Dec 31, 2018

2018 Stats

Total books read- 138

Fiction- 61
Non-fiction- 70

fiction breakdown
YA-3
Fantasy/Sci-Fi- 26
J Fiction- 26
Picture Books- 1
Animals- 18
Classics- 1
Poetry- 2

non-fiction breakdown
Art- 5
Gardening/Food- 7
J Nonfiction- 4
Memoirs- 23
Nature- 11
Animals- 49
Other- 5

other formats
Short Stories- 4
Graphic Novels- 11
E-Books- 8

sources
Owned- 98
Public Library- 36
Borrowed from friend/relative- 3
Received from publisher/author- 1

re-reads- 4
abandoned books- 9

Notes: the numbers don't add up perfectly. Lots of titles span more than one category, for example, so this is just a rough idea of what my reading year looked like. I read a lot more fantasy/sci-fi this year- most of those were Animorphs books, short and fun. My interest in animals continues to be a major part of my reading, but I also picked up more memoirs this year than before. Fiction and Non-fiction was pretty even, and as in the past few years I read more books out of my own collection than from the library.

Some of the foreign places I visited in the pages: the Congo, Gombe, Haiti, Peru, India, Brazil, Antarctica, Great Britian, Namibia, Yemen, the island of Corfu, and several fantasy worlds.

Now for the best reads of the year. Fascinating book about bird life with gorgeous photographs: The Living Bird published by the Cornell lab of Ornithology.  Another favorite was also avian: The Parrot Who Owns Me by Joanna Burger, Very memorable for its thoughtfulness: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. A vivid novella I won't forget easy: Stickeen by John Muir, with some stunning nature writing and a small courageous dog. A very different kind of read for me was Trashed by Derf Backderf, graphic novel about working as a garbage collector. And I have to mention GoatMan. It was the weirdest book ever.

Great fiction: All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner. Must read me some more Stegner! Favorite graphic novel of the year: El Zoo Petrificado by Joris Chamblain. Look for the English version if you can. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, about a teen with mental illness, was very good. I also really liked The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, that one was hard to put down.

So many I can't name them all here. My 4/5- Great Book tag has more wonderful reads! 

Dec 30, 2018

Last Chance to See

by Douglas Adams
and Mark Cardwardine

Sci-fi author (famous for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) travels the world to view some of the most endangered animals on the planet, before they are gone. He goes to Madagascar to see the aye-aye, to Komodo for the iconic giant lizards, to Zaire for the mountain gorillas and northern white rhino (there were twenty living at the time), to New Zealand in hopes of finding a kakapo, to China in search of the Yangtze river dolphin, to Mauritius to see the Rodrigues fruit bat and some endangered birds as well. Some of these he just caught a glimpse of (the aye-aye), other animals he was able to observe up close. I was surprised what a fun read this was, in spite of its grave subject matter- it's kind of a wild travelogue, and the author's humor in describing situations frequently sparked a laugh. To note, in the years since this book was written, the river dolphin is presumed extinct, the northern white rhino is functionally so (down to two individuals), the fruit bat is increasing in numbers, komodo dragons are doing okay (listed as vulnerable), kakapo appears to be gradually recovering (their reproduction rate is incredibly slow), the gorilla and aye-aye are still very much endangered. When I read this book I was impressed at the actions the Chinese took to save the river dolphin, but it wasn't enough. Similar book, although now outdated in terms of the animals' predicament (and not nearly as enjoyable a read) : Wild Echoes.

Rating: 3/5               220 pages, 1990

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot 
anyone else?

Dec 29, 2018

Sheep

by Valerie Hobbs

Young border collie leaves his farm when sudden hard times hit the farmer and his wife. Spends the rest of the book looking for a good home, in particular one where he can herd sheep again, knowing that is his life's purpose. Has a short stint in a pet shop, then with a spoiled child who treats him like a toy. He runs off, meets up with some tramps and later an odd character that travels with a bunch of goats pulling a caravan. Gets caught on the street and put in the pound, where a new owner finds him- a cruel circus man who makes him learn tricks by beating him. All the circus animals are miserable; the border collie finally strikes out in a confusing scene involving an elephant, but a female dog he's become enamored of in the circus refuses to leave with him. Wandering again, he finally takes up with a lonely boy in an orphanage.

I might have liked this book. The dog knew a bit too much to be a credible animal character, while being woefully ignorant of other things that affected him closely. I could have overlooked that, though. The strange part was how closely certain stages of this book echoed other stories I know- which really got annoying to be honest. The tramps were very much like Lennie and George in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. The orphanage scenes reminded me strongly of They Cage the Animals at Night. The Goat Man and the circus made me think of other books too- Hurry Home Candy is one. The character of the dog was nice (he went through a whole slew of names as he met different people) but I started rolling my eyes at easily recognized tropes and skimming through the chapters.

