Dec 31, 2019

The Prophecy

Animorphs #34
by K.A. Applegate

This was one of the better Animorphs books for me. I really liked all the ethical and morality questions it raised. It starts with a dash of humor- Cassie and Rachel using animal morphs to sneak into a teacher's house and retrieve a piece of homework that had "Cassie loves Jake" doodled on it, haha. Then a Hork-Bajir shows up: the free Hork-Bajir in the hidden valley have been approached by the last surviving Arn, that species that invented the Hork-Bajir so long ago. He wants their help to use DNA samples from the Hork-Bajir to create more of them to fight the Yeerks, and also to find a cache of weapons on the Hork-Bajir home planet. The Animorphs are brought in as consultants because the Hork-Bajir with their lesser intelligence don't understand all the implications. Winds up that they all travel back to that planet to find the weapons, but first they have to get the spirit of Aldrea- whose memory and personality was "backed up" or saved in some kind of device- because only she knows where the cache might be. This is weird and corny, but after Aldrea enters someone's mind- happens she chooses Cassie- it gets really interesting. Some other reviewers refer to this as the book where Cassie is possessed by an alien ghost, but I didn't see it that way at all. Once Aldrea was sharing Cassie's body, it was far more reminiscent of how the Yeerks take over their hosts- a fact which the Animorphs did not miss. Cassie actually struggles as Aldrea tries to wrest some control from her- because she has her own ideas, of course. There's some really interesting interactions between Aldrea and Ax- both being Andalites after all- Ax can't help looking down on Aldrea for her choices, they both have a huge helping of arrogance about everything, and Ax scorns Aldrea for her connections to Seerow (who first gave the Yeerks superior knowledge they weren't ready to handle) but Aldrea points out that Elfangor did the exact same thing to the human teenagers, so who's judging? Aside from all that, there's this impossible mission they have to pull off because the weapons cache is under a Yeerk pool, Aldrea is horrified to see how her home planet has been ravaged by the Yeerks, and Toby (the Horjk-Bajir who came to get help) sees her ancestral home planet for the first time, then doesn't want to return to Earth. The morphing scenes were crazy. Cassie's ability with this really shines, and Aldrea's admiration for it (and moment of shock at how the Animorphs are actually utilizing the morphing technology to thwart the Yeerks) is really something, coming from the race that invented it. Lots of heavy stuff. I liked it.

This one seems to be a continuation of The Hork-Bajir Chronicles. Had a copy of this on my e-reader.

Rating: 4/5              141 pages, 1999

more opinions:
the Library Ladies

The Illusion

Animorphs #33
by K.A. Applegate

(There may be SPOILERS). The Animorphs team are trying to find out where the Anti-Morphing weapon is hidden, so they sneak into a large event of The Sharing. While there Ax causes some ruckus because he gets carried away with tasting food (introducing some humor once more). They decide to deliberately let Tobias get captured so that when the new weapon is tested, the enemy will think it simply doesn't work (because of course the hawk is Tobias' true form). The plan is that Rachel will sneak along with Tobias as a fly, return to let the team know where they are, and bring them all back to save Tobias and destroy the weapon. Only things go wrong. Tobias ends up being held captive and tortured for most of the book. It's very vivid. Especially the wandering and agony his mind goes through. The reader learns a lot about bad times in his past, as he revists them. Finally he retreats into the mind of the hawk, which just suffers the pain not understanding it, and gives up thinking he's going to die. Of course the team crashes in just at the last minute and manages to save Tobias, in a very confusing and gruesome battle, but it leaves them all incredibly shook up. Tobias wonders about how Jake- as the leader- has been deliberately using him, and Rachel expresses her true feelings, plus all the awkwardness in their relationship. Tobias goes through all this after having faced (earlier in the story) some glum moments feeling awkward when he's in human form to be with Rachel, and realizing that a hawk has a naturally short life span. . . . In addition to all this, there's some equally grim stuff when the torturer reveals to Tobias some of her own backstory- what led her to actually become a voluntary host to an alien Yeerk. Oh, and there's a deeper connection bonding between Tobias and Ax, as in part of the plan to fool the enemy, Tobias acquires the Andalite so he can take the form the enemy expects him to. I don't know why the Animorphs haven't all acquired Andalite morphs before this point- it would be incredibly useful! Anyway, this is all a jumble, as I'm rather tired, but it was such an intense story, don't really feel like this one fits in the juvenile fiction category either, due to the torture scenes. (During which there's there's a strong reference to the Princess Bride Pit of Despair- a few other reviwers noticed that as well). As a side note, there were numerous small typos in the copy I read- I don't know if it's just the e-book version or not.

Rating: 3/5            156 pages, 1999

more opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales
Arkham Reviews
the Library Ladies

Dec 30, 2019

The Separation

Animorphs #32
by K.A. Applegate

Warning for possible SPOILERS as this is pretty far into the series. Rachel's falling apart, seems to be experiencing some pretty bad PTSD. She's jumpy, easily angered, and does some stupid stuff, morphs a starfish on a field trip within view of other kids in order to retrieve her earring from a tide pool. Being a starfish didn't last long- a kid comes along with a shovel and chops starfish/Rachel in half. In a panic Rachel morphs back to human, avoiding death- but now there's two of her. With two different parts of her personality, and two different parts of her brain. She's impossible to work with- one side of her being indecisive and  timid, the other incredibly volatile and violent. While trying to deal with the Rachel issue, the Animorphs also have to find out where the enemy is keeping a secret weapon that could defeat their morphing abilities. They don't want the two Rachels involved, but they need the Nice Rachel along to have enough numbers to cover all the bases and can't avoid the other as Mean Rachel is furious at being left behind. Luckily in the scramble to avoid disaster when (of course) they confront the enemy in the final scenes, the two Rachels realize they need each other to be whole and functional (Mean Rachel does so very grudgingly) and with some help from the Chee, the Animorphs are able to fuse the two halves of Rachel back into one. There were -as always- some completely ridiculous situations, but for the most part I found this one interesting. Seems like the Animorphs are using their abilities more cleverly, too- not always barging into the fray with large, dangerous morphs but using the small ones to be sneaky and pose a threat from the inside. I liked that. (This book is on my e-reader).

