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 The robot in question is outdated and going to be scrapped for parts, but perhaps it is fixable.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

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

Nov 26, 2018

Small Wonder

by Barbara Kingsolver

Collection of thought-provoking and beautifully worded essays. On everything important, it seems. Many are very personal and close to home- she writes about family life, what it means to be honest, raising food for yourself, connections with the land. She writes about her youngest daughter's chickens. She writes a letter to her teenage daughter, and another to her mother- very heartfelt. Other essays range more broadly- the importance of biodiversity, and what currently threatens it (I did not realize before, just how scary GMOs are), the nonsensical pervasiveness of war, patriotism wrought into a fervor against others, how large impassionate corporations are pushing out small business. In particular I liked her essay about writing, love of books, how small independent bookshops helped her career as a young writer, her feelings for the importance of poetry in schools, and the time she first wrote sex scenes into a novel (makes me look at Prodigal Summer differently, I admit). There are also has several essays written in response to 9/11, and to the Columbine school shooting. I struggled a bit with the first of these, but dealt better with the other two, later in the book. Woven seamlessly through these essays are also some lovely bits of nature writing- observations on habitats in Arizona where she lives part of the year, especially the delicate, richly diverse belt of riverside plant and animal life. Close look at a hummingbird building a nest. Retelling of an account where a bear apparently nurtured a young child until it was found. And so much more. Homelessness. The strength of being a woman. The dangers of ignoring what's going on around us. Why she doesn't have a TV in the house. How fiction can teach truths, why mythology is important. Definitely a book that's staying on my shelf, that deserves many re-reads, that inspired me to give another honest try at appreciating her early works The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven (I've attempted both a few times, never got far). Also, she has made me want to read Middlemarch, even though I am not really a fan of Victorian novels.

Rating: 4/5           267 pages, 2002

more opinions:
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

Nov 20, 2018

The Zoo at the Edge of the World

by Eric Kahn Gale

Mild spoilers!

Middle-grade fiction that gets a bit more dark and action-packed than I usually care for. It's about a boy who lives in a zoo his father, a famous explorer, established on a small South American island. The animals in the zoo were collected by his father from the jungle- Marlin has always believed the purpose was to protect and care for the animals, and show them to people so they could appreciate their beauty. Helping his father and older brother run the zoo, Marlin struggles a lot because he has an extreme stutter- usually completely unable to make himself understood, not helped by the fact that his brother teases him cruelly, his father dismisses him, and the staff scorns him. He finds his one comfort in the animals- in their presence, words somehow flow smoothly and he can talk.

One day his father brings back a black panther from the jungle- everyone is shocked and terrified of the powerful animal. Marlin talks to the jaguar just like he does with any other animal- and to his surprise, Jaguar speaks in reply. The Jaguar possesses mysterious magic, and he gives Marlin the ability to understand all the animals. This was when the story turned delightful, as Marlin uses his new ability to resolve some problems with many of the animals in the zoo, and finds that they appreciate him. His new skill boosts him in his father's eyes, which makes his brother jealous, which makes that situation worse. Then a new, very wealthy and powerful family arrives on the tourist boat- and Marlin starts to discover some ominous plans for the surrounding jungle- and that his father's intentions with the zoo are not exactly what he'd always believed.

There is so much going on in this story. Sibling dynamics, bullying, disability, wildlife behavior, the economics of tourism, exploitation of habitat, family secrets, and so on. It got kind of ridiculous when Marlin's father planned to put on a circus show for the guests- when none of the animals have been trained. It quickly turns into something brutal and Marlin desperately tries to put a stop to it, while a lot of the animals suddenly see him as a traitor. The last part of the book is very fast-paced with a lot of frenetic action. By then I was invested enough in the characters, I had to see how it ended. My favorite of course, was the mysterious, laconic Jaguar. When they call him "Eater of the sky" I at once thought of the fearfully brilliant cat Night-who-eats-stars in Clare Bell's book. Some aspects of this story reminded me of El Zoo Petrificado. I think my one disappointment was with Olivia, daughter of the visiting family who began to befriend Marlin. It seemed like she should have played a greater part in the book, but she ended up being just a side character.

I have this book on my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5         240  pages, 2015

more opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales
Sci-Fi and Scary

The Weigher

by Eric Vinicoff and Marcia Martin

A foreign planet, where a race of sentient, big cats is the dominant species (sound familiar?). They are not really social. Each holds a parcel of land which they defend and use as a source of food- hunting prey- but they also gather together in a rough town center to trade goods, advanced enough to have tools, a system of currency, and strict rules of conduct. But they're also still lethal creatures, and disputes which cannot be resolved by the Weigher- a key social figure who uses references to ancient codes and balances of debts between individuals to settle differences- are satisfied via bloody combat on a central field in the town. It's all very ritualized and bound by entrenched tradition.

