Nov 22, 2017

Caribou Island

by David Vann

I didn't like this book. Halfway through I started skimming so much I really ought to call it Abandoned. It's about a couple in Alaska trying to build a log cabin on a small island, while their marriage is falling apart. The husband, Gary, has always rushed headlong into projects without adequate planning and then gets frustrated at the inevitable failure: this cabin is no different. It was really ridiculous that the island already had a cabin- one that Gary admired and tried to copy, but couldn't. Why didn't they just live in that one, cut down some trees for the view? It made no sense. Through all their difficult work (in endlessly bad weather), the wife is suffering from debilitating headaches that doctors can't find a cause for. She's bitter at being dragged into the building project which she doesn't care about, and seems to harbor years of resentment against her husband. There's a lengthy side story about their grown children, one of whom is cheating on his girlfriend with a tourist. I don't know why that was such a large part of the plot, it felt pointless. I didn't care about any of these people. I did like the descriptions of the wide landscape. Nature was beautiful, but the weather terribly oppressive- the cold, wet and relentless wind are emphasized. It's full of miserable people wallowing around in their unhappiness and ineptitude with relationships, career choices, building projects and all. The ending is horrible.

Oh, and I was once again thrown off by the sameness of conversation and thought. This book has no quotation marks whatsoever. I suppose it heightens the sense of unease, not being able to trust your own senses, not knowing for sure if something is spoken aloud- or maybe it's a style thing, to make it feel seamless. But on the heels of a different book which overused quotation marks to the same effect, it was just annoying.

I should have known better. I picked this up off a library shelf recognizing the author- I did like his book Aquarium not so long ago. But I had a sense from other reviews that most of his works are very dark, and they weren't kidding. I don't think I will pick up any more by this author.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 1/5                293 pages, 2011

more opinions:
Savidge Reads
The Asylum

Nov 21, 2017

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita

by Rumer Godden

Middle-aged Englishwoman Fanny has always done the right things. She cares for her home and children, socializes with her friends, she is kind and patient, never improper. Her husband often travels for work, so she is alone and rather bored when the children go off to boarding school. A film company comes to their village to make a movie, and Fanny catches the director's eye. Rob takes her out to the theater, for drinks, to dinner. She thinks she is just keeping company and having a bit of fun, but it turns into an affair. Fanny finds herself happier than ever with Rob- sees a new life opening up with delights that she'd never imagined- so she leaves with him for Italy, filing for divorce.

Her children are shocked. They have to leave their country home and live in a small London flat with their father. The youngest girl is forced to sell her beloved pony. The children are unhappy with all the changes- big and small- in their routine. Suddenly refusing to accept the situation, two of the kids run away to find their mother in Italy, intending to make her come her back home. Things in Italy are not exactly what they expected, the situation is of course strained. Rob wants to send the children back to their father immediately but the boy falls ill and his mother won't allow him to travel. So Rob brings his own daughter (who has been raised by her grandmother) to stay with them as well. She is also opposed to the new relationship. Although not quite on friendly terms with each other, the children band together against their parents. Their presence makes Rob show another side of his personality, opinions about raising children quite different from Fanny's. They're all discontented in the end.

Sadly, this is not one of my favorite Rumer Goddens. I read through this book rather quickly, intrigued by the characters and their interactions, but in the end felt dissatisfied and don't think I will return to it. It is very slow going at first. Lots of description of time and place- which is enjoyable in its own way- but the details of Fanny's unfolding affair made me feel bored and impatient. I suppose it was to show how gradually it all happened- how she excused the little deviations of her behavior until they piled up into one big thing she couldn't extricate herself from, but I wasn't terribly sympathetic. The story got a lot more interesting once the children were in the picture. But the writing sometimes felt a bit awkward- it shifts back and forth between recollections and present events without clear indications. As the characters' spoken words and thoughts are both framed with quotation marks, sometimes I didn't know if someone had said a phrase aloud or not; I'd have to read a sentence over again to make sure. It's a shame, because I really do like this author and her depiction of how kids think -in this case especially, how acutely they are affected by divorce- is very astute. I was glad the children decided to stand up for themselves, but when all was done, I wouldn't call it a happy ending.

Side note: the prim young Italian girl would absentmindedly sing while reading crime novels. That small detail baffled me. I do have a habit of fiddling with the pages while reading (my hands can't keep still), but I can't imagine singing. I often hum, whistle or sing while painting or doing chores- but reading? How do you divide your brain like that.

Rating: 2/5            254 pages, 1963

more opinions:
Leaves & Pages
Desperate Reader

Nov 17, 2017

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

Another story that depicts a horrible situation through the eyes of a child. Bruno is upset that his father's job makes them move from their nice home in Berlin to what he at first assumes is the desolate countryside. He mispronounces the name of this new place as 'Out-With' but the reader can soon guess the real location. Also the identity of his father's seldom-seen boss, of whom everyone is very much afraid- 'the Fury'- is very clear to the reader, but then we are seeing it all through hindsight. In the middle of the story, nine-year-old Bruno is just angry and bored, squabbling with his sister, questioning the maid and finally wandering outdoors. Where after a very long walk he finds another boy sitting on the opposite side of a tall, barbed-wire fence. He slowly makes friends with this boy, all the time innocent of what is really going on. Who his father really works for, why are all those hundreds of people standing around on the other side of the fence, looking terribly thin and wearing the same clothes. There's a very real sense in this book, of how people- especially a child- could have been blind to what was going on during the Holocaust, how they started to deliberately not see- for fear of their own lives- when it became apparent what was really happening. Brutality. And this kid just wants a friend.

I read it in just two sittings. The ending is chilling.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5            216 pages, 2006

more opinions:
Vulpes Libris
Booknotes by Lisa
the Literary Omnivore
Parchment Girl
the Wertzone
Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Nov 16, 2017

Room

by Emma Donoghue

This is another book that was all over the blogs some years ago. I think I avoided it back then because I assumed the subject matter would be too harrowing: it's about a college student who was kidnapped and locked up in a storage shed refurbished into a dismal prison cell. Her captor kept her there seven years. While held prisoner, she bore a child. Keeping her son as healthy and safe as she could in such oppressive circumstances gave her a reason to live. She taught and entertained him. The eleven-foot space and his mother, were all that he knew. They had a television, a few books, a glimpse of the sky and occasional 'treats' brought at their captor's whim- that was about it. The story works because it is told through the boy's perspective, at the time just five years old. He thinks everything inside the television is pretend, and personifies all the objects in the room- Table, Rug, etc. At night he hides in Wardrobe when his mother is visited by their captor, dubbed Old Nick. His energy and questions start to stretch the limits of their world, and his desperate mother finally tells him the truth of their confinement and makes a move to break out.

I was glad that the story moved quickly, that the filter of a child's mind kept the worst of horrors from being too stark, that a lot of the book is about how the boy and his mother struggled to adjust when they finally escaped to freedom. A huge shock to the child, a different kind of stress for his mother. He had never felt rain, never played with other children, never seen a real dog. He was smart in the things his mother could teach him- math, spelling, literature even- but completely baffled by so many ordinary things. His close relationship with his mother strained by their suddenly expanded environment, by so many other people crowding around. There are, of course, a lot of really disturbing aspects to this story- but it is also a tender one of hope and resilience, in spite of the dark premise.