I read this one sitting in a thrift store, waiting for my teenager to look at clothes. I nearly finished the book- enough to know I didn't really want to bring it home.

Abandoned                 144 pages, 2009

More opinions: ExUrbanis anyone else?

Dec 27, 2018

The Last Rhinos

My Battle to Save One of the World's Greatest Creatures
by Lawrence Anthony
with Graham Spence

This man saw that something needed to be done in attempt to save the northern white rhinoceros from extinction in the Congo, so he went there, and did something about it. It was not quite the read I expected, but riveting nonetheless. He basically plunged into a war zone in an attempt to find a remaining handful of rhinos and remove them to a safe location. This goal was far more complicated than can be imagined. Logistics, politics, lack of infrastructure, dangerously armed poachers, safety issues- it was bogged down at every step. Felt like I was reading a war story half the time, that's how volatile the area was. Much to the author's surprise, he found himself acutely involved in attempts at peace talks between two brutally warring factions- sidetracked from the efforts to save the rhinos- but he stepped up to the occasion and did his best to convey information and goodwill. When things weren't progressing on the rhino project, he would return home for a breather to his wildlife reserve at Thula Thula. It was very satisfying to read more about the elephants Lawrence had struggled to settle into his reserve (there's actually more on personal encounters with them in this book than rhinos) but disheartening the immense difficulties he faced in trying to work on behalf of the rhinos. Of that subspecies, only two are still alive in the world today. Not much hope. In spite of the serious subject matter, this book did make me laugh several times- it's nice the author kept his humor, and there's plenty of hair-raising adventures in here as well.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5          327 pages, 2012

Dec 26, 2018

The Impossible Knife of Memory

by Laurie Halse Anderson

It's been a while since I read a book by this author, so I had forgotten how much I liked her writing. It's vivid. And funny in parts. And oh, so difficult- what the characters go through. Anderson doesn't shy away from tough subjects. I guess I'm getting old, I blinked at some of the stuff that seemed the norm for highschoolers in this story. Little things, like big screens installed in the cafeteria showing the news, announcements and lists of names: kids who have to report to the office for counseling or discipline. Or the gym class being staffed by volunteers who don't care because funding got pulled (where I live, pretty sure art and music would be cut before physical education!) Larger things, such as teens posting internet photos of their naked body parts to get back at each other- but in the story they shrug it off as something totally normal. More ominous, the main character's best friend starts popping pills- first stolen from her mother's cupboard, later bought outright. And Haley herself has the tension of a growing attraction to a boy, which - eventually- she would really like to consummate, but pregnancy is a big NO. The author is frank and straightforward about what teens go through.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The protagonist, Hayley, is something of a newcomer to the highschool scene. She'd been travelling the country in her dad's big rig until he decided to settle down and quit trucking for a while- in her grandmother's now-empty house. Hayley soon finds friendship with a girl down the street she knew as a kid but barely remembers. She is kind of a typical teen- standoffish and sullen, acerbic in wit, smart but not wanting to fit into the system. Her conversations with peers in and out of the school setting are just brilliant (writing, that is). Hayley lives with a huge burden that she is very slow to reveal to her new friends: her father, a war veteran, suffers from PTSD and it is all Hayley can do to keep him going and avoid the blows.

It took me a while to realize that Hayley herself was struggling with many of the same things her father did- flashbacks to terrifying moments from her childhood, large gaps in her memory. Reluctance to accept help from authorities. Pushing away her friends when they got too close. But the boy in the story- he's so good for her- and not without his own flaws or it would have been too perfect- and in the end helps Hayley face some of her fears and patch things together. He's got his own difficulties as well- an older sibling with addiction that ruins his family- and her other friend has battling parents on the verge of divorce- they all have it so hard. I guess that's what makes this book feel so real. I couldn't put it down.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5              391 pages, 2014

more opinions:
Reading Rants
Waking Brain Cells
Beth Fish Reads
Good Books and Good Wine
Annette's Book Spot

Dec 23, 2018

8th Grade Spooky Stories

by Mrs. Kelley's Class
River Bend Middle School 2017-2018

This slim volume is in the same vein as This I Believe- stories written by students, then printed and bound by an online service. I had much the same reaction as to the previous collection of student essays- but in this case was able to just enjoy the reading experience, glossing over the typos and grammar mistakes. It felt more like an actual book in my hands- the presentation in that regard well done. A bit awkward that the pages seemed to be direct facsimiles of papers the students had turned in- so all the fonts different not only in style and size but also weight- some the ink so faint it was difficult read.

