot of things in this book turn out not to be what others expected, and that's part of the fun of it. It's got one of the most original concepts of dragons that I've ever read. When the elf first meets the dragon I was dismayed at what an inane, whiny cowering beast it was, but turns out there's a good reason for that and soon you find in the story that dragons can be insufferably proud, sarcastic and full of wisdom as well. So- I don't want to tell too much about the story but it has a lot going on, much of it subtle. There are adventures and narrow escapes. A little bit of a love story. An isolated library stuffed with all the knowledge of the world, that might just get burnt up by an infant dragon that can't control its fire. There's a cruel ruler who enforces lots of suffering, children who rise up against their oppressors, people who don't realize their strengths until the need arises in front of them. Lots of prejudice and misconceptions on all sides- it's refreshing to see the various perspectives as parts of the story are told from different characters' viewpoints. I liked how all the little threads connected at the end, characters that didn't realize why they crossed paths but it turns out all to a purpose. It kept me intent because quite a few things happened that I didn't see coming at all.  And it made me laugh any number of times.

It's translated from the Italian. The original title was The Last Elf.

Rating: 3/5       361 pages, 2004

more opinions:
Becky's Book Reviews
Valentina's Room

May 15, 2016

A Dog Called Perth

by Peter Martin

I liked this book, and I didn't. It's about a young couple who bought a beagle puppy in their first year of marriage, and tells of their life with it for twenty-one more years. They couldn't bear to restrain their dog's free spirit, so Perth was allowed to roam at will. Kind of like the guy from Merle's Door did with his dog. Only Perth was not Merle. She had a nasty habit of biting people in the face and her owner constantly came up with excuses why this was the victim's fault. He had the most ridiculous ideas sometimes of why the dog was behaving in certain ways, ascribing human emotions, moods and thoughts I'm sure no dog really has. The dog has many narrow escapes, accidents, gets lost for six months and very luckily found again, and moves with the family numerous times between America and England. The dog also gets left behind several times for months when the author had to travel for work- with people who are not told about her biting history. I was appalled he left her in a summer girls' camp when she'd never been around children before. I was curious to read about what it was like placing their dog in quarantine when they moved to England, I knew about those strictures before but never read a full description of the process. Well- long story short it's obvious this family loved their dog very very much, really adored her, but it's also obvious they fell short at managing her behavior, teaching her, keeping other people safe from her- not responsible at all.

I'm not alone in that opinion. Lots of people on amzn decry this book, one person outright destroyed her copy rather than give it to another reader. And yet- I kind of like the way it's written. I enjoyed the descriptions of the English countryside and the small village the family eventually settled in. I just felt really bad for the dog, and outraged at many points in the story how her schooling was deliberately neglected.

I suppose I'm rather hyped up about this because I just finished watching a National Geographic documentary about an animal sanctuary that works with problem dogs that would otherwise be put down in shelters. Perth is a dog that wouldn't have passed those behavior tests. Food aggression? Biting people? No way.

Rating: 3/5       206 pages, 2001

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

by George R.R. Martin

Meh.

I saw this book on a display shelf at the library. It contains three novellas set about a hundred years prior to the events in Game of Thrones, concerning the adventures of a young untried knight Duncan and his impudent squire, Egg. In the first story "The Hedge Knight" the young man takes up arms when the old knight he was squire to dies. He travels to a tourney hoping to make a name for himself and earn some coin. Picks up an unlikely squire, who it turns out is concealing his true identity. The second story, "The Sworn Sword", has to do with a severe drought. Crops and people are dying in the land where Ducan and his squire are in service to a lord. They travel upriver to find that someone dammed the river for their own use, and get involved in trying to get the water back. I didn't make it to the third tale, "The Mystery Knight." This might have been the most interesting as I almost thought it had dragons in it, but it was only the presence of treasured dragon eggs, one of which gets stolen. More tournament doings.

It's excusable that I expected dragons in the stories- they're all over the illustrations, looming in the background or neatly hidden- it took me a while to notice that in the back cover illustration there's a dragon lurking in the tree. But I think they were only symbolic of the house Targaryen. I actually liked the pictures by Gary Gianni. You can see a nice sample of the artwork here. But by this point I had lost interest in reading the book. Just not the same as the earlier works I've read by this author. It's a lot more casual. The main characters are nice, decent people working their way through a world of evildoers and deceivers of course, but they were kind of boring. Even the squire, who had this cocky attitude that didn't fit with his position- due to his true background- failed to keep my interest. There's a lot of names and history thrown around in here, which if you pay attention shows how small events led to much later ones present in Game of Thrones. But even that wasn't enough for me, in fact it felt like it got in the way of enjoying the simple story of a knight's adventures. Oh well.

Abandoned        355 pages, 2015

more opinions:
Beth Fish Reads
Book Banter

May 12, 2016

Urban Dog

by Will Cohu

It looked cute and was supposedly about a dog, but really I found more about people in this book and honestly I got bored with it. Granted, there are lots of interesting characters the author meets on walks with his scottish terrier, or during his constant shifting about from one rental to another. Sometimes he took up with friends- huge contrast between the dilapidated flats and wealthy estates he lives in at different times. He also describes trips to various places including Scotland and eventually, Los Angeles. I might have found the Londoner's take on American culture interesting, but by the time I reached that point of the book I was only skimming and rapidly loosing interest. I wanted to read more about the dog, Parker. Who is a constant presence, but more of a sidekick or background figure, not the central focus of the book. It was a real letdown because I laughed three times in the first dozen pages so I was hopeful to have a good, light read. Then at the halfway point realized it wasn't enjoyable anymore and my interest was flagging. I got two-thirds through and that was all. Sorry!