There's a lot more depth to this story- and many other readers have detailed it better- see some of the links below. It was a good read, very compelling. Hard to put down and a lot to think about afterwards.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           321  pages, 2010

more opinions:
Farm Lane Books Blog
You've GOTTA Read This!
Rhapsody in Books
Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity
Write Meg!
Reading Through Life

Nov 14, 2017

Our Native Fishes

the Aquarium Hobbyist's Guide to Observing, Collecting and Keeping Them: North American Freshwater and Marine Fishes 
by John R. Quinn

This book on fishkeeping addresses a very specific aspect of the hobby: catching and keeping wild fish in the aquarium. I suppose it all started once when an angler or fisherman caught a particularly pretty specimen and decided to take it home alive as a pet or for study. The book is focused solely on fish species that can be found in North American waters. It details the best methods used to catch native fish- varying according to the habitat and the behavior of the species- and where they can usually be found (without naming exact locations). Also information on how the fish should be handled to avoid damage and stress, what they will eat and their husbandry needs. Only those suitable to be kept in a home aquarium are discussed- fishes too large or otherwise unable to survive in healthy condition are omitted; a few endangered and protected species are identified so the collector will know to release them if caught. Explanations of the laws regarding collection are detailed, although the book is more than twenty years old by now, so regulations may have changed. I like the way this author writes, the book has an engagingly friendly, matter-of-fact manner. He was formerly an editor of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine, one I happen to subscribe to.

I had only one small disappointment with the book- the inked illustrations identifying the many fishes in the species profiles are nicely done- but it would be lovely to have color plates. This was one of those books I read with a computer close at hand, so I could look up fish species I wanted a better visual of. Also, the author frequently advocated keeping certain fishes for a short time frame and then releasing them again in the location where they had been caught. Because some would outgrow a reasonable aquarium, thus only suitable to be kept as juveniles. However I thought this practice was generally frowned upon: a fish once kept in captivity should not be released into the wild again due to the risk of introducing pathogens into the wild population.

Aside from that, it's an excellent book regarding a very specific interest. I have never kept native fish and I don't know if I would ever collect on my own, but I found it pretty interesting reading.

Rating: 4/5                  242 pages, 1990

Nov 13, 2017

The Wild Robot

by Peter Brown

I've enjoyed quite a few of this author's picture books with my youngest, so when I saw he had written a chapter book (for middle grade readers) about a robot that interacts with wildlife, I was definitely intrigued. The story is fairly straightforward: a cargo ship wrecks in a storm, and of all the crates that wash up on the island, only one is intact. It contains a robot, packaged new from the factory. The robot's first awakening is when an animal accidentally turns her on. She has never known any other place- but the island is a hostile environment for sophisticated machinery. The robot (nicknamed 'Roz') has been programmed to assist humans, but must adjust to her life on the island. Roz has an acute sense of survival, and also the ability to learn from experience. The wild animals, for their part, have never seen anything like her. She is immediately labeled as a monster. It takes her some time to shake free of that stigma and integrate herself into the life of the island.

This book has a lot of great stuff going on. The contrast of technology and nature. The clever adaptability of the robot (whereas a lot of the animals are much slower to let go of their assumptions and trust Roz). The big question of what defines life. Roz can learn, she needs to take in energy and to rest, she can show compassion, she can be destroyed- but she's not alive. This baffles the animals. She even takes on motherhood, raising an orphaned gosling- you can imagine the awkwardness of some scenes- a goose raised by a robot who can't even get wet! By the end of the story, Roz has gained the admiration of the animals on the island, even the bears who at one point were her worst enemies. So when the company that lost the cargo ship discovers her location and comes to retrieve their property, the animals all rally in her defense.

I really liked reading this story, I just wish I loved it. The interplay of nature and the computer-brained robot is really cleverly done. It does a good job of showing how the lives of the different species on the island are dependent on each other, how the ecosystem is balanced and parts are thrown off by Roz's presence. I think the robot aspect would get a lot of kids reading this book who aren't necessarily interested in nature or animals- and it does teach a lot of facts about wildlife (although I was a bit irked that some were stereotypical assumptions- birds singing to greet the day, for example). The ending has a lot of heightened drama- which I'm sure will appeal to kids but I found it a bit tiresome. I really like Peter Brown's artwork in his picture books, and this one has plenty of interior illustrations, but they're all black-and-white which I found a tad disappointing. Just doesn't appeal to me as much, when it's monochrome.

There's a sequel; I'll be looking for that one. I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               277 pages, 2016

more opinions:
James Reads Books
Jen Robinson's Book Page
Waking Brain Cells

Nov 12, 2017

My Sin

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol. 2
by Angie Outis

Continuing from Sorry So Sorry, the author writes about her painful awakening to something very amiss both in her marriage and in the community of her church. With the conformity and expectations to always seem pleasant and content, while her frustrations grew. Instead of being supported and encouraged, the tiny snippets shared in these poems show that she felt belittled and criticized. I try to imagine how she must have felt- the overwhelming sense is one of being stepped on. Constant reiteration that men were superior, important, women a secondary role. Her husband sparked with anger at small things that were wrong, and hid the large ones. She tried to shield her young children, tried to pretend everything was okay. Until a missive arrived from her husband's employer, which obviously held a dirty secret. I have to admit I'm really curious to read what was revealed- maybe in the next chapbook of the series she opens the paperwork. Why do we always want to know each other's pain, to know how bad the worst of it was? I think it was very brave of her to write these poems about the disintegration of her relationship, all the little things that occurred in private to bring her down.The writing felt a lot more vivid to me in this volume. I was especially struck by the poem titled "Why I Write" that personifies her fear of emotion.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 4/5            23 pages, 2017

Nov 8, 2017

Identification Guide to Freshwater Tropical Fish

by Frederick William Pitcher

This is an outdated aquarium book that I swapped for, sight unseen. It's old enough that it talks about angle-iron frame tanks with all-glass aquariums being the new thing. There is no mention of an actual cycle, although it recommends to 'age' the water. I was a bit shocked to find no warnings against ammonia poisoning and it said ok to introduce fish when nitrites test at three or four ppm. Wow. So the info in here about husbandry, growing plants and the like is fairly basic. I'm keeping the book because I like the illustrations. It's fun to look at the paintings in the guide that makes up most of the volume here. I amuse myself by guessing the species name before reading the text- some have them have changed in form and color over the years of selective breeding. There are a few- must have been popular or common for aquariums at the time- which I didn't recognize at all. I compare the notes on fishes with my own experience: this book says serpae tetras will only eat live foods and are difficult to breed. Not the case anymore. (Other old books I have on the subject note that serpaes are entirely peaceful: NO! and another that they are so prone to disease that not worth keeping. And in contrast I've often read they're supposed to be really hardy!) This book: nice for the pictures if you like art and fish, fun for a bit of comparison to how things used to be.