Regardless, I found it entertaining. The stories in here feature ghosts, demons, creepy monsters (one made of something described as black noodles), haunted houses. There's a story about a swarm of spiders, and another with a mutant plant creature that eats people. I don't usually watch horror films, but even I could see where some of the inspiration came from, with familiar elements- orphans and a well reminiscent of The Ring, a ghost of a starving child that crawls out of a television, one with idea very like Mirrors, another with a creepy rocking chair, etc. A story in here that made me stop and think what? at the end was "The Call," even though the material felt typical.

A few were unique to me. One about a creature that crawled out of the Rhine, showing up over decades- and I laughed at the conversation the monster had with a person it caught, about who was the present "leader" of Britain. The ending was confusing though. The other that caught my attention was actually quite disturbing- seemed to be about an inner struggle, very descriptive but kinda hard to figure out. I think it was depicting self loathing or fear, the person in the story apparently killed part of her own persona in the end. Two other stories that I found a bit disturbing had a parent suddenly turn violent- in one case possessed by a demon, in the other the parent was just suddenly evil and became the terrifying, threatening entity the kid was desperate to escape from.

Part of the whole collection that started to amuse me was noticing certain words repeated though many of the stories- I think it must have been a vocabulary list the students were supposed to make use of. Including: derision, nonentity, haggard, audacity, trepidation, pulsating, raucous, supposition and premises. Those words just started to stand out through the pages, particularly since I read all the stories in one sitting.

My daughter made the cover illustration!

Rating: 3/5           48 pages, 2017

Dec 22, 2018

Following Fifi

My Adventures Among Wild Chimpanzees:
Learning Lessons from our Closest Relatives
by John Crocker

The author, an MD, works in a family medical practice. Much earlier as a college student, he had the opportunity to spend eight months in Gombe, as a student field assistant for Jane Goodall's chimpanzee research. This book is in three parts: the first tells of his experiences in the Gombe forest: following the chimps to take notes on their behavior while also learning about a very different culture among the local Tanzanians. In particular he was very intrigued by observing the parenting styles of different chimpanzee mothers, and how their offspring fared. Leaving was very difficult, and so was completing medical school. He often drew on his memories of the time in Tanzania to help himself focus, relax or more closely connect to his surroundings. The second part is mostly about how the time at Gombe influenced the rest of his life. How he applied lessons he learned in patience and being in the moment, to everyday challenges. Particularly how he applied what he'd observed about innate primate behavior, to understanding the needs of patients he treated, and of his own children. Finally, in the last section he writes about returning to Gombe over thirty years later, with his own grown son, to visit the research area again. A few of the chimps he had once followed through the forest were still there: Frodo and Freud all grown up themselves. He made connections again with a local guide who had been his close friend and companion during his original stay, and visited his home village. He reflected on many things that had changed in Gombe over the ensuing years, on how the trip affected his son's view of the world, and their own relationship. He also tells, many times through the book, of what it was like to know the famed Jane Goodall, to sit and have conversations with her, to participate in a small way in her research.

Having read In the Shadow of Man and a few other works by Jane Goodall when I was an impressionable teenager- starting my lifelong love of reading nonfiction about wildlife studies- I was already familiar with the chimpanzee study, and recognized the names of many, and some of the stories about them recounted here- especially Fifi, daughter of Flo. It was something of a treat to revisit all that in a new way through the eyes of Dr. Crocker.

Some things really struck me. The account of when Crocker climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his friend- unprepared, other than renting boots. He noticed on his return thirty-six years later, a distinct decline in the amount of snow on the summit (this time viewed from the airplane). Another was about a night he decided, as a young man working in Gombe, to sleep one night in a chimp's nest. He thought it would give him a feeling of peace and connection to the animals, but instead it was uncomfortable at best, even frightening. This was just mentioned briefly in the beginning of the book, recounted in more detail later when he relates how he told this story to his young sons, who (touchingly) added their own details with later retellings.

