Jul 22, 2018

A Matter of Feel

Dressage Chronicles Book II
by Karen McGoldrick

So many horse books I read are written for kids; this one is for adults. The narrator is a young rider, working in a dressage stable in exchange for lessons. It's got all the details about working around horses, rigorous training, travel to shows, the hectic tense atmosphere there, stiff competition, backbiting among staff and so on. There's wealthy patrons, shady horse deals, down-to-earth stable hands who just love the animals, a bit of romance, and a lot about horses. Which I liked, except I often didn't know what they were talking about. All the precises moves and terms, I was just clueless. I'm at a disadvantage not having read the first book, where the main character ditches her normal life to work at the stable and takes the first steps to learning dressage. That one probably laid out the basics. And introduced the characters better. Here, I never really got a distinct feel for the narrator herself, or the other human characters either, actually. I kept struggling to understand why certain people despised others, not knowing their history. So the people stuff was a bit awkward - and sometimes boring. The personalities of the horses themselves, stood out a lot more clearly. Some of the passages that describe distinctly how a rider learned to work with the horse, to teach it a new move, to understand its behavior and reshape that- very interesting. But then the book would slide back into stiff dialog and choppy narration that often fell short of holding my interest. Unfortunately, the writing style overall didn't quite work for me. I had to make myself finish this one, even though some intense drama crops up in the end.

I borrowed this book from a member of my extended family, who is herself a dressage rider. She says the details are fairly accurate to what goes on in the sport.

Rating: 2/5                 463 pages, 2013

Jul 19, 2018


How I Took a Holiday from Being Human
by Thomas Thwaites

I have read some strange, outlandish books in my time. This one tops them all. It's about a designer's unique project: to turn himself into a goat. Literally. He wants to escape the stresses of modern human existence, by experiencing life as an animal. He visits a shaman to explore what animal he could connect with more easily (the original plan was to become an elephant), studies the mystical connections people have tried to make with animals over the centuries, goes to a goat sanctuary to learn more about their behavior, visits a neuroscientist to find out if he can alter his brain using magnetism or electricity to reduce his ability to talk, goes to a prosthetics lab to have extensions made for his arms, and designs springs for his legs to make himself walk on all fours kind of like a goat, and goes to another specialist about making himself an artificial rumen, so he can chew up grass, ferment it during the day to break down cellulose, and heat it in a pressure cooker over a campfire so he can eat it at night. You'd think it all a huge joke, except there are photographs documenting the whole process. He also visited a university dissection lab- they had never autopsied a goat before- so he could take part in that and see for himself how the animal was put together. (Even so, his attempts to reassemble the skeleton later were laughable- I don't know why he didn't look at photos a complete skeleton; instead he made up some outlandish sculpture of it standing in human posture, with the leg bones in all the wrong places).

In every single case, the specialists he consulted strongly advised him not to do what he was planning. He did it anyway. He got his prosthetics made, had a small team of supporters, made a kind of costume, and travelling to the Alps to join an actual herd of goats. (The goats' owner was, understandably, very surprised). While earlier in the book there was plenty of philosophical thought on the state of animal minds and such, at the end the narrative is very short on details. He found the prosthetics and unnatural posture very painful over time, he couldn't keep up with the goats, and even though he said the grass stew he made was tasty, I bet it wasn't good nutrition for a human. Evidently he spent a little bit of time mingling with a goat herd on a pasture, and then climbed a mountain path by himself. None of this is described very well, the text at this point is so brief, although there are plenty of photos.

I was intrigued in a kind of disbelieving way through the first part of the book, it was so darn wacky- but hugely disappointed at the ending. He didn't discuss at all whether or not he found peace of mind hanging out with the goats. After all the effort he made to actually put the project into action and be there, I expected some kind of evaluation about how it all turned out, what he learned, something. Nope. Nada. I got the sense he was probably ready to be done with it all- but he didn't discuss it or make any kind of conclusion. That was really frustrating for the reader.

I got this book at a library sale.

Rating: 3/5                207 pages, 2016

Jul 15, 2018

The Android

Animorphs #10
by K.A. Applegate

Ten was flat for me. And it must just be me- because according to Goodreads, it's a favorite in the series for lots of other fans. It's certainly packed with action, and the storyline moves swiftly- a bit too quick, as I really felt a lack of detail. Note: there are spoilers below, if you haven't read this far in the series.