Rating: 2/5           60  pages, 1977

Nov 6, 2017

This I Believe

Personal Philosophies of Remarkable 7th Grade Students Vol. II

I feel a bit conflicted writing about this book. But I paid for it, so I wanted to actually read it, so I'm making notes about it. It's a collection of essays written by seventh-graders in my daughter's school. Printed near the end of last year and I have taken all this time to read it, dipping in and out of it now and then. The inspiration comes from an NPR program "This I Believe" which has now turned into a series of books, containing essays written by famous people, published authors, and everyday folks on their personal belief systems.

The students here- there are about 150 essays- write about what is important to them. You can tell for the most part, these are great kids. They have adults in their lives who care for them and teach them good things. They write about learning to appreciate family and friends, to value their time, to work hard for grades. They write about the grief of loosing pets and family members- so much pain! They write about sports: teamwork, practice and hard work pays off. (A lot of essays involving sports. This would have bored me after a while but I discovered many of them didn't mention what the particular sport was- so I would attempt to guess by the description of how the team worked and movments on the field, what they were playing). There were also a few essays about making and keeping friends, being true to yourself in the face of peer pressure, moving to a new house, or a new town- or country, dealing with bullies, discovering individual talents, attempting new skills, taking opportunities, staying positive in the face of failure, overcoming fears and learning to appreciate the beauty in life. A lot of wonderful messages. Some of them were even infused with a good sense of humor.

A few that stood out to me: several essays involving swim practice and meets. I've been there. There were two essays where the kids wrote about keeping fish, and the pain of loosing them to illness or due to a mistake- how I could relate to that. One wrote about his love of books. Another about learning from experience, to be careful when making online purchases. A girl wrote about trying to teach her hamster tricks after seeing a demo video online. She got frustrated her hamster wouldn't do what the hamster in the video did. Then realized her hamster had a different skill, and encouraged it to do that as a trick instead. I really liked this essay (and not just because it was about an animal). Another student wrote about sustaining an injury during sports practice and continuing to work through the pain- they found out the next day it was a broken foot. I was appalled that a student would feel pressured to continue practicing while in so much pain. There was another essay written from the perspective of a student who claims she was falsely accused of bullying. It was a very emotional and confusing piece of writing. Another very personal one was about overcoming the fear- as a second-grader- of using public restrooms (I know those self-flushing toilets are very loud- my youngest has always been terrified of them as well).

According to the forward in this book, the students had a required reading assignment Trash by Andy Muillgan (which I haven't read), which was inspired by a real dumpsite in Manila. Proceeds from the students' book "has allowed for them to donate to a charity that helps those whose lives and experiences inspired the writing of Trash." So it's for a good cause. And of course I was going to buy a copy: my daughter was ecstatic to tell me her essay was being printed. At first I was told only the best essays made it into the book though: later it sounded like all the essays from the class were included. There was no selection of the best? The writing quality was very uneven: that's to be expected and for the most part I tried to overlook it and enjoy the message the individual students had to share, and their voices.

But it was really hard to ignore the massive amount of errors, especially in the first two sections of the book. Typos, spelling mistakes, bad grammar, missing or wrongly used punctuation, sentences that made no sense. It has all the bad characteristics of self-published books. My kid told me that her teacher didn't correct the essays- the students proofread each other's work. Seems very sloppy. Some of them sound like they just poured out a bunch of unorganized thoughts and never went beyond a rough draft. I was really disappointed in that regard. I don't mind the exaggerated phrases and overused metaphors, after all these are young writers. I can tell when the writer's first language is not English, and the misuse of grammar in that case doesn't bother me. It's the pile of little things that should have been caught by an editor: in this case, the teacher. My guess is that the final section of the book did get correction from the instructor before printing: there were very few errors and even though a lot of the themes were still repetitive, I was able to finally enjoy the stories and think about what the students had to say, instead of getting jarred around by bad writing.

This is the type of book probably no one is going to read unless their kid is included in it. I wonder how many other parents and family members read all the essays, and not just those by students they know.

Rating: 2/5                 329 pages, 2017

Sorry So Sorry

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol. 1
by Angie Outis

These very personal poems were written by a young mother of three during the time that her marriage fell apart. They revolve around a singular incident that opened her eyes to the violent nature in her husband's personality- something I gather she had been blind to for years, or unwilling to admit/confront, because of what it would mean to their relationship... It's also about a crumbling of her faith- all the rules she'd been taught to follow, the promises that things would work out, be okay, if she lived in a certain way.

Through the verses that relate conversations between friends and close family moments, I felt like I was peeking into someone's private slice of pain. Some of the lines are so precisely descriptive in a fresh, new way. When I find poetry that speaks to me, this is especially what I like about it. Of a neighbor's stunning beauty: her smile could eclipse the sun. Of her husband's sudden, shocking violence: His profanity was a jackhammer / that splintered my reality. 

It did not quite feel complete- but there are other volumes in this poetry series, so I have a sense that more is told, the story comes full circle with further reading. I'm not sure I understood what the 'spiritual blackmail' is referred to in the subtitle- but I guess that would become clear with further reading, too. I finished it in one sitting but went back to revisit twice, it had that much of a quiet impact.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 3/5            24 pages, 2017

Nov 3, 2017

new books!

My box came from Powell's today, and a few other packages, results of birthday spending. As you can see, most of it is Gerald Durrell: I can't wait to read. Two are sequels to books that have long been favorites of mine: Ariel and Paddle to the Amazon. There's also an illustrated edition of All Quiet on the Western Front which I have wanted to own for a very long time. I think I first found this particular edition at a public library. Alongside the text it has actual photographs from WWI, which really helped bring the narrative to life for me.

I like Powell's because: they are a used bookstore that isn't amzn. Their used books are in good condition and they ship them securely- mine always come shrink-wrapped to a cardboard sheet on the bottom of the box, so nothing slides around and gets banged up. The price labels have low-tack glue, so they peel off easy without ripping the cover or leaving sticky residue. Small things, but they make a difference!
And because Bermudaonion asked, here's a little bit about The Book Thing. It's a place in Baltimore, MD. I found out about it when I lived there- years ago when we first moved to the east coast. Their mission is "to put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them." The story I heard is the founder is a bartender. It was known he liked books, so people kept giving him books. He noticed that college kids struggled to pay for textbooks, so he started collecting texts to give away to students. The donations increased to where at one point he was giving away books from a van. Then eventually got more space- the property has three rooms full of bookshelves (organized by subject) and a large area where donations are processed. As far as I understand it, a very small percentage of books and CDs they receive are sold to pay for the minimal overhead cost. All the people who work there sorting and shelving books are volunteers. There are some articles on their website that have more detail.

I love the place. I don't go very often any more because I now live further away, and when we do we are always sure to donate some books- it's only fair. The only condition to picking up free books is: you can't sell them. They are all stamped "NOT FOR RESALE This is a Free Book" on the inside cover or first page.

