Jan 31, 2019

The Andalite Chronicles

by K.A. Applegate

This book is outside the usual chronology of the Animorphs series, being a prequel that tells of Elfangor's youth as a warrior-in-training and his involvement in the war against the Yeerks. It's a book I probably never would have picked up if I wasn't reading the series- being mostly battles between alien species on various planets and in outer space. But I got drawn into the story and actually enjoyed most of it. At first, young Elfangor is eager to prove himself in battle and disappointed when he's given a lowly task along with his fellow and rival Arbron. They intercept an alien ship run by the Skrit Na- who have on board two humans they have captured and also a dangerous device the Time Matrix built long ago by those legendary all-powerful Ellimist. Apparently the Skrit Na don't know what the Time Matrix thing is, but they're going to deliver it to the Yeerks so instead of taking the humans back on Earth, the Andalites wind up on the Taxxon home world trying to retrieve the device and ending up in a huge battle against the Yeerks (who have parasitized most of the alien Taxxons).

Lots of stuff happens. It gets complicated. The character of Elfangor grows and he struggles a lot with making moral decisions in tense moments of warfare- something his superior scorns at- an older Andalite embittered by the war. There are Taxxon rebels holding out against the Yeerks. Arbron gets stuck in morph and becomes a key player in the Taxxon rebellion. We find out some serious backstory details on how Visser Three came to be- how a Yeerk was able to take over an Andalite body. Elfangor feels he is to blame, an error in judgement on his part leading to what happened. There's also backstory on Chapman- in this book he's a young man- and a total jerk. The other human involved, a young woman named Loren, is a much more sympathetic character and a very strong female role.

For all that, there's some pretty weird happenings in here. The asteroid part? I totally can't wrap my head around that, and sure hope it gets explained in a later book (but I wouldn't be surprised if it never is). The time travel events stretch credilbility (even in a story about alien invasions I expect some sense!) and the part where Elfangor, Loren and the future Visser Three end up in suddenly created wacko universe was just so- odd. I don't know why parts of this kept reminding me of A Wrinkle in Time. It had a similiar vibe to it all.

The book neatly ends up at the scene that opens the first in the main series, The Invasion. Elfangor is a significant character there, giving the Animorphs the forbidden power to morph into any being they can touch. With all the Andalite honor code and strictness, it's kind of surprising Elfangor would give this to a lesser-advanced species, but this book makes it clear that he develped a soft spot for humans due to his experiences. Also he finally had confidence that humans could be stronger and more resilient than they look. Which is why he gave a key power to a bunch of kids on Earth, pitching them into the unseen battle against the aliens.

This one is on my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5            pages, 1997

more opinions:
Arkham Reviews
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Jan 29, 2019

One Wild Bird at a Time

Portraits of Individual Lives
by Bernd Heinrich

As other readers have pointed out (check out reviews on Goodreads) this is not really individual portraits, it is about certain species though. Bernd Heinrich is a keen birdwatcher with a scientific mind. Each chapter tells of a species he observes in the woods around his cabin in the Maine woods, detailing specifics of behavior he was curious to learn about. Most times he had a question in mind and posed a way to answer it. He caught chickadees and placed them (briefly) in an enclosure to see how quickly they would learn to associate certain kinds of leaf damage with provided insect food. He dug up ruffed grouse snow dens to count their fecal pellets to determine how long they used each den. When a small bird accidentally dashed itself against a window escaping a predator and died, he took the opportunity to inspect its stomach contents and find out what it had been eating at the top of conifers. In all, seventeen kinds of birds are here- including flycatchers, woodcocks, grosbeaks, starlings, crows, barred owls, nuthatches, blue jays and redpolls. I found most interesting the chapter about chickadees' intelligence and foraging methods, the one about very close observations on a flicker nest (they built a home inside the wall of his house and he cut a window to it, in his bedroom), the one on crested flycatchers- a nesting pair faced the intrusion of other adults who wanted to feed their young- and the one about a male phoebe who lost its mate and its long search for a new partner. It was really interesting that Heinrich's notes on red-winged blackbird behavior kind of countered what's considered common knowledge about the birds' territoriality and aggression. Sometimes the book gets a little dry- the author relates numbers: two birds fly over, one returns, four arrive, three stay behind, etc. Or how many trips parent birds make per day bringing food, how many mintues they linger at the nest each time. Sometimes he makes a conclusion from all the collected data, other times the segment ends with questions still in mind. Which of course is realistic, but leaves the reader wanting to know more.