In a nutshell, the boys morph dogs to sneak into an outdoor concert, and run into an acquaintance of Jake's who seems- weird. They witness a decidedly strange incident that convinces them the guy's not human. Later they morph spiders and flies at an outdoor event to spy on him- and nearly get exposed when Marco-as-spider is eaten by a bird and has to escape by morphing back to human form in mid-air (and mid-bird, which could be gross except it's light on description). Of course someone sees him falling to earth, but it's the very guy they suspected. Who knows exactly what they are, and tells them he's infiltrated the enemy forces but is really on their side. Suspicious, they still have to learn more, so they visit his supposed home- and find another huge underground living space, this one for the alien race- which are androids. The history of this android race and how it fit into the fight against the Yeerks was just- a bit out there for me. Granted, in a kid's series about alien war, I should expect to meet a lot of strange scenarios and invented alien species, but I just couldn't suspend disbelief enough for this one. Even more than the android storyline, was the idea that dogs had absorbed the essence of another, entirely peaceful race of aliens that had gone extinct due to the Yeerks. Yes, the idea here is that aliens turned wolves into dogs. Anyhow, it gives some of the androids a reason to oppose the Yeerks even though complete pacifist mentality is written into their code.

So they need the Animorphs to steal back a special crystal the Yeerks have in a stronghold, which would allow them to control all the computer systems on Earth. Stakes are high and the Animorphs don't have time to prepare. They sneak into the building as roaches and spiders, narrowly avoid being eaten by a rat, and navigate a pitch-black room of tripwires as bats, only to find when they reach the crystal, that they can't carry it out of the room without using another form. So they morph into their 'battle animals' and blast out of there, only to be met by enemy forces with machine guns. This time there's no easy way out- they battle and are all about to die except in a final moment Marco manages to get the crystal into the android's hands, who then rewrites his code so he can fight, and annihilates the Yeerk forces singlehandedly. It's so awful the scene isn't even described because Marco (our narrator) went unconscious after nearly dying. Just mentioned in passing. And the memory of what he's done is so horrific for the android- who can never dull or forget a single memory- that the androids withdraw, vowing not to get involved again.

Traumatized androids. Lots of heavy discussion in this book about the ethics of warfare. No easy answers. Even that didn't make it interesting enough for me; I kind of had to make myself finish the book. The two new animal forms- spider and bat- were introduced and utilized so quickly, I wasn't able to enjoy that aspect of the story. It was all just fast-paced, action-packed and meh for me. Not my kind of read. I'm taking a break from Animorphs for a little while.

Rating: 2/5          170 pages, 1997

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Jul 13, 2018

The Secret

Animorphs #9
by K.A. Applegate

This one wasn't as strong as the last. Cassie struggles to catch up on homework, and morphs a rat to figure out why her rat in a science project won't solve a maze. Then she and Rachel as rats scare some boys who come to torment them. Not long after the Animorphs discover that their enemies are attempting to log the entire forest behind her family's farm, in order to expose them (they know the Andalites must live away from human habitation). So they plan to sneak in and sabotage the logging operation, by morphing into termites. Even though they're terrified of being social insects, from their prior experience as ants. This doesn't go any better. The description of how submerged their sense of self becomes, and how horrifying that is, more vividly written this time. Meanwhile, Cassie fixates on a different goal: to save a litter of baby skunks- their mother is being treated at the wildlife center- and Tobias as a hawk already ate one of them. But then, he's willing to help save them after Cassie makes a point how important it is to her. In fact she gets all the Animorphs involved, which sidetracks them from more important stuff. While I liked hearing Cassie's viewpoint- she's very passionate about protecting wildlife and natural environments, and her growing doubts about their arbitrary desires to save the human race above all raised some good questions- the ending of this book wrapped up way too easily. Their battle with the aliens in the final chapters was actually rather silly. I expected a bit more conflict. Plus, I'm not sure why Cassie is shown morphing into a wolf on the cover when she was far more often in a skunk body. On a more serious note, it's becoming evident that the kids are starting to feel some real strain and trauma from constantly fighting a war it seems they are hopeless to win. Cassie, in particular, is getting very tired of lying to her parents. They are all struggling very much to keep it together...