When we went a few weeks ago, it was the first time I'd taken my kids. My youngest was excited to go to "the book store where you don't have to pay for anything" as she kept saying. My older daughter laughed when we finally turned around the corner on Vineyard Land and saw the sign painted across the top of the building: "It's really called The Book Thing?" All this time she'd assumed I called it that because I couldn't remember the name of the place! The parking has improved since I was last there, and the rooms are nicely painted and cleaned up. I like there's a window through the wall from one room to another. There used to be a page on their site featuring odd things found in books, or strange, obscure titles. I miss that, it was kinda funny.

Nov 1, 2017

Marvels and Mysteries of Our Animal World

printed by Reader's Digest

Very much like a recent read, this oversize book is a collection of short articles about wildlife. It was a lot more satisfying, in fact I looked forward to reading each selection. More than just a recitation of facts, the writings include descriptions and real-life incidents. The articles seem to be extracted from a variety of periodicals and include such authors as Jean George, Alan Devoe, Roy Chapman Andrews, J.D. Ratcliff, Leicester Hemmingway, Donald and Louise Peattie, Max Eastman, Archibald Rutledge, Ivan T. Sanderson, etc. The variety of animals too great to list, but it seems to cover all the orders and classes of life- insects, birds and mammals, shrews to elephants, wolverines, camels and ground squirrels. The sociability of gulls. The baffling migration abilities of monarchs. Of course it is still an old book, so a few things that were unknown at the time, have now been puzzled out- how birds navigate, why female mosquitoes need blood. The only selection that I found disappointing was the one on horses. I was most fascinated to read about coelocanth- which prompted me to look up further information on this ancient fish. Sometimes it was a bit opinionated- a few of the authors liked to say one animal or another was very ugly- which I didn't always agree with. It tried to give a positive look at other animals I find repugnant- like the indestructible cockroach.

There was a piece near the end titled "Wildlife on the March" by Peter Finch which discussed how many species of bird and mammals seemed to be spreading into new territories over the proceeding forty or fifty years. Cattle egrets, cod, mockingbirds, coyotes, meadowlarks and possums are mentioned. The armadillo was once apparently rare outside of Texas, but at this writing it had expanded its range into Oaklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and some (escaped pets?) were living wild in Florida. Someday perhaps it will reach the southern areas of my state! The author said "Weather records from around the world indicate that temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are rising at an average rate of three degrees a century.... The Gulf Stream along the U.S. coast has warmed up about five degrees in the last 60 years.... In eastern Canada the tree line, slow to react to climatic change, has nonetheless advanced northward two miles in the last 30 years." It was rather sobering to read that- written in the 1960's without a hint of alarm- it came across as just being a point of scientific interest.

I happen to really like this photograph featured on the back cover, by Russ Kinne

At the back there are several appendixes- including a chart detailing classification of the entire animal kingdom, and an A-to-Z presentation of animals with small tidbits of text, very nice illustrations by Lowell Hess. Index is thorough. The photos are a great improvement over my last read of this kind. I'm keeping this one.

Rating: 3/5               320 pages, 1964

Oct 28, 2017

Memoirs of a Polar Bear

by Yoko Tawada 
translated by Susan Bernofsky

This is a story of a line of three polar bears who live at different points in the Soviet Union, Russia and Canada. The first story is of a bear at the end of her career in the circus, writing her autobiography. It shifts between the story as she writes it- from her younger viewpoint- to the tale of the writing process, how an editor tried to cheat her, how the public received her words and then her book slipped into obscurity. The bear for the most part acted human, but often pondered how human ways were different from things she preferred or perceived. It was strange.

The second part is the story of Tosca, the first bear's offspring. Tosca seems more like a real animal, and most people half-treat her like one, albeit with some respect for her stature. Tosca was an actress but left the stage because she was turned down for a role in play, and went to the circus. However her story is mainly told from the viewpoint of a woman who works in the circus- here the story also shifts back and forth between past and present. As a child, this woman was fascinated by the circus and volunteered to help feed the animals. Eventually she got an actual job there and became animal-tamer. She created an act with Tosca that became a huge success. Most of this section of the book seems to be about how they kept trying to come up with a good act, politics within the circus, how it was viewed by the public and the government, and the woman trainer's obsession with the bear (her husband was jealous).

The final part is shortest, and this one runs in a straight line. It is about Tosca's son Knut, who grows up in a zoo (because his mother is too busy writing her own memoir at that point to raise him herself). Knut describes his slowly opening awareness, his attachment to the man who bottle-fed him, his delight in finally being allowed outside into an enclosed space, and to take walks around the zoo until he is large enough to be considered dangerous. Then he wonders why he has to spend all his days shut up alone in the enclosure, and tries to find means to entertain himself and avoid the summer heat. He is also anxious to keep his audience, and devise means to keep humans who come to see him entertained- although other animals he meets at the zoo deride this practice. I was disappointed at the ending of this tale- it kept mentioning that Knut would soon meet his estranged mother, and then be introduced to a female polar bear the zoo hoped would be his mate. But the story stopped short before those events happened.

In all these stories the bears are more than animal- they understand human speech, they sometimes talk to people, and are sometimes understood. They learn to read, to write, recognize human tools and concepts that are beyond a real animal's understanding. They puzzle over their similarities and vast differences from humans, they long for the cold and snow-covered land of the north. In the all of the stories there is mention of social class issues and other very human concerns; the final story also has worries about global warming and polar bears going extinct. Through it all I got a very distinct sense of place and culture.

The book is really about the fine line between animal and human nature- how much can animals understand? what makes us human, compared to them? what rights do we have to treat them the way we do. But some parts of it really puzzled me, and fell into a dreamlike category. Its tone reminded me of Animal Crackers, and the meandering, strange feeling was very reminiscent of Kafka. In fact it has some references to Kafka, which I almost didn't catch at first. Someone else compared it to Dog Boy in the comments on Stefanie's blog (see link below), and I can see that too.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                           252 pages, 2014

more opinions:
James Reads Books
So Many Books
Sorry Television

Oct 26, 2017

Nature's Wonders in Full Color

edited by Charles L. Sherman

One of those larger picture-filled nature books I picked up for free, on the chance it might be good. Maybe once this was something to wow readers, but not anymore. I read the forward, where it was really apparent the authors were proud of the color photography selected for the book- but all the images are small and the quality leaves a lot to be desired. The afterward is full of advice for the wildlife photographer who wants to produce good color images, but I think it is really outdated.

In fact, I skimmed a lot of the book. When it was printed, the Audubon Society had a habit of disseminating knowledge to its members via printed pamphlets on various subjects, sent out through the mail. Then they had some writers compile info from all those pamphlets and write it up into a book. So it reads just like that- a bunch of little snippets of knowledge piled into chapters. The subjects include 'animal children', song birds, wild flowers, seeds and seed pods, flowering trees and shrubs, etc. Some were so dull and limiting in their info on each species I basically skipped over it. There are three chapters that discuss the inhabitants of a particular habitat: ponds, shallow seawater (tidepools and shorelines) and the Everglades. I did find the chapter all about eyes- from simple to complex- more interesting, and the one on camouflage. Also the one about different structures animals build, and another about 'inventions' of the natural world that mankind has copied (reminiscent of a particular scene in Encounters with Animals!) I also read the chapter about butterflies and moths in its entirety.