I'd really like to read more of his works on individuals- The Geese of Beaver Bog, for example- but my library has a narrow selection. I still haven't read Summer World, either... Borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                   210 pages, 2016

Jan 25, 2019

The Hidden Lives of Owls

the Science and Spirit of Nature's Most Elusive Birds
by Leigh Calvez

This is a very nice book about owls. The author herself became interested in owls- beginning with their presence in cultures and mythologies across different cultures, and then delving into personal study of the owls themselves. She describes eleven owl species that populate (or visit) the Pacific Northwest, and how she sought to find them. In several cases it was simply bird-watching: a glimpse in a tree, a chance at a few photographs, conversing with other bird-watchers, observing hunting or nesting behavior for a short time. In other cases she got a lot more involved, helping teams that measure and band wild owls. She visited a burrowing owl colony where people are helping the owl population recover by providing nesting sites (pre-dug burrows), perches, and constantly monitoring their numbers. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the burrow owls' behaviors, not knowing much about them before. She also visited the nesting site of a great gray owl who later lost its mate, and volunteers stepped in to supplement the mother owl's food supply (with live mice) in order to help her chicks survive. Her participation in assisting this wild owl while avoiding too much familiarity (which could later endanger its young) became very personal. There are spotted owls, norther pygmy owls, snowy owls and the adaptive, some-think-invasive barred owl in here, also an owl I never heard of before: the flammulated owl. Every chapter has some information on the particular owl's required habitat, feeding preferences, nesting behavior, usual range (different species roam all the time, stay put in a home territory or migrate seasonally) and so on. There's even an owl that hunts in the daytime. Interspersed with enough personal observation and individual up-close experiences that it was an engaging read.

Which I got through in two days, because it was due back at the library with no renewal option (someone else wants to read it!) I found this one browsing the stacks.

Rating: 3/5                      205  pages, 2016

Jan 23, 2019

The Warning

Animorphs #16
by K.A. Applegate

This one had me hooked again. In spite of its silly moments (some very literal potty humor, which Ax totally does not get) it turns very serious and dark near the end. Please be advised, if you haven't read this far in the series, there will be spoilers--.

At the beginning, it occurs to one of the Animorphs to type "Yeerk" into a search engine- and what do you know, they find some websites about their alien enemies, including a (very clunky) chat room. They can't quite tell if the anonymous users are humans in the know, or Yeerks posing as such in order to set a trap. But they can't ignore the possibility of finding more people who actually know about the alien war, so they try to hack the system to learn their identities. It doesn't work. Their next plan (which baffled me) is to travel to the headquarters of the online company that runs the chat room, and access the system there. It's very dated, technologically. But amusing. They travel via plane in the form of flies- and Jake experiences some serious trauma- he nearly dies in fly morph when someone swats him- is actually loosing consciousness as his friends pull him to safety- and struggles to pull himself together afterward. A big part of this book is about Jake's difficulty continuing in the leadership role- it's incredibly stressful, he's often at a loss to make the best decision especially under pressure, and his friends start to lash out when his choice goes wrong, or he can't tell them what to do, instantly. In fact at the end of the book Jake and Cassie have a heated argument over a serious moral issue- and it doesn't get resolved.