Rating: 3/5               158 pages, 1999

more opinions:
the Library Ladies
Arkham Reviews
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Dec 29, 2019

The Conspiracy

Animorphs #31
by K.A. Applegate

Note that there might be SPOILERS if you haven't read so far in the series. This one kind of has the same premise as the previous book- one of the Animorphs has to face a terrible dilemma: protect his family or keep the Animorphs from being exposed. It's Jake. His great-grandfather has died so they're all leaving town for funeral arrangements- which will take four or more days. His brother Tom's Yeerk is panicked at being away from its source of nutrients too long- it will die. Their father refuses to let Tom stay behind, so after several different attempts to thwart events, the Yeerk in Tom is plotting to do away with his father. Jake has to stop him without letting Tom realize that he's an Animorph. A lot of this one is focused on Jake's family interactions, his fear for Tom and hatred of the Yeerk controlling him, his inability to be ruthless like Marco was about the similar situation with his mother/Visser One. There's also conflict within the Animorphs team, who makes the decisions, can they override their leader. Jake's futile plan to simply keep twenty-four-seven surveillence on his father until the weekend is over fails; luckily his friends step in and save the day with their own crazy plan. It's a bit of a stretch to think that Marco as a gorilla bashing cars around in a parking lot would have no reactions from the public (although the illustration inside the cover showed it being cars parking on a curb with passerby right there, I pictured it being a mostly-empty parking lot, all the shoppers being indoors until after the incident) and that Rachel as a grizzly, Jake as a rhino and Marco as gorilla again wouldn't get noticed by any neighbors when they smash through Chapman's house to take him hostage as a distraction to the enemy! Ridiculous and reckless. In spite of that, I was able to enjoy the story this time. I didn't notice any new morphs, they all used familiar ones- including birds of prey, cockroach and tiger- and that's part of the series I always really liked- seeing how they felt inside new animal skins and dealing with the instincts and sharp senses- but now it's getting more intense with the stakes even higher in the alien conflict so I still like reading them.

Rating: 3/5             139 pages, 1999

more opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales
The Library Ladies
Arkham Reviews

Dec 28, 2019

Journey

the Amazing Story of OR-7, the Oregon Wolf that Made History
by Beckie Elgin

As part of the apex predator reintroduction program started over a decade ago, wolves were released not only in Yellowstone but also in central Idaho. In 2008, one of these wolves crossed the Snake River into Oregon, found a mate and started a family. OR-7, later named Journey, was a young wolf born to that pair. In 2011 he was collared and tagged by researchers, so when he dispersed from his pack a few months later, the researchers knew exactly where he was. They didn't know how far he would go! This young wolf traveled all the way into Nothern California where he lived for several years before making his way back into Oregon, encountering other wolves and finally settling down to start his own family. He became famous for being the first live wolf to set foot in California in 87 years, and his whereabouts were followed by avid fans as well as the research team. This lovely book details what is known of Journey's life- including many trail camera photos and maps of his peregrination. There's parts narrated as if from the wolf's point of view (with detailed notes in the back indicating which parts are purely invented -based on other research of wolf behavior of course- and which were drawn from known incidents), and other sections and sidebars with information about wolves, their history with mankind, how the research is conducted, and so on. In context it's a lot like Heart of a Lion, although with less detail and more pictures. It's an easy enough book that kids reading at middle grade level would enjoy, and learn from. I'd shelve it alongside Romeo.

Borrowed from a family member.

Rating: 3/5              102 pages, 2017

Dec 27, 2019

The Reunion

Animorphs #30
by K.A. Applegate

Ah, this one didn't work for me. Maybe I wasn't in the right reading mood. Maybe because it's been so long since the last Animorphs read, I didn't really recall what was going on. Oddly enough, this book jumps straight into the storyline without the usual recap, but it was so awkward at first. Please note there are SPOILERS below if you haven't read this far in the series.

So Marco skips school and walks downtown, running into Visser One (his mother) in disguise, so of course he follows her and uses morphs (in a very risky way) to get into the office she 'works' at and almost gets caught but doesn't and tells the other Animorphs what he's discovered and they go back the next day as a team. The confrontation is a mess of course but they learn that Visser Three has his forces following Visser One, having convinced their council that's she's a traitor and obtained a warrant to execute her. The Animorphs see an opportunity now to do away with either one or both of the Vissers, but Marco is dealing with some serious internal conflict: protect the Visser One who is his mom as a controller, or take the opportunity to kill her, as one of their greatest enemies. Marco decides to plow ahead with a plan to trick the two Vissers into fighting with each other- and for some reason his friends go along with this. In a nutshell it entails taking Visser One up the mountain in disguise leading her to think she's going to wipe out the hidden Hork-Bajir colony meanwhile Visser Three and his forces are following behind and yes there's a showdown on a mountain top that is only partly actually there- because the Hork-Bajir valley is actually a hologram to trick Visser One- and it's Marco who attacks Visser One but Jake knocks him aside and even though she falls off the mountainside it appears she may have survived. Marco, needless to say, is a mess. He goes home and zones out in front of the television for days.

A lot of it feels infused with anger and confusion (on Marco's part). The plan was never clear to the reader, only as it unfolded. The new morph in this book was mountain goat, by the way. A lot of things are mentioned only once and briefly, then left entirely up to the reader's imagination- such as when an underling angers Visser Three who instantly chops his arm off. The limb falls to the ground, and the narrative immediately moves on to someone talking- there's no description of bleeding, or fainting, or the maimed person screaming or anything. Just oh, his arm is gone now!

Um, I'm going to read two or three more here and if I'm getting the same vibe it will be an indication to take another long break and read something different for a while. Had this one on my e-reader.

Rating: 2/5                pages, 1999

more opinions:
the Library Ladies
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

The Folded Leaf

by William Maxwell

I finished this book a few days ago, but hadn't had time to write yet. It's a very slow, quiet novel with lots of subtle undercurrents. The Folded Leaf is a story of friendship, two high school boys who have nothing in common- Spud is athletic, outgoing and quick of temper; Lymie is an introvert- lacking physical strength but keeps to intellectual pursuits. They meet when Spud saves Lymie from drowning in a pool. The two unlikely boys strike up a friendship, Lymie often spending time in Spud's home, enjoying the comforts his own seems to lack (it's just him and his father after his mother died). Then the boys go off to college, and their friendship gradually starts to fray. Spud gets involved in all the normal things college kids do- parties, fraternities, sports (boxing). Lymie tags along, kind of idolizing his friend. They room together. They befriend a few girls. Spud mistakes Lymie's casual affection for Sally as something more- and in jealous suspicion starts to distance himself from Lymie, without of course explaining anything. It seems that the only person Lymie really loves is Spud- although he could never say so- so this breaks his heart. Desperately he starts questioning all the assurances he had built up in his mind before, leading to an unhappy crisis.

This book is really good at depicting the inner mind- how Lymie daydreams and invents reasons for people's reactions in his head, how he frightens himself with speculation and turning small insignificant things into giant obstacles sometimes. But all the background material- closely described places, family members, interactions between the adults- parents and professors around them- felt rather dull to me. Sometimes it added to the feel of place- this is all set in the 20's or 30's I gather- but other times it didn't really seem to add anything. It's got a lot of similarities to A Separate Peace, which I find I like better, and for a book with university atmosphere I also prefer Tam Lin (although that one has a realm of fantasy so I can't really compare them). I guess you could say this is very much a book about ordinary people, the closeness these kids had growing up, and what happened when they got out on their own, how some misunderstandings made it unravel. And as a silly side note, they sure seem to eat a lot of malted milkshakes!

Rating: 3/5         274 pages, 1945

more opinions:
A Work in Progress
A Guy's Moleskine Notebook

Dec 22, 2019

Cross Creek

by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Even though I categorized it with memoirs, this book is more like a collection of essays or short stories per se; it doesn't really have a plotline or story arc. It's a deep reflection on the time Rawlings spent living on a farm at Cross Creek in central Florida, most of her neighbors being very poor and the majority of them black. It's very much about place, local culture and backwoods Florida cuisine- in fact there's an entire lengthy chapter just about food- I didn't know Rawlings was so ambitious in the kitchen (and proud of it!) I have a mind to grow okra once more just to fix it the way she describes.