The author wrote a newspaper column about life with his dog; this book is semi-fictional memoir showing what went on behind the scenes of it all, I guess. I suspect I might have enjoyed his original column better.

Abandoned        215 pages, 2000

May 11, 2016

Inside of a Dog

What Dogs See, Smell and Know
by Alexandra Horowitz

What do dogs really see when they look at us? How do they take in the world- are its sights, scents and sounds very different from how we perceive them? The author examines scientific studies that show just how the dogs' five senses work, and what that means in terms of how they act or respond to things. Their focus can be quite the opposite of what you imagine. Also their social behavior, why they are so responsive to humans, how you can better read their body language and teach them what you want them to know. She brings in the perspective of experiences with her own dog. A lot of this was familiar material to me, some of it even revealed the book's age. It looks at questions such as: do dogs feel guilty? how can big dogs and tiny ones manage to play so well together? are dogs bored when you're not at home? One of the more interesting parts to me was about how dogs' play and interaction with humans is so very dependent on timing, the cues and responses. I found the book an interesting read for the new viewpoint it gave me of things. It's very nicely organized.

Side note: did you know of a device called the Mosquito that emits a high-pitched noise only audible to younger people? Apparently it has been in use since 2009, installed outside shops to deter troublemaking teenagers. You can test it to see if you can hear the noise yourself- it's definitely out of my range, but my kids could hear it. Funny, this page reports that some kids turned around and used that sound to their own advantage.

Rating: 4/5      353 pages, 2009

more opinions:
The Blue Bookcase
Don't Be Afraid of the Dork

May 5, 2016

One Good Horse

by Tom Groneberg

I'm disappointed I didn't like this book more. Maybe I was just too tired when I read it- I do remember its predecessor better. It's a quiet book, about everyday life for a ranch hand, about accepting that things don't always turn out how you imagine, and making the best of it all. Four stories are woven together- mainly the author's desire to find a young, untrained horse he can teach himself and his family's efforts to adjust when they find out their newborn son -one of twins- has down syndrome. There are also brief segments told from the horse's point of view, and an alternate storyline from another book set a century earlier, where a cowboy describes working a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. In all the stories there is a sense of finding one's self, of growing into life, of coming to appreciate what you end up with. But it jumped around a bit too much for me between the various threads, I could never settle down and get immersed in the story. I assumed from the title that it was mostly about the relationship between this man and his new horse, about the work it took to teach the horse to be ridden- but really that's only a small part of the book. And the horse is calm, accepting, fairly easy to train so there's nothing very exciting there. Not even a lot of insight or strong description. It kind of just all washed over me.

My experience was an anomaly- all the other reviews I see of this book rate it highly. I am sorry I didn't feel the same way about it. I'm sure it's a good book on its own, and one of those instances where I just read it at the wrong time for me.

Rating 2/5        227 pages, 2006  

more opinions:
Pages Turned

May 4, 2016

A Man's Garden

by Warren Schultz

Saw this book on display at the library and thumbed through it, liked the variety of styles I saw and brought it home to read. It's about men who are passionate about gardening- showcasing fourteen different and very individual gardens. Cottage gardens rioting with flowers, zen gardens full of quietness and mosaic stone pathways. Gardens on steep hillsides with winding stone walls, gardens sculpted and shaped by literally reforming the earth. Gardens grown in challenging climates, gardens planted where practically anything will take root and flourish. There's a classic vegetable garden, and a guy whose focus is giant pumpkins. There's a man who filled his yard with palms, and then went on to plant them all over the neighborhood. Gardens full of whimsey and odd eye-catching artwork, others that are neat and tidy, all about the plants. There's even a featured railroad garden. While I liked reading about the wide variety of personalities, what they brought to gardening and how they went about it, mostly I was inspired by the pictures of layouts and plants. Nice enough book.

Rating: 3/5       142 pages, 2000

May 3, 2016

Garden Secrets

by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent and Diane E. Bilderback

Subtitled: A guide to understanding how your garden grows and how you can help it grow even better. I don't think I've read such a useful, easy-to-understand gardening book since finding Thalassa Cruso. This book is written by a pair of gardeners, who constantly mention different techniques they used in their respective gardens, what worked (or didn't) for them, and why. So you can see how applicable the information is. While it doesn't discuss every plant- I noticed there is no mention of strawberries, rhubarb, turnips or asparagus- it does cover very thoroughly 25 of the vegetables most commonly produced in home gardens. They are all ones I have tried, myself. The book clearly explains the biology of vegetable plants, how they grow and especially their response to daylength and temperature. It can make a lot of difference. Tells you when and how to plant each type, how to select good varieties for your microclimate, planting depths, seedling care, when to use soil ammendements, moisture levels, pest control, managing pollination and how to harvest and store the produce correctly-  pretty much all you'd want to know about making your plants grow healthy. I learned quite a lot- for eample, why I used to get hairy carrots and puny corn, why it is so hard to grow a good cauliflower. I should have taken better notes, but I know I will be referring back to this book when needed.

Rating: 4/5        315 pages, 1982