Rating: 3/5              176 pages, 1997

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Jul 12, 2018

The Alien

Animorphs #8
by K.A. Applegate

This one was great. I really enjoyed reading a narrative from Ax's perspective. He spends much of this storyline trying to fit in, and learn more about Earth and its inhabitants- so while in human morph, the team of kids takes him to the movies, to the mall, to school for a day, into their homes to meet their families. They give him an encyclopedia and he devours the information, then spits it out again at odd moments. His combined awkwardness and confusion at human culture is a nice foil against the superior knowledge and technology he possesses. It quickly becomes clear that Ax is keeping secrets from the Animorphs, which understandably makes them upset, as they openly share everything with him. Being inside Ax's thoughts helps the reader understand why he is reluctant to share information, what strictures the rules of his own culture have placed upon him, and also how very lonely he is, being the only Andalite survivor on Earth. Serendipitously, he plays around with a computer when visiting Marco's house, changing some code which allows him to communicate with his home planet, except he can't get caught- his meddling with human technology is strictly forbidden. His reception when he finally makes the long-distance call home, is less than welcoming. He takes heavy blame for some serious events, and starts to wonder if some things he has been taught are right or not. It's pretty heavy stuff. And through it all, he falls apart with ecstatic excitement when faced by a new flavor: chocolate. Popcorn. Chili peppers. I thought this was funny at first, but it makes sense that Ax has trouble controlling human senses, just like the Animorphs do when they use a new animal form. It's interesting to read how Ax experiences the morphing process. (He's not as skilled at it as Cassie, who appears to have a natural affinity for morphing). They all use previous animals in this book, but some new ones for Ax are a harrier hawk, and more significantly, a rattlesnake which he attempts to use against one of their greatest enemies.

My favorite quote (I'm not alone), from Ax: Books are an amazing human invention. They allow instant access to information simply by turning pieces of paper. They are much faster to use than computers. Surprisingly, humans invented books before computers. They do many things backward.

Many aspects of this story were reminiscent to me of situations in Enchantress from the Stars. I think it has to do with the conflicts and difficulties that arise if two cultures in different stages of their evolution encounter each other. And of course, the teenager perspective.

Borrowed from the public library, as an e-book.

Rating: 4/5                    176 pages, 1997

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Jul 11, 2018

The Essential Calvin and Hobbes

A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury
by Bill Watterson

This book came up on swap, so I have been enjoying some chuckles, reading more Calvin and Hobbes. I noticed right away the strips in this volume are from early on: the drawing style- especially the main character's faces- are slightly different and Calvin is meeting Susie the girl next door for the first time. It's got similar subject material as later strips: arguments with parents, avoiding homework, getting bored in class, acting out his wild imagination, teasing girls, being grossed out at dinner, a kid being a kid. Really obnoxious kid, with witty comebacks and plenty of funny remarks. And of course, his tiger companion Hobbes is a charmer. I recognized most of the panels from reading these long ago when they were featured in the newspaper, but some were new to me (or I had forgotten them): the episode where Calvin is an onion in a school play about nutrition, the one where they find an injured raccoon, another serious one where Calvin and Hobbes come across a clearing in the woods for a new development, and rant about how wildlife is being displaced. I liked it.

Rating: 3/5          254 pages, 1988

Jul 10, 2018

The Andalite's Gift

Megamorphs #1
by K.A. Applegate

It's vacation time. Rachel is supposed to go to gymnastics camp, but she decides to skip it without telling her family, so no one knows where she is. Flying as an eagle, she gets mobbed by smaller birds, crashes into a tree and suffers amnesia for much of the story. Having lost her memory causes a lot of fear and confusion discovering she could be part bird, and later being shocked into turning into a grizzly bear. She stumbles across a shack in the woods where a crazy lady lives, who from her raving and strange reactions to things, appears to have once hosted a Yeerk herself.