Several times moral quandaries come up. When at the company headquarters, some of the team immediately suggest secretly morphing the employees so they can gain access without drawing attention- but is it okay to use another person's DNA without their knowledge or consent? Later they attempt to break into a rich person's fortressed mansion- their first attempt to scope out the place as birds of prey goes awry, Rachel gets stunned and trapped inside the building, Ax is nearly torn apart by the guard dogs- so Jake acquires a new morph of rhinoceros and simply storms the place by force. What they discover inside is a shocker. The guy they were hoping to find is a Yeerk- not only that, he is a renegade and survives without the special Yeerk pool by cannibalizing his own kind. This means doing away with the innocent people who are the other Yeerks' hosts, which makes Cassie immediately want to kill this guy, but Jake stops her- letting him live since he's killing lots of Yeerks on a regular basis. So which is the lesser evil? It ends on that note.

My only issue with this book is I find it so improbable how readily the enemy explains things to the Animorphs when they have a confrontation in the last chapter or so- of course it neatly explains things to the reader as well, but really? who would just tell it all like that.

Read this one as an e-book.

Rating: 3/5                 160 pages, 1998

more opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Jan 21, 2019

Horseshoe Crab

Biography of a Survivor
by Anthony D. Fredericks

Horseshoe crabs have been crawling in and out of the oceans since before the time of dinosaurs. Their straightforward way of life and tough armored carapace have been a success story for this arthropod.  But when humans came on the scene, their numbers began declining, which also spelled trouble for numerous shorebirds that depended on them as food source during migration. Horseshoe crabs were once used by fishermen as bait, and faced habitat loss. Nowadays they are protected, especially because they are key to human health, a point I never really understood before reading this book. The crabs' blood is super sensitive to bacterial contamination, so it is used to make a liquid for testing any number of things for sterility- bandages, IV fluids, surgical instruments, parts for joint replacements, etc etc. They are enormously important to the medical field. The horseshoe crabs are bled in sterile conditions and released into the ocean again with a marking that ensures the same crab won't donate its blood twice in a year.

This book is about far more than the blue blood of the crabs though. It's about their curious anatomy (did you know they have ten eyes?) and habits- what little we know of them, most human observation of horseshoe crabs occurring when they come ashore to breed. It's about various organizations that have arisen to protect the horseshoe crab, to study it, and to educate the public (most people find them unattractive which doesn't help their case). Amusingly, the author makes all this material approachable by inserting popular culture references- in this case B-grade 1950's horror movies!

Interesting article on the medical use of horseshoe crabs, and synthetic alternatives that are being developed (before the possibilities of horseshoe crab blood was discovered, rabbits were used- and they gave their lives).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                    256 pages, 2012

Jan 17, 2019

Unsheltered

by Barbara Kingsolver

The novel is about two families, living on the same property in New Jersey, but a century apart in time. In each case, the family is seriously struggling with looming insecurity. The modern family lives in an inherited house that is on poor foundations and literally falling apart, while they deal with an elderly, terminally ill parent, a new baby pretty much left for other family members to raise when the young father buries himself in work travel after his wife's suicide, and the husband's insecure tenure at a local college. Their carefully structured life seems to be coming apart at the seams, some family members drifting in and staying as four generations huddle under one leaky roof, while others are on the verge of exiting (the vitiperous old man). Woven in alternate chapters, the story of the family from the 1800's -also living in a crumbling house in desperate need of repairs no one can afford- has a professor at odds with his employer because he wants to teach real science to his students- Darwinism is a new idea which many fear and abhor- and in the end he finds himself in a public debate with leaders of the community who staunchly resist scientific thought, threatening more than just his livelihood.

I really really wanted to like this book more than I did- not only because Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, but also because it was a gift to me from a family member. But the writing is rather heavy-handed. It feels like the author wrote it with a strong agenda, and I can readily see how some readers find her narrative preachy and off-putting. I happen to agree with many of her opinions, and even I found it a bit tough to finish this book. Either side of the narrative thread I feel could have made a stronger story if it had stood on its own, with more depth and personality. I did like the way the last few words of each chapter became the title of the next- to me it seemed a deft interweaving (not gimmicky). But in each case I had a hard time becoming involved with the characters- it all felt a bit too distant, a bit too stuffed with dense conversations and lectures (rather reminiscent in that regard of Ring of Endless Light). In the modern part of the story, I really liked the character of Tig- so resourceful and bold- but the others- meh. And in the historical storyline, I was intrigued by the neighbor woman the teacher befriended- Mary Treat, a scientist in her own right who had correspondence with Charles Darwin (and a real person, whom I'd never heard of before). The main character from the current storyline ends up researching Mary Treat- another way the stories were tied together. But every time I read the interactions between the teacher and scientist the conversations felt rather stiff, and I never cared enough about them.