Some of the interesting facts I gleaned: freshwater dolphins that live in the Ganges river are blind. They have no lenses in their eyes. The water is too muddy to see, they probably evolved to just use echolocation. Thanks to this book I finally identified a large tree that grows in my sister's backyard. It has very long, beanlike seed pods. From the description, I bet it's a catalpa tree. I thought that painted lady butterflies came to my yard for the flowers- I often find them at the tithonia. But I learned that the caterpillars feed on turtlehead plants. So I shouldn't mind the holes in my turtlehead, if it means more pretty butterflies! Also, they tend to live in a small area, so I will probably have regular residents.

But I also came across a few lines of misinformation. One author states that camels store water in their humps, for example. (They don't. It's fat.) And I don't know how many other falsehoods are in here. This was an okay read for curiosity sake, but it's going in the donate pile now.

Rating: 2/5             252 pages, 1956

Oct 25, 2017

book piles and thoughts

It was my birthday last week. I found, to my delight, that the Book Thing of Baltimore had just reopened (they were closed for a year due to a fire). It is basically a free book exchange. The place holds over 200,000 donated books. I asked my husband if for my birthday treat, we could stop there (for several hours) on the way to visit family. He obliged- and I wasn't the only one who got books! We donated, too- my kids and I all cleared some space off our shelves. We gave the Book Thing three boxes full of books, and brought home five in return. My six-year-old picked out nine books (in good taste- some Little Critter, a few Golden Books and a picture book about collie puppies that I remember fondly from long ago), my teenager got about fifteen (YA fiction and some cookbooks- she's honing her skills), my husband found just over twenty- mostly on history and languages. I combed all my favorite sections: sci fi/fantasy, general fiction, travel, classics, biographies, gardening, biology, animals/nature, women's studies, anthropology and staff picks. Here's my glorious haul. I don't at all feel bad for adding so many piles to the floor in front of my TBR bookcase- it will probably be a year or more before we visit that place again.

The first two in this stack I have actually read, and been on the lookout to add to my collection. The rest, I am familiar with the authors so eager to try more of their work:
These are ones I instantly recognized because they're on my listed TBR:
A few oversize/ photography heavy books:
The ones I got just because they looked interesting:
and a few possible oops- I already had a copy of (still unread) Thirteen Moons- promptly sent this one out in the mail thru Paperback Swap when we got home. I know I have tried Mary Renault several times and not really enjoyed it... and I am pretty sure I once had a copy of Wild Animus, tried it and discarded onto the swap shelf. I guess the cover blurb caught my eye for the same reason!
The book love didn't stop there. I received a few gift cards- one for Powell's! -and after getting a few items for my aquarium, I mostly used the rest to round out my collection of Gerald Durrell. The first one arrived today- Ark on the Move (with photos!) Thumbing through it I fear I made a mistake: it has chapters about pink piegons and bats, so I think this is another case where one of his books was published under two different titles. I've also ordered Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons- and I bet it's the same text. Will have to make a few returns... I wish I could find a list somewhere of his titles pointing out which have alternative titles.

While I was updating my LThing catalog today, I took the time to add in all the titles I have on my e-reader. I didn't realize so many. One hundred. I've only read seventeen of them! It feels odd to put them in my catalog. Do you count e-books, when you're tallying up your books? They feel intangible: I often think- if my device suddenly quit working, or got lost or destroyed -all those books gone in an instant (I should copy all the files to my computer as backup). And yet there's a plus to that: if there were a fire, and I wasn't preoccupied with getting my kids safe out of the house, I'd probably grab my sketchbooks and the e-reader. It would only save a fraction of my library, but it would be something. There's so much unread stuff on it because I tend to forget they're there. Upcoming travels, it will finally see some use again.

Oct 24, 2017

The Bear

by Claire Cameron

I'm kind of on a bear-related theme.... This one also was around the blogs a lot some years ago. It's based on a true incident where a couple lost their lives to a bear while camping on a remote lakeshore. Here the author added the characters of two young children, and told the story from their point of view.

Anna is five and her little brother is almost three. At night in pitch darkness a bear enters the campsite. The children don't understand why their parents are screaming and they hide, afraid of being in trouble. As his last act their father shuts them into a large metal cooler, saving their lives. When they emerge in the morning to the wreckage of camp, it's clear from the girl's narrative that she doesn't comprehend what has happened, nor how serious the situation is. Her seriously injured mother talks her into taking her little brother for a ride in the canoe- and thus they flee to the other side of the lake. Where they stumble alone for days through the woods, suffering from hunger, cold, insect bites and more.

This was very gripping, sad and even funny in some moments. I thought the voice of the young child was really well done- it veers around a lot following trains of thought which show how the little kid's mind makes connections that might seem unreasonable to an adult. It seemed authentic- the magical thinking, the disconnect from real danger, oblivious to certain things and heightened attention to others. Through Anna's memories that crop up during the story we gradually get a wider picture of her family's history, her personality and understanding of things. She struggles to stay in control of her emotions (one moment angry at her parents for not being there, the next feeling guilty- thinking they abandoned her on purpose), to take care of her little brother, to think what to do next. I'm glad the tale didn't stop short at the point the children were found, but followed through with a few more chapters showing the aftermath, the reactions of extended family and neighbors, how the children readjusted. The parts at the end where her drawings and conversation led a therapist to make erroneous conclusions were amusing in a very sad, ironic way. The role the cooler played was completely realistic- on the author's site she even tells how she tested out this idea with a friend's kids.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5            221 pages, 2014

more opinions:
Indextrious Reader
Bibliophile by the Sea
Savidge Reads
Bermudaonion's Weblog

Oct 23, 2017

Tender Morsels

by Margo Lanagan

I saw this title quite a while ago all over the book blogs- but due to the violent nature of its opening chapters, I wasn't sure I wanted to read it. Now I'm very glad I did- while the author makes it very plain what happens during certain awful scenes, it's without the kind of graphic description that turns my stomach.

Please note: there may be spoilers.

At the beginning, fifteen-year-old Liga has lived a brutal, rough existence in a rundown cottage in the woods with her widowed father. She is too young to understand what is going on when the abuse starts. By the time she is a teenager she has two children- one from incest, the other from gang rape. Her father dies in an accident, but life continues to be so awful she decides it is better to die- and save her infant from a similar future. Before she can execute her plan, a magical being whisks her away to an alternate reality- a world very like her own, but without the danger or unkindness she has always known. The people in the village now are all vaguely pleasant- no one is judgemental or cruel. Liga raises her children in this safe environment, and would probably be content to stay there. But as her daughters grow, they long to experience more of life- something beyond their flat one-dimensional haven where nothing bad happens, and even the wolves and bears are their friends.

There's a thread to the story that involves bears- this is when I realized it was somewhat a retelling of the fairy tale Snow White, Rose Red. A nearby village in the real world has an annual tradition where young men dress up as bears and run through the streets chasing girls. At different points of the story, two of these men break through into Liga's haven, where they are men trapped in the bodies of bears. The first is gentle and kind. The second not so much- this part of the story suggests bestiality, but the young woman he's intent on rebuffs him, and soon after he returns to the real world.