At first the story is intriguingly different to pick up on- told from the perspective of the town's current Weigher, immersing the reader in the alien world. Then some strange creatures suddenly arrive- seemingly frail and unbalanced but possessing vast stores of knowledge which the intelligent catlike beings crave to acquire. I instantly recognized these as human explorers landing on an alien world. They offer their superior knowledge in exchange for being allowed to collect data- and the Weigher complies- after making sure the humans are following the rules of debt exchange in order to avoid insult and putting themselves in an unwittingly dangerous position. The Weigher gradually sees the humans as more than curiosities and sources of valuable information she can barter- but also as creatures worth protecting and friends. So when one of their new ideas threatens to disturb the balance of their rough society- in a way that surprised me, honestly, it seemed like such a small thing- events quickly cascade into a dangerous situation, and the Weigher is forced to flee into exile with the strange humans.

It was all pretty intreresting. I wished for more, though- especially more about the wild counterparts of the sentient cats still living without language or culture in the forbidding Wild, and their custom of abandoning young, while some were recollected from the Wild and then after being taught to speak and act civilly, integrated into the society. I found I had the novella version of this on my e-reader, I really do want to acquire the full novel and read it again as a more fleshed-out story.

Rating: 3/5            ? pages, 1984

more opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Nov 19, 2018

Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

I had a hard time with this classic, even though I found the prose riveting. I'm glad I knew a little about it beforehand, or I might have been thoroughly confused and not made it through. The narrative is by a seaman telling a story to his fellow sailors while waiting for a tide to turn- about a former trip via steamboat upriver into the depths of the Congo. He was hired by a trading company to travel to a remote post to collect a man named Kurtz who has a load of ivory extracted from the interior- as far as I could tell. Kurtz is strangely held in awe by many, and when the narrator finally reaches the destination, it's obvious he's been out in the jungle wilderness far too long- he has the native population (depicted in very racist, stereotypical fashion from a nineteenth-century imperialist perspective) under his thrall, raves in lunatic fashion and appears to be suffering from some awful disease.

Most of the novella is about the frustrating travel upriver through the dense jungle, suffering frequent breakdowns, lack of materials, poor management, horrific exploitation and suffering on the part of the natives. It's very rambling and dense, a lot of it internal monologue on the depravity of human nature and moves without description or explanation between scenes- so I often had difficulty understanding what was actually going on. In a way it is Kafkaesque, in another way the deeply visceral prose reminded me of William Golding's The Inheritors (which I now regret I culled out of my library- this book makes me want to read that one again, oddly enough). Many of the passages also brought to mind Lord of the Flies, and I rather wonder if Golding wasn't heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad. Sample of the descriptive power in the text:
Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on- which was just what you wanted it to do...
or: 

The mind of man is capable of anything- because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage- who can tell? - but truth- truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder- the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But.... he must meet that truth with his own true stuff- with his own inborn strength.

It's a book I found hard to put down even though it was difficult to get through, and one that definitely merits a re-read (or several!) in order to understand. I read this one in e-book format.

Rating: 3/5              280 pages, 1902

more opinions:
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Vulpes Libris
who else? let me know!

Nov 16, 2018

Changespell

by Doranna Durgin

Sequel to Dun Lady's Jess. Wanted to read this one enough I finally just bought a secondhand copy online. Pretty enjoyable. The writing is smoother- only a few times did I have to stop and re-read a conversation or phrase again because it wasn't quite clear what was going on. This story is set in the alternate, magical world. Jess can change between being Lady the horse and being human, but as Lady she can't change herself back voluntarily. A few of her friends from the human world are here. Jess thinks she will just settle into another of the courier holds, learning more about how to navigate life as a human, and sorting out her feelings for Carey (who used to be her owner and rider when she was only a horse). But things get dicey when they realize some unknown wizards are working dangerously powerful magic, and at the same time some confused, strangely-behaving people show up here and there- animals turned human against their will. Mule, large wild cat, cairndog... None of them have had the training and close human guidance Jess received when she suddenly changed the first time, so it doesn't go well for them.

Jess and her companions have to figure out fast who is causing trouble and why- they suspect it is their old enemy, who wants revenge. Turns out to be more complicated than that. I was expecting the story to have a lot of animals-turned-people in it, but although the ethics of that is explored, the turned people themselves are in brief scenes. Mostly it's about the intricacies of how magic works in this world, the laws and strictures around it, the confusion of figuring out who is wielding it wrongly. They almost don't put the pieces together in time. There was a huge component of substance abuse which I didn't expect to be part of the story, it was a surprise that fit into the narrative well. How it affected magic, the dangers which none in this world could anticipate, really. In the end they go after the bad wizards and there is a bitter showdown of sorts.