Meanwhile, Marco and Ax crash a pool party- chasing the girls as mice. They attract the attention of a new threat- a dangerous swarm of tiny sentient alien creatures that can shred anything in its path (this reminded me once again of a L'Engle character- Proginoskes from A Wind in the Door). They figure out how to decoy it using their morphing ability- tiger, gorilla and wolf alternately run through the forest- and end up in a hilarious car chase (with lots of side damage). Rachel in her elephant morph, crashes and recovers from her amnesia with the second knock on the head (a bit too conveniently, hm). The alien swarm (bystanders assume it's a tornado) proves it can capture them- Ax and Marco get taken to the enemy ship. Here I was confounded at the actions of Visser Three. Terribly ruthless, yes. But not so smart. I don't know why he would explain things so readily to Ax and Marco- except to relish in his superiority, and of course it helps the story along. Anyhow, they quickly come up with a clever escape move, and together with the Animorphs back on the ground, find a way to defeat the swarm creature. With the help of a new morph- Cassie turns into a whale.

Interestingly, in this book quite a few times the kids get stuck mid-morph, while they are a strange and awkward combination of human and animal form. They keep remarking how horrible it is, but find a way to deliberately remain in this in-between state when it is advantageous. Compared to prior reads, this book was stuffed with action, had enough new ideas to keep me alert, and peppered with humor. A bit much of the ridiculous alien fights, but considering the premise it's to be expected. I rolled my eyes a few times (some of the writing felt juvenile again, and hello a wolf's hock is not a knee turned backwards! that little detail makes me grimace every time). Side note: while the kids find turning into small insects like ants, roaches or fleas disorientating and frightening, they happen to enjoy being a housefly, because of the speed and dexterity in flight. Which comes in very handy in this story, too.

This book was published much later, but I'm reading them in the sequential order the author intended. The Megamorphs books are different in that they alternate POV every chapter. It gives you different insights into what is going on- and especially more information about Ax- and how he ended up under the ocean in a broken piece of spacecraft to begin with. But it makes the flow uneven- I prefer to be in one person's head per book is all. Delightfully, I discovered that when Scholastic declined to reprint these books (nearly a decade ago), the author made them all available as digital files. So I've downloaded all the ones I don't yet own in paperback onto my e-reader. Prepare for a good month or so of Animorphs! (with some intermittent reading of other types, I might need a break now and then).

Rating: 3/5                240 pages, 1997

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Jul 9, 2018

The Stranger

Animorphs #7
by K.A. Applegate

Note: there are spoilers here if you haven't read this far in the series.

Better and better. The plot suddenly gets more complex, although the book still follows the same basic pattern- which I expect all of them will- a brief recap (two or three pages) of what the Animorphs are and why they are fighting aliens, main storyline about how the team of teenagers attempt to solve a problem or deal with new issues that arise, while still handling family life and school, and a sudden pitch into intense action near the end, when they inevitably have a confrontation with the enemy. 

Refreshingly, this time they realize how futile all their moves against the aliens have been, and start to falter in their resolve. Nevertheless, deciding to try and disable the source of rejuvenating power for the alien parasites, they morph into cockroaches again to sneak into the arena of the Yeerk pool. Of course they are discovered and literally just on the verge of being eaten by a Taxxon (huge gross caterpillar-looking alien with a mouth end full of teeth) when a strange thing happens. Time stops. A new being enters their consciousness- called an Ellimist, one with far more advanced knowledge and ability than any of the aliens (including Andalites, in fact Ax is terrified of the Ellimist). What it boils down to, is the Ellimist forsees that their war against the aliens will be lost before Andalite forces can return to Earth, and humans will simply go extinct. The Ellimist offers to transport them- and a few other people- to a distant uninhabited plant similar to Earth, to save a remnant of mankind. Cassie immediately compares this to how environmentalists rescue wildlife from the brink of extinction. The kids don't like the comparison and agonize over what to do. How can they give up the fight? but if they are bound to loose, isn't it worth saving something. The Ellimist also sends them on a bleak visit to the future, when the alien parasite Yeerks have taken over the world. 

Through all this, Rachel (our narrator) is struggling with family issues due to her parents' divorce. She takes several flights as a bird of prey in order to work off her feelings, an escape route that one of the other teens points out could have negative effects if they use it too often. She also acquires a grizzly bear morph while on her own, and it comes in handy when they finally confront the enemy again. I have to say, this battle was a lot more bloody and violent than prior ones (and there's an earlier fight with a Taxxon that's very disturbing) but they are written with minimal detail or I bet this would be too much for some kids to read. Rachel shows a growing ease with using violence- she makes no effort to control the grizzly impulses and basically rampages through the enemy forces. (As an aside, I think it's kind of amusing that these technologically advanced aliens keep getting bested by tigers, grizzly bears and even ants. Sure, they have weapons, but the animals have inherent powers of their own).