Her writing is lovely, and of course I especially liked the parts about the weather and changing seasons, the local wildlife and flora. She describes keeping a garden, tending to fruit trees, going river boating or hunting with friends- and often as not she was glad to miss her shot, admiring the beauty of the animals instead- even though she also liked cooking up squirrels and quail and one time as an experiment shot a bunch of red-winged blackbirds and made a pie (before she knew they were a protected species). She describes the keeping of animals- her milk cow and an old mule, a succession of dogs; and dealing with the neighbors' cattle, half-wild hogs and hounds that roam onto the property at will. Most of all though, the book is about people, her hard-working poverty stricken neighbors and the various people she hires to take care of her house or work in her orange grove. Her attitude towards the black servants is sometimes deplorable- you can tell she tried hard to be kindly, often gave gifts and assistance to those around her, sent for the doctor when needed, etc. But the words she uses to describe them are offensive, and one incident in particular when her visiting brother became angry seeing how her home had been neglected by the servants when she was away and accosted them in the middle of the night- well, that really made me cringe. I also didn't like reading how she and a companion treated a sea turtle they encountered on the beach- although they were conscientious enough to leave half the clutch behind when taking turtle eggs to eat.

Aside from many colorful characters and interesting stories about the author's dealings with them, there's plenty about the raccoons and alligators, the deer and wild birds as well. I particularly admired how the author dealt with snakes- she wrote a whole chapter about snakes and deliberately went on a rattlesnake hunt with someone in order to make herself get over her fear of them. Many times she had to dispatch dangerous snakes found in the house; one time she cornered a snake and hit it first with a thick catalog and then with her own copy of The Yearling!

In spite of the discomfort some things in this book give me, it's one I'm definitely keeping on my shelf to read again. It inspires me to look for more of her fiction, especially after reading about some of the real-life incidents and people who inspired her to write. Somewhat similar in tone to Out of Africa.

Rating: 3/5                      368 pages, 1942

Dec 18, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing

by Delia Owens

Kya is known as the Marsh Girl. Abandoned by her dysfunctional family in a shack by the water on the North Carolina coastline, she pretty much lives alone after her drunken father never returns one day. She survives digging mussels and catching fish, gathering eggs from the small flock her mother left behind and tending a scanty garden. Wanders the wetlands and communes with nature. Truant officer tries to make her attend school but she adroitly evades people in the marsh. One compassionate black family- very poor themselves- takes pity on her and pays her for the meager catch she offers to sell or exchange for gas (for the boat), gives her clothing and a few supplies. So she does get a little help from the community, but otherwise is very isolated. Most of the townspeople mock or shun her when she does venture into town. Then a boy Tate she occasionally ran into while boating as kids, starts to visit more often as a teenager and teaches her to read. Starts to open up her world- and her heart- until he leaves suddenly for college. Kya is of course hurt at feeling abandoned all over again, but also aches for companionship now- so when she catches the eye of a popular guy in town, lets herself get drawn into a different kind of relationship . . . Years later- this part told in alternating chapters-  the popular guy Chase, is found dead under a fire tower in the marsh. Kya becomes the primary suspect for his murder. The final chapters wind up with a courtroom drama- not my favorite kind of story but those scenes weren't as dull to read as I expected.

I liked most of this book- especially the nature writing and Kya's connection with the marsh wildlife- but I also had some issues with it that spoiled my enjoyment. Some aspects of the story just did not make a lot of sense or felt unrealistic. I couldn't believe how fast she learned how to read, and how easily she lost her lowcountry accent. For all of Kya's isolation, she picked up complex skills and cultural expressions very quickly. (Reminded me of how Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear turned out to be this kind of super woman- teaching herself so many difficult skills while living completely alone). I could have just gone along with that, but there was a point in the middle of the story where she had an argument with Tate during a brief visit he made after college. Things she said in that argument, words thrown in Tate's face- didn't sound like the kind of things an isolated, wild, self-taught girl would say. Having never even attended school, having never dated anyone else, having no social context outside of selling mussels and occasionally going to the small convenience store, what would she know about relationships and breakups? From reading a few romance novels? Also after being deserted by her mother and all her older siblings when she was less than ten years old, I would have expected her to have a lot more difficulty confronting or recognizing her own emotions about things. A lot of the conversations she had with the few people close to her, later in the book, looking back on what happened in her early childhood seemed awfully simplistic, and too insightful and levelheaded for someone who had gone through that kind of early trauma. It just didn't feel real. A lot of the dialog likewise felt awkward to me and the romantic parts of the story trite. Which ended up making it overall a dissatisfying read.

This book actually reminded me a lot of Girl of the Limberlost- it has a similar basic premise- wild girl who spends time alone in nature, becomes something of an expert on local fauna, falls in love with a man later on who is intrigued by her innocence and differences. But I also thought a lot of Lady on the Beach- there's a story about a woman living in poverty on the edge of the water, surviving partly off the land- and it's far more realistic about the miseries and struggle that come along with that.

Rating: 3/5              370 pages, 2018

more opinions:
Book Chase
Bibliophile by the Sea
Bookalicious Babe

Dec 14, 2019

Wild Cats

Lynx  Bobcats  Mountain Lions
by Candace Savage

It's about the wild cats that inhabit North America- bobcats, lynx and cougars (aka mountain lions). The first section is about lynx and bobcats, the middle part is about mountain lions, and the last segment discusses threats from mankind and conservation efforts. It was nice to read more detail about the lives of bobcats and lynx (which I don't often come across) but the part on cougars was awfully reminiscent of Heart of a Lion- lots of reiteration on how they are ruthlessly killed by man. I'm glad to say we've made some changes for the better- when this book was published, the author predicted that Florida panthers would go extinct by 2015. Here it's almost the year 2020, and numbers have grown steadily due to lots of work. (At this book's printing, Florida panther numbers were around only fifty individuals. In 2015 there were 100 to 180 of them. The most recent count appears to be 120 to 230- still not a large population, but definitely a vast improvement!) The strength of this book lies in its photographs- most of them are great and I thumbed through the book more than once just to look at them all again. This would be great for younger readers- it really only has a few pages of text per section, followed by twice as many full and double-page spreads of photographs, with captions giving some more information. A really nice read for a single sitting, if you want to learn a bit about the American cats.