There are also midwives or witches in this story, and a greedy man of short stature (who reminded me of Rip Van Winkle in a way), and ordinary village folk. The tale shifts back and forth between different viewpoints- I usually don't care for this method in fiction, but here it was fine, and felt insightful. Characters from early in the book reappear later, their narrative weaving back into the story in a way that was really well done and added a lot to the depth and complexity. It is not just about abuse- but also growing up, the closeness between sisters, the dangers of ignorance, relationships between men and women, double standards and most of all, recovery.

I was a bit put off by the scene of revenge at the end- more so than the brutalities at the beginning- but it's just the kind of wild, outraged action a teenager would want to take upon learning what horrible wrongs had been done to someone she loved. I was also a bit sad for Liga in the end, that she did not get exactly what she was hoping for- but after thinking about it for a day I realized it was enough that she learned to live in the real world again, to finally heal and adapt to taking the good with the bad, making the best of her life.

I question if this book should be marketed as YA- even though the scenes are not too explicit, there is constant, frank talk of sexuality all through the book- from the mouths of nearly all the characters. The unmannered prose in which the story is told reflects well the rustic setting- in some places it is lovely and lyrical, in others amusingly frank. It reminded me a lot of the way The Book of Ruth is written, or Top Dog by Jerry Carroll.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5                  436 pages, 2008

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot
A Striped Armchair
Reading Rants
Fyrefly's Book Blog
Rhapsody in Books
Eva's Book Addiction
Regular Rumination
Wright Lines
books i done read
Six Boxes of Books

Oct 20, 2017

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

by Mary E. Pearson

Jenna Fox survives an accident that she shouldn't have. She wakes up from a year-long coma not knowing who she is. Her family has moved her to a remote, secluded location- in order to facilitate her healing process, they tell her. She slowly pieces her life together, watching old family videos and gathering fragments of memory. But then she can remember things she shouldn't be able to, and pretty soon starts to figure out that there is something definitely odd about her situation. She is alone with her mother and grandmother, her father sometimes visiting. Why did they move so far from home? where are the friends she recalls having? and why are her parents keeping secrets from her...

In many ways the premise is so like Eva- I kept thinking of the other book and comparing the two. They both bring up issues of how we use resources, ethics in the medical field, and how one family's desperate move to save a child becomes a huge thing. In Eva it turned into a public spectacle, in Jenna Fox the story is much more centered on personal discovery and individual family- the main character ends up knowing only a few other teens at a small private school, and one neighbor. But still, the implications and questions raised by the narrative are large.

It's not just about the ethics of making decisions for others- it's also very much about living up to expectations, how much a child might push herself to please her parents- and then what if she doesn't want to anymore. I particularly like this page from the book that reads like a poem:

Pieces

A bit for someone here.
A bit there.
And sometimes they don't add up to anything whole.
But you are so busy dancing.
Delivering.
You don't have time to notice.
Or are afraid to notice.
And then one day you have to look.
And it's true.
All of your pieces fill up other people's holes.
But they don't fill
your own.

Borrowed from the public library. I'm not sure yet if I want to read the sequels. They seem to go into a popular trope of YA dystopian fiction- group of young people rebelling against a big institution. Not sure if I will enjoy that as much.

Rating: 3/5             266 pages, 2008

more opinions:
The Sleepless Reader
Reading Rants
Rhapsody in Books
Dear Author
Small Review

Blind to Betrayal

Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren't Being Fooled
by Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell

I saw this book sitting on a table at my friend's house, and when for a moment I picked it up idly and started reading a segment, she offered to loan it to me. So I read it out of curiosity. In short spurts, over the past few weeks.

It's about the psychological phenomenon where a person can be so invested in keeping their situation safe, that they literally turn a blind eye to things that are wrong in a relationship. Why do people stay in bad relationships, why remain on at a workplace where something very wrong is going on behind the scenes? It's usually because subconsciously they know that admitting or recognizing the real issues will threaten their security. The most common example here is a person who does not realize their spouse is being unfaithful, even when there are obvious signs and everyone around them knows. This was the most frequent type of instance mentioned in the book. The other common one was of childhood abuse- children blank out or forget what was done to them, sometimes only remembering years later. Because to know that a person their very lives depended upon was harming them, is too risky. There are also other cases given- in the workplace, the military, governments and institutions. Denials of rights, or compensation, or support, or even just recognition. The biggest one, but it was only mentioned a few times, loomed large in my mind (probably because of a recent book I read): the Holocaust.

It's not only about how denial of trauma can occur in people's minds; the book is also about how these things can finally be recognized, how the person who suffered wrong can heal from it, how to be a good listener if someone is revealing past trauma to you, and how future wrongs can be prevented. The most interesting chapter to me was the one about mental and physical health issues caused by the betrayals. When someone you trust hurts you so fundamentally, especially as a child- it damages your ability to develop healthy relationships in the future. There were instances where the authors actually conducted studies with trauma survivors to see how their mental and emotional abilities were compared to other people. It was very interesting.

But overall also an upsetting book to read, even though the details were kept minimal, and (except with some famous cases), the reports were all made anonymous. Quite a few of them are repeated through the book, as various aspects of the subject are discussed. The most telling was in the final chapters, where one of the authors tells about her own experiences with a serious betrayal of trust. That section of the book felt like the largest revelation. The rest of it, many of the examples felt too simplistic- probably to keep identities private- but I frequently wondered what else there was to know.

Rating: 2/5             201 pages, 2013

Oct 19, 2017

The Night Fairy

by Laura Amy Schlitz

Brief little tale about a fairy who lives in a garden. But it's not sweet- this is a story of survival skills- miniature-sized. The fairy in the book looses her wings, and all the other fairies fly off without her. She is forced to figure out how to survive on her own- surrounded by all sorts of threats and obstacles. She's not a very nice character at first- determined and resourceful yes, but also demanding, selfish and a bit vindictive. A feisty little fairy, which suited her situation very well. Through the story she has to find a safe shelter and avoid aggressive creatures- the spider and a preying mantis are particularly dangerous. She's terrified of bats. She coerces a squirrel into doing her bidding but then sees a hummingbird in flight and is determined to make the bird carry her around. The hummingbird doesn't give in- she has duties, a nest of eggs to protect. The fairy has to re-think her approach if she really wants to get the bird to cooperate... She also has to learn how to channel and use her magic powers. That aspect of the story wasn't nearly as interesting to me as her interactions with the animals, but it gives her some security because she can do things in spite of her small size to defend herself or overcome difficulties.

I was kind of surprised how much I enjoyed this one. I thought from the cover it would be cute- but it was much more serious. I particularly liked that the details about the wildlife in the garden were very true to nature- the hummingbird is very territorial and falls into a state of torpor during the night, for example. The squirrel was such a character.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           122 pages, 2010

more opinions:
Puss Reboots
Charlotte's Library
Fantasy Book Critic

All Black Cats Are Not Alike

by Amy Goldwasser

This is a fun, quirky little book featuring black cats. Real black cats, whose owners or caretakers or slaves offered their names and details to be included in the book (it was a kickstarter thing). Each page shows the cat's face and tells some little tidbit about their quirky habits and personalities. There are cats that hate people, or love them. Cats who despise their own kind, cats who rule. Cats who like cheetos, lick plastic, stick their noses in people's ears. Endearing cats, annoying cats, all of them very much different from each other. What I didn't care for in this book were the occasional references to popular culture or famous people, which never sits well with me. It feels a bit snarky, New York- style.