There are some really mind-altering scenes in this book, where the Eillimist shows them what the Yeerks will do to their planet, and Rachel meets her future self. I didn't foresee this kind of complication. Curiously, the Ellimist reminds me a lot of the all-knowing, wise 'Mrs. W's' from L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time. Especially in some of the final scenes here, where the kids are trying to figure out if their answer to the Ellimist should even address the choice he posed to them, or if it's all about something else entirely.

Anyhow, as you can tell, I really enjoyed this one. The story suddenly raised a lot of more complicated dilemmas then just how to fight the bad guys without anyone around them finding out what was going on, or dealing with family members being enslaved by Yeerks. High stakes and moral quandaries indeed.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5           163 pages, 1997

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Jul 8, 2018

The Capture

Animorphs #6
by K.A. Applegate

It's going to start getting difficult to write about these without revealing major plot arcs. But since this is noted on the back of the book, I'll go ahead. The start of this book is fairly slow, then it picked up speed and intensity and suddenly I couldn't put it down. The Animorphs morph into cockroaches to spy on their enemies, and nearly get smashed. Having learned that the enemies are in control of a nearby hospital, they sneak in as flies and discover a small Yeerk pool (where the parasitic aliens rejuvenate their strength every three days). Jake makes a sudden, ruthless move to kill upwards of a hundred Yeerks at once, while they are helpless in the pool, by boiling them alive. They are discovered, and in the ensuing scuffle (when his friends morph into wolves and elephants to fight off Controllers), Jake falls into the pool. One of the Yeerks infests his brain. The rest of the book is quite compelling, as Jake struggles to regain control of his own mind and body, having some gripping and angsty inner dialogs with his parasitic Controller. At first the Yeerk is good at facade- but when his friends suspect something is wrong and guess the truth, for once they come up with a good plan to save Jake. The wide diversity and specialized strengths of Earth's animals are highlighted as the Animorphs use their abilities to outwit their enemy. They're starting to get smart about how they use their powers, but still far from winning the battle against the Yeerks. Especially since now the enemy has realized that they are just four human beings...

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5          153  pages, 1997

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Jul 7, 2018

The Predator

Animorphs #5
by K.A. Applegate

The newest member of the Animorphs- the alien Ax- just wants to go back to his home world. So without much forethought (no surprise) they decide to lure an enemy ship onto Earth, kick its crew off, and send Ax home in it. Most of the book is them just trying to put the first part of this plan into action. The first few chapters have some awkward moments when Ax goes with the boys to the mall- in human form- but he acts strangely and attracts the wrong kind of attention. I don't know how this didn't have any repercussions for the team. They ran out of there chased by police while Ax was morphing back into alien form, and tons of people saw it. They hide by morphing into lobsters, but almost get boiled alive. Again, a woman who'd bought them for dinner sees them morphing back into kids, but they convince her either she's crazy, or it's a dream. Later, they all morph into ants to sneak into Chapman's house again, to steal something. That was really interesting, the ant part. And terrifying. As ants, they momentarily loose their sense of self, feel controlled by the need of the colony, and nearly get torn apart - literally- by rival ants. It causes nightmares. They're all really unnerved by the experience, Marco (the narrator this time) so much that he wants to back out entirely- no more morphing, no more fighting alien enemies. Just to be a normal kid again. To be there for his father, who is still struggling with depression and grief (his mother had died two years ago). But when they finally get the enemy ship- plan goes wrong and they're all taken captive- Marco suddenly finds a very compelling reason to stay in the fight. And at the very last moment, when all seems lost, a faction between two enemy Vissers gives them a way out.