Rating: 3/5              136 pages, 1993

Dec 13, 2019

Heart of a Lion

A Lone Cat's Walk Across America
by William Stolzenburg

In 2011, someone driving on a parkway in Connecticut hit a mountain lion. Cougars had not been seen in that state since the 1800's. People thought it was a pet gotten loose, but DNA testing showed the mountain lion came from the Black Hills in South Dakota. It was a young animal, travelling probably in search of a mate and territory, who had trekked two thousand miles across America. The trail was patched together- hair and scat samples from various locations it had passed through matched perfectly- and camera trap photos showed further proof of its passage. This book traces the big cat's journey, through news reports (full of local uproars about safety) and firsthand accounts of people who glimpsed the lion or found its tracks. Also accounts of other dispersing young mountain lions- mostly found and recorded because they met their end at the hands of law enforcement panicking when lions were found skirting backyards in towns, or ranchers claiming to be protecting their livestock. Those wanting to protect the cougars claim that shooting mountain lions only exacerbates the problem (leaving untutored young ones prone to going after easy prey) while those wanting to see lions populate the Eastern part of the states again talk over and over again about seeing lions in the landscape that simply aren't there, and spending tons of hours out searching for them. Unfortunately it sounds like all the mountain lions that ever tried to move east into habitable land (swarming with deer populations that could really use some natural control) met with frightened or trigger-happy people who shot them on sight. A few chapters look at the history of mountain lions in North America- going all the way back to prehistoric times- explaining the deep-seated fear most people have upon encountering the big cat. The language gets kind of flowery at times, and it can also be repetitive, and the blow-by-blow conversations between different people trying to find the mountain lions, or deny their existence, or fight for/against protecting them, got a bit tiresome. Still, pretty interesting overall.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                    245 pages, 2016

Dec 8, 2019

The Wolf

by Dr. Michael Fox

Lovely little book about the family life of wolves. Part of it is story, following one pup from birth to adulthood as it learns life skills, how to stay safe, hunting with the pack etc- all the usual stuff. Interjected are explanations about wolf behavior and ecology, so it's very educational as well. The little wolves grow and play, although one dies young from a disease. This book has a lot more about their intimate social lives- showing how the interactions form their bonds and organize their place in the pack. The young wolves encounter threats from a bald eagle, a wolverine and porcupine (seems to be the classic encounter in any book about young wild animals). They learn to catch mice and grasshoppers on their own, and are schooled in hunting caribou by their parents. I thought for once this would be a story just about the (relatively) peaceful lives of the animals, but man does make an appearance at the end- the wolf pack is hounded by hunters using airplanes. Some are shot and left to die. The ending is a plea for wolves to be protected, pointing out their role in keeping populations of caribou and other prey animals healthy, and a little bit about conservation work. Of course the book is dated- it hopes for example that wolves will someday be re-introduced to Yellowstone (which has now occurred).  The illustrations by Charles FracĂ© are very nice.

As I read this book immediately after Cry Wild, I couldn't help notice the differences between a few very similar scenes. In both stories the young wolf pups find a porcupine, but in this case the parent warned them from approaching, and later they came across a dead one and found out how sharp the quills were against their curious noses, so escaped injury. In both books one pup dies very young, and the mother's reaction is opposite. In Cry Wild the mother wolf anxiously licked and tended the dead pup, trying to coax it to nurse again and finally when they all moved to a new den, simply left the body behind. Here in The Wolf, as soon as the dead pup ceases moving, the mother apparently no longer recognizes it as her young, and matter-of-factly eats the body.

I wonder which depiction is more accurate. I suppose they both could be, if the wolf learned how to react to the situation according to what wolves around it normally did?

Rating: 3/5                96 pages, 1973

Cry Wild

by R.D. Lawrence

The life of a wolf in the wild, growing up and then eventually encountering mankind, to its misfortune. I was surprised how much this book reminded me of White Fang- although it feels a lot more realistic, it has similar sentiment of "tooth and claw" ruling in the wild, and it starts out very similar- opening scenes of a wolf pack struggling to survive famine in the winter wilderness, then better times come with spring and the female gives birth to pups, the strongest of which becomes the animal protagonist of the story. Much of the narrative is just about the family life of the wolves, their tenderness towards each other, the pups' fumbling play-wrestling with each other and curiosity at encountering new animals, and their growing survival skills- finally becoming adept at hunting together with the adult wolves. It often switches viewpoint to depict other animals living in the forest and how their lives interact, reminiscent to me of One Day At Teton Marsh. As the young wolves grow up, they meet some harsh life lessons and two of them don't make it to adulthood but otherwise the pack life seems pretty stable until a forest fire forces them to flee to a new area. Here one of the young wolves comes across a baited live trap, and his subsequent experience at the hands of man marks him forever. What follows is brutal, but I will say the book ends on a final positive note.

There was one odd moment in the story, when the wolf pups found a porcupine. Of course one got smacked with the quills, and the other wolves pulled them out of her face with their teeth! The pup suffered for a few weeks but then her "iron constitution" overcame the embedded quills and she was fine. I think in real life a wolf would die of the infection, if not starve because they couldn't eat due to the pain. In The Last Wild Wolves there was a photograph of a wolf that had one quill stuck in its nose. The research team found that wolf dead a month later. Regardless, this one detail among so much realism was easy to overlook and overall it's a really good book depicting the wolves' lives.

Rating: 3/5                     146 pages, 1970

Dec 7, 2019

Wolf Pack

Tracking Wolves in the Wild
by Sylvia A. Johnson and Alice Aamodt

For a juvenile non-fiction book about wolves, this one is pretty thorough. It details how wolves live in the wild, their social structure and pack life, how the pups are raised, what they eat, hunting methods, territory defense and so on. Also conflicts with humans, some folklore and misconceptions about wolves, and how radio-tracking is used to study them (thus the subtitle, which I found a bit odd because it's only one short chapter at the very end that discusses this). It's basic, but really informative for all that. I recognized most of the photographs. I think I've seen them before in some older edition of National Geographic.

Rating: 3/5                96 pages, 1985

Lone Wolf

Wolves of the Beyond
by Kathryn Lasky

Wolf pup Faolan is cast out by his pack at birth for a deformity- he has a splayed front paw with a strange mark on it. He would have died, but a grizzly bear that had just lost her cubs took him in, nursed him and taught him all she knew. When the wolf pup grows up he realizes he's not actually a bear, and sets off to find his own kind. Adventures ensue, hinting at some grand destiny for this little wolf.

I liked the beginning of this book, when the wolf was being raised by a bear. I thought the talking animals were written really well, with realistic behaviors and some interesting invented animal culture in there. The story moves pretty quick and things really change when the wolf leaves to find his own kind. He encounters savage cannibalistic wolves that live with no apparent laws, then explores a cave with depictions on the walls that teach him history (this was rather confounding, I couldn't figure out how the wolf learned to read the symbols on the wall so instantaneously), and then meets a clever metalsmithing owl. It all takes place in the same universe as the Guardians of Ga'hoole (which I haven't read, but saw the movie) I read it as a standalone but ended up it didn't really work for me. I started skimming at some point, it was feeling like a very different kind of story and some of the elements got a bit too mystical or fantastical for my suspension of disbelief. Also, it seemed really unlikely that a young, lone wolf, no matter how well-fed and taught by a bear, could kill a cougar on its own, and later take down a full grown caribou, also solo. There's lots of killing- the wolf and other characters talk about it matter-of-factly and it's not deliberately gory but might be off-putting for some kids (this is middle-grade fiction). The more spiritual elements like the wolves, bears and other animals telling things by star patterns, was a bit of a stretch for me too. Oh well. This series (and others by the same author) have lots of fans, so it's probably just me. Being too old, and too critical.