In whole, it's an interesting and inspiring book, with lots of reflection and thoughtful lessons learned. I'm glad I read it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               269 pages, 2017

Dec 17, 2018

World Made by Hand

by James Howard Kunstler

Post-apocalyptic fiction that felt pretty realistic (as far as I can guess)- until I got to the last few chapters. It's set in time a decade after an oil crises, severe economic collapse, bombings of LA and DC and a widespread flu virus that erased most of the population. The small upstate NY community in the novel is isolated from the outside world- modern conveniences that ran on electricity or anything made by large corporations is gone, medicine is rudimentary, government services no longer exist, people get by doing manual labor, growing crops, spending all their time making what they need to survive. In some areas people live in near-starvation and squalor, many suffer or just plain go crazy. I found interesting the ideas about what aspects of our current way of life would remain- and what things would disappear or becoming obsolete immediately. The author portrayed people falling back into an agrarian society where men basically ruled and women worked in the home. There were few women portrayed in the book and I rather felt sorry for their condition and lack of choices. Who knows if it would really turn out this way. Also the uprising of religious fervor, which becomes key to the story arc in this book.

There's a wealthy man who sets up a huge plantation-like operation, putting other people- desperate for a stable living situation- into basically serfdom or slavery. There's a group of thugs who commandeer the landfill and mine it for useful materials, trading them to the townspeople at extortion rates. There's a religious group that moves in and takes up residence in the empty school building, living in secretive, cult-like conditions. And our main character is a man who just works day to day to sustain himself, until he realizes the town is slowly crumbling- so he goes on a downriver trip to find some missing men, he galvanizes others to fix their water system (luckily they have a reservoir at higher elevation, so it still functions with gravity), he gets involved in an attempt to bring justice to some misdeeds in town (ranging from murder and theft to the religious group forcibly cutting off other men's beards!) Most of the narrative proceeds at a quiet, musing pace (in spite of the lawlessness and violence)- with reflections on what has been lost to the past, while noting the emptiness of parking lots and strip malls, the rising abundance of fish and insect life. But at the end it takes a weird turn, with inexplicable happenings that are never explained and the hint of magic or spiritual influence was so unlike the rest of the story, it rather put me off. I suppose it was useful to spark some to follow the book into its sequel, but it killed interest for me. Just felt too strange.

Rating: 3/5                 317 pages, 2008

Dec 11, 2018

Changespell Legacy

by Doranna Durgin

Sequel to Dun Lady's Jess and Changespell. Something terrifying is happening in Camolen- magic gets warped in random places, destroying anything it touches. A group of prominent wizards goes to investigate- and the only known survivor of the encounter is a palomino horse. What infrastructure the magic world has starts to crumble; at first people don't know anything has happened, then widespread panic begins. Jess and her companions get heavily involved- Carey and the others decide their only chance to find out what happened is to turn the palomino into a person, and question him. Jess is upset by this idea- and only goes along with it because she can help the horse make the transition- finding suddenly that she relates to him far better than she ever did to Carey. She deliberately spends long periods of time in horse form later in the book- in part embittered by her recent human experiences, her trust shaken, her difficulties in understanding the human world exacerbated by current issues. There was a lot in here about how the magic worked, how different factions tried to control it, and even how new innovations and greed suddenly affected the environment in ways that threatened everyone. I found all the ideas very interesting- but getting through the middle of the book was something of a slog. The characters were still not very well drawn for me; the only ones I got a strong sense of were Jess and the palomino man- but in spite of his (unwilling) role in the heightened events, he didn't get a lot of page time which disappointed me. I found that when some of the longstanding characters struggled with loyalties, frustrations and even debilitating injuries I just did not care that much, did not get a real sense of them as people, and read impatiently for the story to get back to Jess and the palomino. Oh well. The ending was pretty good- and left enough intriguing openings for another sequel- if the author ever writes one I'll look for it.

Rating: 3/5                  429 pages, 2002

Dec 7, 2018

How To Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps

by A. Merc Rustad

I really liked this one too, although it made me feel troubled and sad. But the ending is hopeful. The main character, Tesla, doesn't quite fit in with the norm- can't always figure out how to make human connections work, uses rational thinking and list-making. Tesla has a pretend boyfriend, and has fallen in love with a robot- in fact, Tesla wishes to actually become a robot. The robot in question is outdated and going to be scrapped for parts, but perhaps it is fixable. Tesla decides that as transforming into a robot seems impossible, and fixing up the robot proving very difficult, it might be easier just not to be alive. Thankfully Tesla has friends around, and the fake-boyfriend's new real boyfriend proves to be very understanding as well. Much as this story tugged at my heartstrings, I wished for more (usually the case when I find good short stories). Why isn't it longer? I would have gladly read a whole novel of this.

Also found via Jenny's Reading the End blog, read it on Lightspeed.