The illustrations by Peter Arkle really make the book. You think -of course- at a glance that one black cat is very like another- there's one down the street from us that I often mistake for my own when I see it walking on the sidewalk. But the faces are so distinct here- the slant and expression in the eyes, the shapes of their noses, tilts of their ears, texture of the fur. The artist really captured their individuality. I like how the spread of the inside cover shows them all. Here's a sample:
Rating: 2/5           120 pages, 2016

Oct 18, 2017

Pegasus

by Robin McKinley

The princess is waiting for a special day when she will be magically bound to a pegasus from the land across the mountains- in honor of a treaty made centuries ago between their two kindgdoms. In this world, pegasi are not mere horses with wings. They are fully sentient beings, with an ancient culture, with their own language and customs. It's a story about two very alien races in an uneasy co-existence. Their interactions have been guided and shaped for centuries by rules and rituals- for the safety of all, say the powerful magicians.  Who hold a lot of power, because only magicians or Speakers who have studied their entire lives, can translate between pegasus language and humans. But when the princess- fourth child of the king and thus of not much consequence- is bound to her pegasus, something extraordinary happens. It is not just a ritual, it becomes a real thing. She can talk to her pegasus in an easy, direct way no one else has before. They develop a real friendship, and start to make some discoveries about each other's worlds. Discoveries which stand to threaten the status quo....

I was eager to read this one, but had trouble finishing it. I saw where the setup was leading to, but it never got there, so the last twenty or forty or more pages lost my interest, and I had to force myself through. McKinley is one of my favorite authors, but this one was difficult for me. I really like the ideas in it, the execution- not so much. It has a lot of formalities, so many explanations, so much building up to something that won't happen until a sequel, now. Sigh. But I bet I'll read it anyway- I do like the characters and the world-building is intriguing. I want to see how it ends.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5             404 pages, 2010

more opinions:
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Aelia Reads
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Ela's Book Blog
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Oct 13, 2017

Pacific Marine Fishes Book 3

Fishes of Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the Maldive Islands and Mombasa
by Warren Burgess and Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod

It's odd to say I read this book, as it was more a motion of looking at the pictures. The first half of it was rather disappointing: the many pictures of wrasse species for example, are dark and dull with very little of their vivid colors showing. Later pages also show many fish with grayed or washed out color (probably because they were taken after the dead fish were lifted from the water); a lot of the specimens also are in poor condition with signs of decay and deteriorating fins. (Maybe if I wasn't a fishkeeper, I wouldn't notice these things). However there also also plenty with clear definition of scales and pattern, and I am really intrigued with the curiously cute images of some butterfly fish and surgeon fish at a very young age- just past the larval stage it says. Also really cool are the photos showing filefish mimics compared to the puffers they imitate- it is very hard for me to tell the difference! The text itself wasn't nearly as interesting as the pictures. I do not recall a single instance of it describing anything about behavior- it's all physical description and things like how many fin rays or what kind of tooth structure defines one species from the next. Oh well. I'm keeping this one in my collection because it's part of the set, and I do find plenty of the photos interesting to look at - enough so that I often wish to draw the fishes, when I look through one of these books.

Rating: 2/5               277 pages, 1973

Oct 9, 2017

East

by Edith Pattou

~ seems I can't help it, there are some spoilers in this post ~

This was a really good story. It's pretty hefty but I was so intent on the reading I hardly noticed the length. It's a retelling of the folktale, East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Some aspects of the story were very reminiscent of Beauty- young woman of her free will goes to live with a wild creature in an enchanted castle, where she must figure out how to break the spell and free the man inside the beast...

Our heroine, Ebba Rose, is born to a mother who strongly believes in superstition. In this case, she's fixated on what direction her babe is facing when it enters the world. Rose was born facing north- destined to be a wanderer, no matter how much her mother tried to keep her tame and close to home. Her father loves mapmaking but has been struggling to make ends meet as a farmer. Her family is on really hard times- one of her sisters is seriously ill and the family is near starving- when their door bursts open during a storm and a large polar bear speaks to them. He states that if Rose will accompany him, the sister will recover and the family will prosper. Once they get over their shock at the bear's visit, the family falls into denial- it is a crazy idea, it can't be true- animals don't talk- but Rose herself is intrigued and has always wanted to travel, has often played as a child of having a white bear companion. So she goes, against her father's wishes.

On a strange, swift journey with the bear through the forest, under an ocean, across an icy land to a castle inside a mountain. With rooms of comforts, books on shelves, musical instruments, and a beautiful loom. Rose happens to love weaving- it was a really nice touch to have this skill and art as a central thread to the story. She spends her time working at the loom, studying the books, trying to interact with the mysterious servants- who are trolls- and getting used to the fitful company of a nearly-silent polar bear. She doesn't figure out the enchantment until it is almost too late- and then has to undo her error in being too hasty with curiosity. This has always been an odd sticking point in the original story- who in their right mind would think it normal to sleep next to a stranger in the dark, night after night. Rose tries to explain it away- her feeling of dread, of breaking some taboo- but it is her mother who finally gives her the means to see the stranger in the dark. And then she has to go on a difficult journey further north, to find the man-who-was-a-bear and bring him safely home (if he wants to come) from the wicked Troll Queen's clutches.

I really liked that most of the characters were fairly complex. The mother is superstitious and worries about her children, but is the only one who encourages Rose to go with the bear in the first place. The bear, a man trapped inside a beast, struggles to keep his human nature alive for years and years- and when he is finally released from the spell- he finds himself completely at a loss. The Troll Queen isn't simply evil- but consumed by longing, a love for the human boy she once saw which becomes a desire to possess him- resulting in his enchantment inside a bear as punishment. The whole section of the story where Rose is in the Trolls' realm was eerily reminiscent in some ways of aspects of the Holocaust- I could not help thinking of it when I read the part that describes how the human slaves were done away with, when their usefulness was over....

Anyway, in spite of a few flaws- I didn't understand for one thing, why the bear was suffering punishment when the Troll Queen was the one who had done wrong- I found it a richly enjoyable book, one to get immersed in.

Rating: 4/5                507 pages, 2005

more opinions:
Book Smugglers
Ivy Book Bindings
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Oct 6, 2017

Book of a Thousand Days

by Shannon Hale

Dashti didn't know what she was getting herself into when she swore to serve as the lady Saren's maid, but she promised to stick to her duty. Lady Saren has refused the lord her father wished her to marry- she loves another. As punishment she is locked in a tower for seven years, Dashti along with her. The first part of the story is about the darkness, the boredom, the taunts of soldiers who guard their tower. Then they find rats, and silence outside, and fear starvation. So after several long years they break out of the tower, discovering that the world outside has changed... The two young women make their way through a demolished kingdom to a new land, where they find work in a castle as kitchen scullery-maids. Only to find, to their surprise, that the Lord of the castle is the same man Saren had loved- and he's now betrothed to another. Dashti begs Lady Saren to admit her identity but Saren is too timid, commanding Dashti (a mere commoner) to act in her place. How can Dashti choose- to go back on the oath she took to obey her Lady Saren, or to impersonate one of the gentry, which is a punishable crime?