Rating: 2/5         219 pages, 2010

Dec 5, 2019

The Last Wild Wolves

Ghosts of the Rain Forest
by Ian McAllister

Gorgeous book about a wolf population that lives in the temperate coastal rainforest of Canada- the Great Bear Rainforest. It's an isolated area, cut off from the mainland by a large mountain range, so the wolves there have been unmolested by humans and evolved apart other wolves. The author studied some forty packs in the region and shares his findings in this book, liberally illustrated with some really stunning photographs. He describes the methods of study- it was completely hands-off: the wolves were habituated to a few people following them from a distance while scat and hair samples were taken to determine exactly what they were eating, how they were related, what diseases they'd been exposed to, etc. Reading why, I learned for the first time how being trapped for radio-collaring can be very stressful and traumatizing to a wolf (or any other wild animal I assume). There's some about the wolves' social structure and individual personalities, but a lot of the book is about how the wolves are adapted to live in the coastal environment. Most of their nutrition coming from the sea- they eat shellfish in the tidal zones, beached carcasses of mammals like seals or sea lions, and spawning salmon in the creeks. Only in the winter do they seem to depend on deer for food. They swim between the islands to reach different areas of their habitat, and compete with black and grizzly bears for territory and food. One wolf family denned in the site of a long-since abandoned First Nations village, and the author speculates on what the relationship between wolves and native tribes may have been like in the past. Some wolf trails on the islands were actually worn into the rock, indicating the wolves had used them for literally hundreds of years. I definitely want to read some other books written about the "sea wolves" now- have added Following the Last Wild Wolves to my TBR. The copy of this book I borrowed came with a DVD which I viewed. Some of it was poor in visual quality- grainy, blurry or shaky footage- but it was still wonderful to see on film the landscape and individual wolves described in the book. While the afterward can be sobering- it tells how commercial logging and hunting is finally encroaching into the Great Bear region- looking up the current situation I find websites about eco tours to view the wolves, so I hope the area is more protected now.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5              192 pages, 2007

Dec 4, 2019

Becoming a Veterinarian

Masters at Work
by Boris Kachka

Little book packed with stuff. Kind of an overview about what it takes to be a vet, it follows several different veterinarians through what led them to the career, how they got into vet school and fulfilled their on-the-job training, what motivates or discourages them, what keeps them going- including job switches when they start to face burnout. The author follows one rural vet to farm visits treating cattle- it's not at all like it was in the James Herriot books, he keeps pointing out. Then there's a day spent in a small animal practice, one in a busy city on a mobile spay/neuter unit providing low-cost services, another in an animal hospital ER, and a high tech specialty treatment center where innovative procedures are created. Kind of shows a little bit of everything- hectic working conditions, co-worker conflicts, difficulty with finances, managing owner's expectations and making decisions based on their ability to pay, long hours and stress. How veterinary medicine compares to the very similar work in human medical care- although the gap is closing in many ways (procedures available more and more for animals that used to be just for people), the pay certainly isn't. Some of the chapters- the one in the small animal practice in particular- felt very jumpy, abruptly moving from one moment to the next but it just shows how fast-paced that can be. I was surprised and pleased to read about how much animal care has improved in shelters across the country. It was also nice to see how many varied types of jobs are actually out there- some veterinarians end up working in public health or in education, not being hands-on with the animals. Some people enjoy the tension and challenge of a high-pressure environment like the ER, others find they like working at a slower pace and getting to know patients better at small local practices, or that they prefer the technical side of things, not being near animals at all. Of course there's a good number of very brief case studies in here, telling how the animals were treated- but mostly the book's intent was to give an honest look at the realities and options out there for work in the field nowadays, and I think it probably does a good job of that.

Borrowed from the public library, found browsing the shelves.

Rating: 3/5                  152 pages, 2019

Dec 3, 2019

Wildhood

the Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood 
in Humans and Other Animals
by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Katherine Bowers

All living things go through a transition from youth to adulthood. It's a time of trying out survival skills and independence, testing boundaries and rebelling against parental control. The authors look at a wide variety of animals- from sea-dwelling mammals and crabs to birds, wolves and hyenas- even fruit flies. They examine how all these different animals navigate the stressful, exhilarating and downright dangerous time of adolescence. The book is divided into several parts, focusing on how animals learn to be safe- flirting with danger in order to learn about it, navigate social structures attempting to gain or hold status, experiment with courtship skills, and learn how to provide for themselves- hunting or finding food. They compare the way animals manage all this, to how human adolescents also learn to become independent adults. Some animals immediately shove their young off on their own, others have a long teaching period or allow their offspring to linger around the home territory with partial support for as long as they need it. It's all very interesting and I came across lots of things I never knew before. There are a few specific individuals whose coming-of-age moments are in the book as a narrative- they are a penguin, humpback whale, Eurasian wolf, cougar and a spotted hyena- but their stories are told in a very stretched-out manner. One or two sentences about the animal first leaving home- it's about to leap into the ocean!- and then paragraphs on scientific data or explanations or examples from other species- and then one more snippet about the animal- followed by a whole chapter of tangents. Well, the tangents are actually the point, but I nearly forgot about the penguin or hyena example in the meantime. Also there's a very odd typo where a klipspringer is repeatedly called clip springer (it's a small antelope) which really bugged me. And I didn't really care for the term "wildhood" which the authors chose to use. They explained why, but it still felt gimmicky to me. I don't know what's wrong with just using the term adolescence or youth, even when talking about animals. Regardless, I really enjoyed this book. Similar read: Becoming a Tiger.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

Rating: 4/5                      354 pages, 2019

Dec 1, 2019

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

I tried very hard to like this book, because it was highly recommended to me by two family members, but I just can't get into it. I did read as far as the first passage my dad or sister marked (p. 96) and flipped through to read the other marked passages. It's full of elegant language, insightful and clever remarks, unflappable characters who meet awkward circumstances with dignity. It's about a gentleman who is placed under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in 1922. His crime -as far as I could tell- is writing some revolutionary poetry so he is spared being shot and instead condemned to live in a grand fancy hotel. For some thirty years. So he watches a lot of history pass by, gets to know the various hotel staff intimately, and some of the other guests, including a nine-year-old who first shows him the rooms in the basement and where to sneak to spy on meetings in the old ballroom. The story wanders all over the place, in past reminiscences and current musings to stories told and heard by others. All very rich and fine and sometimes amusing or insightful, but somehow boring too. I'm sorry to say I was relieved to give up on it. Could just be wrong timing for the reader. It's popular enough I'll always be able to find a library copy if I want to give it another try someday.

Borrowed from a family member.

Abandoned                             462 pages, 2016

more opinions:
Attack of the Books!
who else has read it?