Rating: 4/5          Sept 2018

Thirty Three Percent Joe

by Suzanne Palmer

Going a bit outside the norm, here. I read a short story- in two sittings- from ClarkesWorld thanks to Jenny. Futuristic piece about a solider who keeps getting injured and sent back out to battle with repairs- cybernetic replacement parts which are "smart" and not only restore Joe's function, but communicate with each other. Half the story is a log of these smart replacements talking to each other- Joe's new Elbow, Ear, Lower Intestinal Tract, etc- and the other half relates what Joe himself experiences. He doesn't want to be in the war. He is constantly embarrassed by his ineptitude on the battlefield. He finds out that the other soldiers believe once you have over twenty percent replacement parts, you automatically draw more of the enemy's fire- so he figures he's a goner. But his smart parts won't let him die. They're going to keep him going no matter what it takes. And Joe rather accidentally finds he can fill a different role here- becoming a very unexpected hero. Clever ending, I was amused and touched at turns. Loved the biscuits.

Rating: 4/5                   Oct 2018

more opinions:
Rocket Stack Rank (why is it upside-down?)

Dec 2, 2018

Chaser

Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words
by John W. Pilley with Hilary Hinzmann

Famous border collie Chaser knows the names- proper nouns- assigned to 1,022 toys and a lot of directive verbs and commands as well. Her owner was a college professor who taught behavioral psychology and brought his dogs into the classroom (border collie mixes and a few other dogs he had before Chaser's time) so his students could apply methods they had learned to teach the dogs new behaviors (an annoying one was teaching his dog Grindle to answer telephones- which then got left off the hook for hours before someone noticed!) After he retired, the author deliberately set out to discover how much language he could teach to a border collie- from the start he was intent on shaping Chaser's learning and response to spoken language, especially her ability to recall names of objects. It's pretty amazing. Unfortunately, I couldn't stick with this book. I found the writing style uninteresting, the daily life details and conversations only distracted me, and many of the explanations became repetitive. I started skimming a lot before getting halfway through and decided to just move on. Something about it failed to hold my attention.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned            260 pages, 2013

more opinions:
Across the Page
who else?

Dec 1, 2018

Pukka's Promise

The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs
by Ted Kerasote

After Merle, was Pukka. This was not a dog chosen lightly, or found by chance. Kerasote wanted a dog very much like Merle- he figured out Merle must have been a yellow lab/hound cross, and found people breeding such dogs and selected a puppy. After meticulously examining the genetic history of the parent dogs- because he wanted a dog with maximum lifespan and health. Once he brought the new puppy Pukka home, he taught it the same lessons Merle had learned- how to recognize spoken words, basic commands and good behavior. This dog was also let free to roam once the author felt he could handle himself among older dogs and stay within safe range (closely bonded to his owner). While he had picked a dog as close to Merle as he could get in looks and breed, Pukka had a slightly different temperament and his own personality, of course- so he had to approach a few things in new ways. The story of their relationship and how Pukka grew into his own dog, learning everything from how to navigate social life among neighborhood dogs that were all older and bigger than him, to the distinct difference between flushing birds and creeping up on elk while hunting to supply meat for their freezer- makes for a pretty good read.

It is all interspersed with Kerasote's personal, in-depth research into all the various factors that affect the quality of life for dogs. He really goes all-out with this. He travels the country to interview veterinarians and researchers. He looks into what goes into dog food, how vaccines affect some animals adversely, why spaying and neutering is the norm when other sterilization methods are available (and why they might be better in some cases), environmental toxins dogs are exposed to, why so many of them get cancer, the prevalence of diseases and health conditions among certain breeds, why leashed dogs have different behavior than free-roaming dogs (which are definitely the minority, not everybody lives in a rural, remote area like this guy), etc. He goes to a rendering plant and a pet-food manufacturer to see for himself how commercial food is made. He visits animal shelters to learn how population problems are being addressed, he interviews breeders to see what they think about the narrowing gene pool (and detrimental effects of breeding for looks instead of functionality), and so on. Sometimes it gets pretty dense with the scientific info, other parts of the book are so anecdotal you can't really draw a conclusion. It's a lot of food for thought. He had me looking up plenty of things I'd never heard about, or knew little of, including the silken windhound (a new dog breed) and spotted knapweed.

The main reason I gave this book three stars instead of four, was because I was constantly put off by how the author put words in his dog's mouth. Of course he constantly talked to the dog, but then he wrote what he thought the dog was replying with its gestures and vocalization- in words, with quotation marks. I found this a bit off-putting. I would have much rather just read the description of the dog's actions and surmised for myself what it may have been communicating. It made it a bit hard to take the whole book seriously.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           452 pages, 2013