Well, maybe it will be better on a second read someday. Also to note the infusion of current politics in the story- very current- made it feel shockingly relevant but also uncomfortably awkward. I just don't enjoy politics that much in my reading, even though it's important to see what's going on around us and do something. The big picture I ended up with: somehow, we will survive and move on. Families intact or otherwise (forming something new).

Rating: 3/5                  463 pages, 2018

more opinions:
Ardent Reader

Jan 12, 2019

bouquet cats

This was a 1,000 piece jigsaw I did over the past two weeks. Artwork (lovely, beautiful texture in the cats' fur) is 'Boucat' by Braldt Bralds. It's just such a beautiful picture- lush flowers and seven cats posed so nicely- a butterfly, mouse and several caterpillars hidden in the details. I am definitely a fan of Cobble Hill- the puzzles have very nice surface texture and the shapes are all random which is really fun to put together. I enjoyed this one a lot.

Click on the image to scroll through the pictures at larger size.

Jan 10, 2019

The House at Sugar Beach

in Search of a Lost African Childhood
by Helene Cooper

Descendant of the first freed blacks who stepped off the ship Elizabeth onto the shores of Liberia in 1820. They were part of this idea that people released from slavery at the end of the Civil War should return to Africa and form their own colony there. The native Liberians didn't see it the same way. They didn't want to sell their land to newcomers, or seen it taken by force. Which it eventually was. Generations later, the newer-arrived blacks had formed a very elite upper class, while the native Liberians sunk deeper into poverty and oppression. The author herself had a rather sheltered, privileged childhood, talking mostly about her jokes with her cousins and sisters, fears of the 'heartman' and malevolent spirits, reading Nancy Drew books and vying for the attention of boys in her private school. She was very close with her adopted sister, a girl from a native Liberian family her parents took in. Her narrative is interrupted every other chapter or so with some history- which I appreciated because I didn't know much about Liberia, but it felt a bit impersonal. Also a lot of family history and politics- because many of her relatives were prominent citizens or high officials. When Liberia suffered a coup and horrendously brutal civil war, the family fled to America- leaving behind her adopted sister. Later part of the book tells how she adjusted to American life- more school stuff- how she discovered journalism and fixed on a desire to be a reporter. She made it- attained the coveted travelling status, visited and wrote about issues in many different countries (including Iraq) and finally returned to Liberia, where she found her left-behind sister had survived the atrocities. I admit I skipped and skimmed a lot in the middle of the book, finding the information riveting in one way, but lacking a feeling of connection or emotion from the writer on the other hand. It was a bit difficult to stick with. I found some things ironic- and the description of a man executed in Liberia, then his body parts paraded around the streets- was a chilling echo of the fears she had of the 'heartmen' as a child. They were real. The final chapters about her return home- seeing how much had changed, fallen into squalor, the tearful reunion with her adopted sister- are the better parts of the book.