Nov 30, 2019

Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head

by Nancy Viau

This is a fun book about some serious stuff, and I liked it a lot. I actually bought it for my youngest as a gift, but wanted to have a look myself first. She likes rocks, and so does the main character in this book, Samantha (called Sam). Sam has a growing rock collection, which she's looking forward to showing off for a school science project. She loves science and making lists about things, often spouting off facts in class. I really liked how she incorporated her rock collection into the school talent show (although it didn't turn out the way she'd hoped). But Sam's hot temper and penchant for science make it difficult for her to get along with peers and make friends. One time she even gets labeled as a bully on the playground because she doesn't back down when another kid teases her, but retaliates. Sam also squabbles a lot with her older sister and struggles to stay on her mom's good side. She's kinda got a quirky family- her mother makes really um, creative birthday cakes with every dinner- (she works for a greeting card company). Dad is out of the picture- at first I thought this was due to a divorce situation, but later in the story find out that he had passed away. So there's a bit about that in the story too, how Sam misses her father and wants to find out more about him, but without making her mom feel sad. The big thread through the book is Sam's eagerness for a family trip to the Grand Canyon- except she has to learn to keep her temper under control or they won't go. Sam learns some self-calming methods to not blow her top so often, and it's great to see how she improves with practice over the course of the story. It did feel kind of odd to me that when Sam was going on about something that bothered her, adults or friends or sister would suddenly step in telling her to quit yelling but to the reader it didn't seem as if Sam was so upset. I expect that was done on purpose, to show how Sam herself didn't realize when she was getting out of control. Overall I thought this was a really good book about a girl who's something of a science geek but still wants boys to like her and is figuring out how to get along with her sister and keep peace in the family. I hope my kid likes it enough to ask for the sequel, because I'd read that one too!

Rating: 3/5               192 pages, 2008

Nov 27, 2019

Leaves on Frozen Ground

by Dave Carty

A small family living on the edge of the forest. They have an apple orchard, own a few rental properties and the father also works in construction. The kid loves to roam the woods alone- which his mother worries constantly about. The boy simply loves the outdoors and practicing survival skills his father taught him; when they get two border collies he joyfully goes out on long walks accompanied by one or both. I liked the depiction of the dogs- seemed very true to type. The lives of the couple- not so much. Lots of conversations about struggling finances and the economy, the mom's worries about her son and the father's dismissal of that. Their very different ways of seeing things. Eventually a few crises happen- problems at work, a bear in the apple orchard, the death of one dog- that slowly starts to unravel the family. Unfortunately I didn't care much about them as individual characters and I'm not interested in baseball, so the father and son passion for that did nothing for me. I got tired of mention of the wife's prettiness that turned the wrong heads, the husband's muscles and workouts. Every now and then there was a little detail that felt out of place and kinda knocked me out of the story. There is some lovely descriptive writing of the landscape and the weather, but somehow even the kid's forays into the woods left me uninterested. While the characters and situation felt very realistic, something about the narrative style just fell really flat for me. I knew something very sad or critical would happen to this family in the end, and it did. I read about their dissolution with the same detachment. Surprisingly, I liked the ending well enough- the few final pages had a very satisfying moment. But the way it was told- just not my type.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 2/5               225 pages, 2019

Nov 24, 2019

Symptoms of Being Human

by Jeff Garvin

Riley, the protagonist of this novel, is going through a lot. A new high school. Parents involved in politics, very high-profile. Anxiety attacks and therapy sessions after a brief stay in a mental hospital. And Riley is gender fluid (feeling like a boy one day, a girl the next), which nobody (except the therapist) knows about. Riley mostly wears neutral clothing that leave him/her feeling untrue to self and (as much I could gather from the story) strikes an androgynous appearance. Riley makes a few friends but suffers taunts and harassment at school which eventually escalates. Meanwhile, the therapist suggest writing as an outlet, so Riley begins to blog- about personal experiences, with a nice scattering of snark and humor thrown in. It's something of a shock when the blog becomes wildly popular among the online LGBTQ community- and Riley starts cautiously giving advice to people who send in messages. Receives a lot of support on the blog, but also some negative comments. Then it turns sour when an anonymous commentator starts leaving hateful messages and hinting that they know Riley's true identity, threatening to out Riley at school. Fair warning: some of the events at the end of this book could be traumatic to read. There's an assault, and there's talk about a suicide and its affects on someone's family. However there's also support, true friendship, and positive self-discovery. Sometimes things get ugly but Riley makes it through and finds strength.

I liked how realistic this book felt- in that nobody's perfect. Riley's two friends are mostly accepting, but one avoids stepping in sometimes when Riley needs help, and the other is hiding her own secrets. Riley finds support among the LGBTQ community, but sees how someone else faces a violent reaction when coming out to parents. There's even a moment when Riley isn't sure if a new acquaintance is male or female, and feels awkward about it- realizing that everyone has an innate tendency to judge on appearances, even when we don't want to. Rather pointedly, the author wrote the book in a way that never actually reveals which sex characteristics Riley was born with- this made sense, but sometimes it felt a bit forced to me. This is the first time I read a book with a main character who is gender fluid, so it was educational for me. However for readers already familiar with this, the explanations might feel like an info dump at times, even though they were woven pretty well into the story.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                  340 pages, 2016

more opinions:
Reading Rants
Gone with the Words

Nov 20, 2019

Intensive Care

More Poetry and Prose by Nurses
edited by Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer

This was among a box of books my sister once gave to me (she's a nurse). It's a collection of poetry, short stories and a few essays written from personal experiences. (There's a prior volume called Between the Heartbeats). As I'm not terribly keen on poetry, and the book has more than twenty authors, this was a rather uneven read for me. Some pieces just didn't speak to me at all, or were difficult for me to connect to. Others were downright disturbing, or very very sad. Especially of innocent people suffering, stricken by illness or worse injured by outright cruelty. The stories and poems span a wide range of nursing experiences- from students practicing their technique to men or women years into the job, or others looking back after a long career. There are nurses in the usual hospital setting I would expect, but also many stories from remote areas in poor countries, from refugee camps, from the front lines in battle zones. There are stories of frustration and burnout, of exhaustion and misunderstandings. And also those of tenderness, of compassion and deep caring. Quite a few tell of a particular patient or experience that had a profound impact on an individual nurse. I skimmed over a few, puzzled over others, but found many resonating with sensitivity or tense with discomfort, letting me glimpse what it's like to do such work.

Several that really struck me: "The Color of Blood" by Victoria May Collett- how a scrub nurse experiences working alongside a renowned heart surgeon- the thrill and stress and strain. "Water Story" a poem by Cortney Davis. "We Do Abortions Here" by Sallie Tisdale- the subject is exactly that. And these lines from "What Nurses Do: the Marriage of Suffering and Healing":  The rhythm of a heart repeats itself like vows / in a chapel full of light, but we are gathered / here because this man's heart choked after forty years /  . . . and now something as old as love / must be the pencil that helps the heart write / its good-byes across our screen.