The setting of this tale is medieval Mongolia, which was new for me and there's a delightful amount of detail about folklore, superstition and beliefs woven into the story. The main character sings healing songs. And I love the cat. One of the most poignant scenes in the book involves the cat. For a relatively short, YA novel it has a good amount of character depth and development. There were a lot of things I didn't expect- the appearance of skinwalkers, for example. The subtle contrast of good and evil. It's nice to see a change in roles- the princess was really a shirking, unpleasant person and her maid Dashti is the real heroine of the story. When the end was near, I saw what was coming but couldn't imagine how the author would work out all the details in a believable fashion. But it worked out amazingly well. Very clever.

I didn't know a lot about this story going into it, and that's part of the fun. It's based on a fairy tale I'd never heard of- the Grimm's Maid Maleen. The author reworked this tale into something unique, and I enjoyed it very much.

Rating: 3/5            312 pages, 2007

more opinions:
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Bookshelves of Doom

Oct 5, 2017

Yellow Star

by Jennifer Roy

This fictionalized account is based on the childhood of the author's aunt. She- Syvia- lived with her family in a ghetto in Poland from 1939-1945. Syvia was only four and a half years old when it began. She was one of very few survivors- only twelve children made it out of that ghetto alive at the end of the war. She was silent about her experiences for forty years, until sharing her story in a series of interviews with her neice.

The story is told in free verse. I don't often read narrative told via poetry. In this case I think keeping the details brief makes a story about the Holocaust easier for young readers to handle (this is a j-fiction book). But it also left me feeling unconnected to the characters- it's more about what happened to them, then about them as individuals. Syvia's story tells of living in privation, locked behind a fence in the ghetto. Leaving all their belongings behind, living in crowded conditions with few comforts. No school or playtime. Facing illness and starvation. Watching people getting shipped away in the cattle cars, told they were being sent to places where workers were needed, but after a while they began to doubt that.  Syvia lost her friends and a cousin, one simply disappeared when she went outside. Her family worried for her safety so she remained in the small, barren apartment and could not even approach windows, for fear of attracting the soldiers' attention. Her older sister escaped the camps by lying about her age so she could work in a factory. When children were deliberately targeted to be sent on the trains, Syvia's father and other men in the ghetto made a daring move to hide the remaining children in a cellar. There they stayed for months in the dark, barely daring to make a sound and weak from hunger and cold. Liberation came just in time.

The prevailing feeling that comes through is so- dismal. Having read a lot about the Holocaust before (especially in my high school years) I knew what to expect in many parts of the story, but it still brought me close to tears reading about the suffering, through the eyes of a child. And of the awful risks people took to save others. In some instances, a detail that saved many people from certain death was incredibly fortuitous.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5             242 pages, 2006

Oct 4, 2017

Paddle to the Amazon

by Don Starkell

In 1980, Don Starkell and his two sons undertook an amazing canoe journey- at the time, it was a world-record accomplishment. They paddled a 21-foot canoe from Winnipeg, Canada to the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil. 12,000 miles in two years. I've written about this book before, but that time was from memory, I hadn't actually read it in over a decade. Now having obtained my own copy through a book swap, I enjoyed reading it again.

Their canoe journey took the Starkells down the Red River and the Mississippi, along the Gulf of Mexico's coastline, past the Panama Canal (they were denied entry- which would have been just for fun), traversing the coasts of Colombia and Venezuela, down the Orinoco River and up the Amazon through Brazil. They suffered many hardships- some of which I remembered vividly- salt sores, hunger, exhaustion. A lot of the trip was in ocean waters which sounded incredibly difficult and dangerous. One of the sons dropped out not long into the journey. The other, Dana, struggled with asthma for much of the trip, then found the South American climate agreed with him and he was able to quit using his medication. They travelled through thirteen countries- in some areas were met with great generosity and hospitality, in other places strong suspicion and thievery. They undertook quite a few grueling portages, a few times across an isthmus where they insisted on hauling the boat on a trailer by hand, refusing assistance offered with vehicles because they wanted to make the entire journey via manpower. A lot of people thought they'd never make it to the end, and sometimes they thought that, themselves. Don says he'd never do it again- but years later he made another canoe journey from Canada to the Arctic, which I'd like to read someday.

My memory had exaggerated some things and dismissed others. In my mind, the incidents involving snakes and crocodiles had stood out for years, but upon re-reading, those things were really minor. They had one close encounter with an anaconda (approaching it to take a photo) but all the crocs they saw were at a distance, none threatened. This time around I noticed the writing about the scenery, and descriptions about how various native people eked out a living on the coast. Don sometimes mused on how travelling by canoe equated his experience with that of early explorers- in some cases he used their writings to know what to expect on little-travelled stretches of river. My favorite part of the book was the last thirty pages, which describes their journey on the actual Amazon River- lots of wildlife sightings.

Rating: 4/5         316 pages, 1987

Sep 26, 2017

Lady with a Spear

by Eugenie Clark

Memoir about her younger years, when Eugenie Clark as a budding marine biologist travelled the world's oceans to collect fishes for science. It starts with how her interest in fish was sparked by long days spent at a public aquarium while her mother was working, and she pursued this into university studies. She describes first learning to dive, to use different netting techniques, and most of all, to track down individual fish and capture them with a spear. Her travels for study took her to the South Sea Islands where native fishermen would help her find rare fish. Even when language was a barrier, her requests were usually met with enthusiasm. Many of the natives she met had never seen a white woman before, much less one who was a scientist and went fishing. I liked reading the descriptions of strange, unusual fish and other marine life. The constant killing for collections, not so much. Even though I understand her reasoning why it was important to get all the specimens out of particular chosen tidepool, it is still a bit distressing to read of how the entire population of the pool would be knocked woozy with poison dropped in the water, and then promptly dropped into preserving fluid.... which happened to impress the locals very much. She made careful inquiries of the locals at each island which fishes were good eating (and often sampled them, including raw) and which they assumed were poisonous, and sent samples off to a lab which tested them for poison. It was a survey to find out which fish naturally carried venom, which were only poisonous in certain locales or at certain times of year due to what they ate, and which were not poisonous at all, even though the locals assumed so. At different times she was stationed in marine laboratories, and describes several extended stays in Hawaii, Guam, and on the Red Sea. She explains some experiments done on captive fishes in the lab- to study for the first time the reproductive behavior of guppies, and to learn more about visual memory using marine gobies. Those were pretty interesting. Sharks also come into the book, at the very end when she also talks briefly about meeting her future husband Ilias.

I am not sure which book I like best- this one is certainly less formal, being just as much a travel diary as it is a description of fishing and diving for scientific inquiry. Mostly, it is an intriguing look at marine fishes through the eyes of one who studied them with a lifelong passion.

Rating: 4/5               243 pages, 1951