Rating: 2/5             354 pages, 2008

Jan 8, 2019

Our House in Arusha

by Sara Tucker

Memoir of times the author spent living in Arusha, Tanzania and in Togo with her family of three. It started when she first visited Africa as a travel writer from New York, and met safari guide Patrick- a man born in France who had spent most of his adult life in West Africa. The book is in patches- some telling of the author's own experiences, other chapters relate her husband's adventures, both well-written but sometimes the narrative hopping back and forth is confusing. What's admirable is how much they simply wanted to make it work- Patrick fell in love with Africa as a young man and just did whatever he could to be there: safari tours, guide for trophy hunters, crocodile poacher, reconnaissance spy, hotel manager, you name it, he took the job if it got him out in the bush near animals. There are a few incidents related with wildlife- a leopard cub he raised, a close encounter with a wildebeest when his vehicle got stuck in a ditch- but more is about the political and social turmoil of the area, and how the family managed to live there. The author herself often spent long months with her husband's son keeping their house running while Patrick was off on a job. Hours of boredom, dealing with the locals who worked for them, constant expectation of being robbed. Fondness for some aspects it all, tedium with others. Reading about the ex-pats' lifestyle reminded me somewhat of Rules of the Wild (fiction). Another large part of this book is about the author's relationship with her stepson, what it was like for him to grow up in Africa, to make adjustments to boarding school among other things. It kept feeling like a foreign story from a time and place quite removed from myself, and then I would come across a detail that reminded me this story is quite current: she's reading Harry Potter with her stepson, he's playing World of Warcraft, they're standing on a street in New York looking at smoke in the sky above the spot where the Twin Towers used to be. Because at the end, a contract for working as warden in a game park in Togo falls through after they have sold all their household goods in preparations to move, and the family decides to come back to America. She's written a second book about the next six years living in Vermont, not sure if I'll look for it.

Rating: 3/5             287 pages, 2011

Jan 5, 2019

In Calabria

by Peter S. Beagle

An old man who prefers to keep to himself finds a unicorn hanging around on his farm. He tries to keep it a secret, to protect the unicorn, especially when he learns why it has chosen to stay on his land for a while. But of course eventually people learn it is there, and it draws media attention and worse to his quiet corner of the world. Some powerful, unscrupulous person wished to possess the farm by force, and that's where the story started to loose my interest. I guess it fitted well into a modern story about unicorns, to have thugs with automatic weapons threatening a quiet farmer, but the aspect of danger and violence never felt real? the narrative has such a quiet, calm tone to it all. There were other aspects of the story I just didn't care for. Especially the romance. It wasn't right. I wonder if I'll ever love another Peter S. Beagle book as much as The Last Unicorn- I tried Tamsin and couldn't (it's a ghost story), I've been meaning to attempt A Fine and Private Place but never got around to it yet.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5               174 pages, 2017

Jan 1, 2019

Unicorn Mountain

by Michael Bishop

I have a feeling I may have tried this book once before, so long ago I remembered very little except the general premise. It's set on a Colorado ranch, where several disparate characters end up together- Libby who runs cattle on the land, her Ute ranch hand, her ex's cousin who comes to stay. He's dying of AIDS- this was written in the eighties- and some of the ways in which people talked around him, admittedly made me uncomfortable.  I gather from reading more opinions on Goodreads, that at its publication date, this book was way ahead of its time depicting gay men and issues they had to deal with- so it ought to be read in a historical context. But that isn't what bothered me. Nor the outright lack of unicorns- although I know they come more into the book later in the story- up to where I read they were mainly background material, a group up in the hills, their presence kept secret by the landowner and her very few friends. The unicorns appear to be unhealthy, and somehow they weave into the story with the other characters trying to put their lives back together, or keep things going as best they can. I didn't get far enough to find out though, because something put me off. It was when ghosts came into the narrative. I just don't do ghost stories.

Abandoned                    406 pages, 1988

More opinions: Speculiction      anyone else?

pretty, fake birds

Enjoyed fitting together a puzzle again the other day. It was a Christmas gift from my seven-year-old. A Ravensburger 500-piece puzzle. While the image itself is of eye-rolling quality (terribly obvious photoshop job), the colors are bright and vivid, the differing visual textures of foliage and bird feathers are nice, and the puzzle surface good quality- appears it will hold up to a lot of re-use.

I had fun trying to identify all the bird species depicted: goldfinch, cardinal, titmouse, eastern bluebird, blue jay, robin, chickadee, some kind of warbler, and mountain bluebird (I think).