Rating: 3/5                           269 pages, 2003

Nov 4, 2019

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor

This is a book that has been on my TBR a very long time- and before that I had definitely heard of it. It won a Newbery in 1977. I think I may have seen a film version when I was a kid- one of the scenes where the family and their neighbors fight a fire in the cotton field at night, beating the flames with dampened grain sacks, was suddenly visually familiar to me. It's about the Logans- a black family living in Mississippi during the thirties. Cassie's family owns their land, but is surrounded by black families who are sharecropping, barely able to make ends meet. The nine-year-old narrator tells about all the inequalities she experiences and witnesses- from sub-par segregated schooling to suffering insults and snubs in public, to watching her family struggle to hold onto their land as white people in positions of influence and means make life hard for them. At first this is subtle, and Cassie's parents resist by equally subtle means- encouraging the black community to boycott the local white-owned grocery store, for example. But gradually things escalate into violence- beatings, theft, shooting, threats of lynching. Even the kids get involved, trying to sabotage the school bus (I thought this was funny) and Cassie cleverly (but in a rather backhanded way) gets even with a white girl who once forced her off the sidewalk and humiliates her in school. While the racism and violence is disturbing to read about, Cassie's family bonds tighter through their troubles- the kids definitely stick up for each other- and the parents share wise words to counsel their children. I can see why this book is taught in schools and considered a classic, but somehow I did not really feel invested in the characters. Might just be the other distractions around me IRL right now. Actually the two characters that interested me most were outside the main family- one a black boy who has a cocky attitude and winds up in bad company- a gradual thing but you see it coming. The other a white kid who is something of a loner and walks with Cassie and her siblings to and from school- he tries to befriend them but they are wary. I liked this kid, wish he'd been more a part of the story. The book is part of a series about the Logan family- but unfortunately I don't really feel interested in seeking out any of the other volumes.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                276 pages, 1976

more opinions:
Valentina's Room
the Literate Mother
anyone else?

Oct 31, 2019

Books

by Larry McMurtry

Brief memoir by a writer who is also known for his movies but his real passion was dealing in used books. Especially high end collectibles and rare editions. So of course he tells how he came to be a reader, and his love of books which any bibliophile would enjoy absorbing in these pages. However this volume felt a bit choppy to me, as he tells about part of his childhood, then where that led to or some related aspect of his adult life, then drops back into the chronological narrative again. Every other page nearly, as the chapters are mostly only one or two in length. It didn't bother me too much, though. I've liked before many memoirs written by readers or writers, but this one is really about being a dealer. A book scout. Mingling with wealthy and monied people (they have the best private libraries) and what finds he had (or missed out on). How some copies resurfaced years later, or were re-bought and sold when you wouldn't expect them to be. Lots of titles I recognized fondly, and many many more I didn't (my reading tastes are not quite the same). Loads of name dropping which did nothing for me, but I skimmed through that, interested regardless. Plenty of interesting snippets of stories about curious customers or individuals met while seeking out fine book collections. He tells about when secondhand bookshops were thriving, and how he watched them slowly begin to decline in the seventies. This account wraps up just when online selling was becoming a thing, in fact the last chapter is a sort of obituary list of defunct bookshops- many of which he'd acquired the complete stock when they went under. He also noted how computers are gradually taking over space in public libraries, saying though Book selling will never quite expire unless reading expires first... Civilization can probably adjust to the loss of the secondhand book trade, though I don't think it's really likely to have to. Can it, though, survive the loss of reading? That's a tougher question, but a very important one.

Aside from the bookishness, I also enjoyed reading about places- I've lived briefly in San Francisco and Baltimore, and now am near Washington, D.C.- all locations McMurtry tells about thick with book dealing and bookshop visits. Made me want to visit more of them, before they disappear. (McMurtry says of D.C: What depressed me most in D.C. was that the various great houses I was invited to contained so few books.) !

I haven't read any of McMurtry's novels yet, but have wanted to try Lonesome Dove. Which he says he wrote as a western version of Gone with the Wind. Another one that's on my list!

My favorite quote: Very quickly.... I realized that reading was probably the cheapest and most stable pleasure of life. Sometimes books excite me, sometimes they sustain me, but rarely do they disappoint me- as books that is, if not necessarily the poetry, history, or fiction that they contain.

This amused and saddened me: I'm proud of my carefully selected twenty-eight-thousand-volume library and am not joking when I say that I regard its formation as one of my most notable achievements. Yet, when I walk along the rows of bookshelves now, I feel that a distance has opened between me and my books.... I think sometimes that I'm angry with my library because I know that I can't reread it all. I would like to, but the time is not there. It is this, I think, that produces the slight sense of alientation that I feel when I'm together with my books now. They need to find other readers soon- ideally they will be my son and grandson, but if not them, other book lovers.

Rating: 3/5                   259 pages, 2008

Oct 28, 2019

Jaguar

One Man's Struggle to Establish the World's First Jaguar Preserve
by Alan Rabinowitz

I'd heard of Alan Rabinowitz before, a leading scientist in big cat conservation, but this is the first time I read one of his books. After university he studied black bears in the states, then met George Schaller who asked him to go to Belize and do a survey of jaguar numbers. Rabinowitz spent two years in the Cockscomb basin in Belize trapping and tracking jaguars while living with the Maya people. It was extremely difficult work in rough conditions, frequent misunderstandings with the locals, terrible diseases, parasites, bad or non-existent roads, deadly snakes (encountered many times) and so on. The study site was a logging area, so there were conflicts there to deal with as well. One time he survived a plane crash, and had to deal with the PTSD of that in order to continue working- as it was often only possible to locate the jaguars' tracking signals through the air.

In spite of all the hardships and suffering, the author fell in love with the place, especially the jaguars. The people did not understand this. He tried to work closely with them- lived alongside them, learned some of their language, ran a small clinic out of his house providing medicine for common illnesses they had no access to otherwise- and hiring men to help him maintain roads, trap the animals and track them through the forest, but they still didn't get it when he got upset that one of his study animals had been killed. He took every opportunity to educate the people about wildlife- showing them sedated ocelots up closer, for example- but it took a long time for this to make an impression, the people had deep-seated beliefs and fears about the animals. Reading about their traditions, lore and native remedies was interesting too. He also shares some Maya history and while tracking jaguars through the jungle sometimes came across ancient ruins. Discovered the site called Kuchil Balum which sounds very impressive in scope (he contacted an archeologist to come and survey the ruin). So the book is just as much about the place and the locals as it is about the wildlife, a full picture of what the work was like, and I enjoyed it very much. Rabinowitz doesn't shy away from sharing his own frustrations and failures. When he left the area after two years, he wondered if all the effort had been worth it; it's hard to enforce laws protecting animals when the local policeman brags about killing a jaguar with his car! But the afterword, very much appreciated, shows that it did work after all. He returned years later to find the preserve intact, wildlife abundant and the attitudes of the people markedly changed. Great read.

This quote from the book sums up the author's work and urgency very well:
We sit by and allow massive destruction of the jagura's habitat, forcing it into situations where death is the inevitable conclusion. Yet even as we are destroying it, we admire the animal - in zoos, on television, in books- and we wonder how it lives, what it eats, not even stopping to think it might soon no longer be living or eating at all. Then when the jaguar's gone from the wild, we'll carve its image in stone and speculate about how magnificent it must have been. Is there hope for animals like the jaguar? In our greed and fear we are destroying them, as the ancient Maya were subjugated and destroyed. 
Though remnants of the spirit of both the jaguar and the old Maya still survive in isolated pockets, how long can they last? . . . When the jaguar no longer walks the forests, there will never be anything like it on earth again.
Just have to say, this kind of book is a big step up from Pink Boots and a Machete. While the former is probably accessible to a lot more readers who wouldn't normally be interested in depictions of scientific fieldwork, this one is a lot more satisfying to me.