It's also a romance. Not a heavy one- but the tension of feeling between Jess and Carey runs a thread through the whole story, plus the interest another courier has in her, and one of her friend's interest in him. Some of them don't really realize what's going on at first, so it's not really a triangle- kind of an undercurrent. There's also the long struggle Jess has to gain control of when she is horse or human. Most interesting were still the parts where Jess as human struggles against her equine nature- or acts out what she feels naturally, on purpose (pretty funny when she goes kicking guys she doesn't like). The way unfamiliar people treated her was interesting- you'd think in a world of magic an animal-turned-human wouldn't be unusual, but it is, and people don't know whether to treat her as an intelligent being deserving respect, or someone they can walk all over because she was an animal. I hope some of these ideas get worked out more in the final book of the series.

Rating: 3/5          352 pages, 1997

Nov 12, 2018

Listening to Cougar

edited by Marc Bekoff and Cara Blessley Lowe

This is a collection of short stories and essays about cougars (aka puma or mountain lion). Some of them are firsthand accounts- brief sightings, face-to-face encounters on trails, one guy watched a cougar cross a tennis court and then dart through a street, another once found a young puma hiding under his cabin. Other chapters in the book are by biologists or conservationists: reports of studies on cougar population dynmaics, detailed description of the habitat cougars like to use- a variety of these: dessert, mountainsides, rocky canyon. One quite different essay describes a drying-up riverbed, a boy who rescues a fish stranded in a pool, and at the very end evokes the presence of cougar. There are nineteen authors total, plus Jane Goodall wrote the foreword. I have to admit a few of these - especially the scientific ones- were a bit dry for my taste, and I skimmed a lot- thus the rating below. Others went the other direction: writing about cougars and spirituality. In one case this was an explanation of some Navajo beliefs, which I found interesting. In another, it was a woman gushing about what a glimpse of the big cat meant for her soul- the connection and inspiration she got from it- a bit much, for me. Even further out there, but curious in its own way, was an author who wrote about several dreams he had with cougars present in them- then deconstructed what the dreams meant. Very intriguing. Barry Lopez and Ted Kerasote are among the writers featured here. My favorite essay was one of a personal encounter: "Lion Story" by Rick Bass- about running into a cougar on a walk with his dog. Vivid. Overall the impression is of the secretive, powerful cat itself: elusive, silent, with its gliding motion and long, floating tail. The few people who report having seen a wild one up close were mesmerized, no doubt. Magnificent animal. End of the book has a listing of people reported killed by cougars over the last century (very few, compared to deaths caused by dog attacks, and minuscule compared to the number of casualties caused by car accidents!) and then some notes on how to live safely in cougar country, and what to do if you encounter one. There are references for further reading, as well.

This book perhaps doesn't deserve the number I gave it. I'm tired, there are other reasons I lacked focus, having nothing to do with the authors' various styles or the angle of their writings. Borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 2/5            200 pages, 2007

Nov 10, 2018

The White Puma

by R.D. Lawrence

I've read this book before, but it was so long ago the prior review was written from memory. Had the chance to enjoy it again, as I bought a copy recently from Powell's. The nature writing is just as good as I remember, but funny how the dramatic hunting scenes from the final sixty pages made the strongest impression on me before- in reality, most of the book is a slow buildup, showing the life of the mountain lion. It starts with his mother. The female puma has a negative encounter with a pair of wildlife poachers, one of whom accidentally gets his arm damaged in a trap he'd set for her- and afterwards the puma is touted as a "man-eater" who "almost ripped his arm off". The bad experience instills her with a deep fear of mankind that she teaches to her cubs later in the story. A lot of the book is just about how the family of cougars lives- the mother puma and her three young. How they navigate the landscape, find and ambush prey, show affection for each other, learn skills, hold their territory, avoid danger (encounters with wolves, bears and man). Eventually only the main puma of the story- a very rare creature with an albino coat- is left alive of the family. His fear of man boils into a hatred, and when the poachers come after him specifically, he starts stalking them in turn. I had forgotten most of the story about the hunters and their operation, which has just as much page time as the puma's daily life. In the end, a trio of conservationists comes to try and protect the rare cougar from being killed- whose existence is accidentally revealed to the public by one of the hunters when he gets drunk and starts bragging of the future trophy. Reading it this time around, I found the parts about the animals' behavior and survival methods satisfying, the parts about the people a bit stiff- perhaps it's just the writing style or the age of the book. Near the end, I thought the tactics of the woman who camped out in the forest alone to foil the hunters, a bit laughable. Times were different when this book was written, that's for sure. The ending gave me a nice surprise- I had completely forgotten the turn of heart one of the hunters takes. Nice that it was the one I found a bit more sympathetic during the entire storyline.

Rating: 3/5              329 pages, 1990