This one was better told than the last, for sure. And the gorilla? That was a brief scene in the beginning, when Marco morphed into a gorilla to fight off some thugs who were going to mug an old man in an alley. He got no thanks for his effort. I didn't really like Marco's character in the first four books, but reading this one from his perspective changed that somewhat. And the Andalite Ax continues to be intriguing, especially how he plays with words and finds so many human accoutrements puzzling. In spite of his formal-sounding speech and superior knowledge (because his race is older than humans), he is still a child and acts like one sometimes. I've seen mention that one or more of the books further on in the series are from Ax's point of view- that should be interesting.

Rating: 3/5            152 pages, 1996

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Soul of a Lion

One Woman's Quest to Rescue Africa's Wildlife Refugees
by Barbara Bennett

Not surprising, looking at the cover and title of this book, I thought it was about lions. It's not. There are some lions in it, but they're not really the focus. The woman who wrote it traveled from North Carolina to Namibia, to visit a wildlife sanctuary and work there as a volunteer during her stay. She was so taken with the experience she began writing about it. A little into the book you realize it's not a personal story of her volunteer work, either. She decided to tell the story of the founder- her sometimes lonely and tough childhood, her extended family, what inspired her to start the sanctuary, how the place is run, how volunteers were incorporated into it and so on. While the anecdotes about the rescued baboons (many of them), lions, cheetahs, leopards, antelopes, hyenas, meerkats and other animals -including one young giraffe- are nice to read, more and more as the book goes on it's about people. It's about the situation of wildlife in Namibia, it's about how the San people have been marginalized, it's about local efforts to provide health care and education. And unfortunately, I found the writing style uninteresting. I kept going because of the subject matter- I did want to learn more about these things- and it was an interesting comparison to both George Adamson's work with lions more than twenty years earlier and Peter Stark's description of living with Bushmen. The animals in this sanctuary were released if possible, but the majority of them either were too habituated to people (had been pets) or needed constant care (for example, a lion with an autoimmune deficiency disease, a baboon that suffered from epilepsy and Down syndrome, wild dogs missing a leg from traps, etc). I would have liked to know more details about how the animals were prepared for release, but the text here just mentions them being dropped off in the bush, or let to wander until eventually they didn't return. It was a struggle to maintain interest through the end of this book, mostly due to the poor writing. I much prefer her blog version, (which includes many lovely photographs).

Rating: 2/5               303 pages, 2010

Jul 6, 2018

My Pride and Joy

an Autobiography
by George Adamson

In this memoir George Adamson tells of his younger days, his many attempts at making a living before he realized he preferred to live as ancient man must have done, with few possessions on the wide scope of land. He relates how he met Joy, their work together with big cats that began with raising Elsa for release into the wild- a groundbreaking attempt at the time. When Joy decided to also attempt raising and releasing cheetahs, and later a leopard, they had to live in separate camps. Disagreements between them on how programs should be run or what Joy's money should be used for (from royalties off the Born Free books and film) caused rifts in their relationship, but he remained very fond of Joy to the end. He treats their disagreements very tactfully in the book. His book is easier to read than all of hers- it goes into more detail about the personalities of the lions, and describes the landscape vividly. (But I also learned that part of the awkwardness or dry prose is because Joy wrote in English -not her first language- which was then re-worked by an editor). When the first film about Elsa was made, after all the hard work, Adamson could not bear to send the lions used in the film back into captivity. He petitioned to keep them and release them into a national reserve. Later he received many more lions that had been in captivity- either from zoos, circuses, or even pets- Christian the lion was one. He was curious if a lion's instincts would have been dulled by generations of them living in captivity- not at all. They fitted back into their natural habitat seamlessly, but their familiarity with people possibly made them far more dangerous than wild lions, although Adamson argued against it. Regardless, I was a bit surprised to find that the project was abandoned after the fifth generation of lions in Adamson's pride (I was starting to loose track of the individual lions at that point- the only ones that stood out in my mind were the original half dozen of them). Authorities shut the project down when people kept getting mauled by lions- Adamson and some of his staff included. The incidents were spread out over the years, but unfailingly they happened. It still remains a fascinating account of life in the bush with large predators, treated practically like family (I was surprised a few times at the lengths they went to trying to save a lion from injuries, broken leg, etc). Definitely explains lots of extra details about the work Joy did, and illuminates the aim and drive of a remarkable man. He was incredibly passionate about wild places, and especially the lions.

Rating: 3/5          304 pages, 1987