Rating: 4/5              378 pages, 2000

Oct 24, 2019

Bats

Revised Edition
by M. Brock Fenton

I've been reading this one off and on since Darkwing. It's a hefty coffee-table sized book with loads of great photographs and tons of interesting data. My copy came from a library sale and I can see why it was discarded- heavy water damage with warped pages which made handling it feel off- reading books can be such a tactile experience for me- and the page numbers don't match the index or cross-references- but that didn't dampen my enjoyment too much.

I did not realize how numerous and varied bats are until I read this book- over 900 species! Aside from all the basics like flight mechanism, diet, roosting habits, reproduction, conflicts with mankind and so forth, this book details the many differences and curiosities in the bat species. I always thought that most bats eat either insects or fruit, but it turns out that some eat leaves, or nectar, or small mammals, even other bats. There's a species that specializes in catching fish. And they're not all restricted to one type of food item, either- a few have a more varied diet, eating plant material and insects. There's the famous vampire bats too- only three species but how large in the human imagination- that chapter was pretty interesting. A lot of the information about how bats navigate and echolocate was fascinating, too. They use different frequencies to avoid interfering with each other's signals, or their own hearing. Some are actually audible to humans. Many bats make vocal noises too- squeaking at each other. While most are strictly nocturnal, lots of them have very good eyesight and use it. Their faces are so curious- flying foxes are my favorite, they look very endearing and familiar- but many have huge ears or fleshy flaps and extensions on their noses, or odd wrinkles that make them appear very alien. One that's really strange-looking is the ghost-faced bat. I think my favorite section was one of the last chapters in the book, about how different cultures perceive bats, with examples from ancient art and legends. Not all fear bats- Chinese symbols use bats to represent happiness and joy, and have names for them like "embracing wings" or "fairy rat." A lot of this book is focused on providing information to show how intriguing, well-adapted and even vulnerable bats are, dispelling many myths people have of them so they can become protected instead of mistreated. It certainly taught me many new things. Don't ever handle a bat- yes the risk of rabies from a bite is real- but they needn't be feared and loathed as much as they are.

Rating: 4/5             224 pages, 1992 and 2001

Oct 17, 2019

Green Hills of Africa

by Ernest Hemingway

I could not like this one. I tried really hard- read a third of it. It's about a safari trip Hemingway made to East Africa with his wife (referred to in the book only as P.O.M. - Poor Old Mama- took me a while to figure that out) and a few friends, to hunt big game. Their goal was to get as many large animals as their license permitted during the allotted timeframe- rhino, lions, kudu, giraffe, zebra for their hides, etc. Hemingway was obsessed with getting a larger rhino than his companion, a kudu with bigger horns, etc. He took pride in making a good, clean shot- and while I can admire the skill- I found the attitudes overall very distasteful. Even though he describes in one passage having suffered a terrible war wound in the past, so he knows what it feels like to have been shot- and thus is determined to always make a clean kill so the animals don't suffer long. Yet he describes in detail how one of his companions always laughed hilariously at the sudden contortions animals made when hit hard from a far distance- stunned, in shock and agony, flipping head over heels or spinning in circles- I didn't find that funny at all. I've read other hunting accounts that were interesting and showed enough respect for the animals, enjoyment of the challenge that I was okay with it. Yes, these were different times and attitudes but still. It was too crass for me. The descriptive writing of the landscape, environment and native peoples did not make up for that. The cursory manner Hemingway used to refer to his companions- barely describing them at all so I rarely knew who was who- and half the time had no idea what their conversations were about- didn't redeem it for me either. I did like reading his opinions on other writers- in the evening, after stalking and shooting at animals all day, Hemingway and his companions would sit around the camp getting drunk, reading books and discussing literature. Really full of their own opinions. Some great thoughts in there and pointed observations, but if I wanted to read literary criticism I'd much rather have a book about just that, without all the amusement on the part of animals dying with their hides blasted open so he and his friends could get all the trophies they'd paid for. I'm feeling sore about this, as you can tell. Don't care for Hemingway now.

Abandoned                  207 pages, 1935

Oct 16, 2019

Pink Boots and a Machete

My Journey from NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer
by Mireya Mayor

Daughter of Cuban immigrants, Mireya Mayor was raised by three strong women and it's really admirable how she lived her own life- outside of all expectations and stereotypes. She professes to being a "girly girl" but also had a strong love for wildlife and adventure, even as a child. She was a professional cheerleader (that practice regimen sounds demanding, let me tell you) but then took an anthropology course to fill a credit in college, and realized she really wanted to go to exotic places and study primates. So she did. Without giving up her designer labels or beauty products. She talks about how hard it was to break into the field due to her different background, and "not looking like a scientist", how her feminine products came in handy on exploring treks in unexpected ways, how she worked for her PhD while being a mother. There's chapters about many different expeditions- to Madagascar to study lemurs, the Congo in search of gorillas, diving with sharks, hiking through deserts, travelling on food to the very spot where Livingston was once found (and nearly starving en route). Lots about the difficulties and hardships in remote locations, the tedium and logistics nightmares. The writing is light and conversational, a bit short on the kind of details I usually appreciate, but quick to get through and probably appeals to a broader audience, too. I did start to get tired of one final chapter where she went with a small team that was being filmed- a kind of explorer's survival reality show- and most of it was about their constant disagreements. I would have liked to know more about the actual research done on the various trips, and more description of the animals encountered. But that's just me. This book is a great inspiration for any young woman, to just go for your dreams, no matter how they match up with anyone else's ideas.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                   304 pages, 2011

Oct 10, 2019

White Dog Fell From the Sky

by Eleanor Morse

It's the 1970's and South Africa is deep under apartheid. One of the main characters, Isaac, witnesses the death of his activist friend- shoved in front of a train by members of the South African Defense Force- and flees the country, terrified the repercussions of his presence at the scene will cost him his life. He is smuggled across the border into Botswana and finds the relative peace there surreal. He finds work as a gardener for a white woman, even though he has no experience (was previously a medical student) but an old man who works at another household gives him some tips. Later he's left in charge of the house when the woman goes on a research trip to the Okavango Delta- and when she returns he's suddenly gone missing. Alice has been facing the disintegration of her marriage, is feeling unsettled from an unplanned tryst she had with a colleague on the trip, and is baffled at Isaac's unexplained absence- she hadn't known him long but it's very out of character. Especially because the white dog who had attached herself to him is still at the house, half-starved, waiting his return. Although acquaintances around her caution Alice to forget Isaac and not get involved, she can't let it be and tries to find out what happened to him. Meanwhile her new love interest has also gotten himself into trouble, returning alone to take personal action against what he sees as an outrageous atrocity- the stock fence put up to supposedly prevent hoof and mouth disease from spreading to cattle, blocking a migration route and causing thousands of wild animals to die of thirst. This man's impulsive actions, spurred by anger, reminded me of Mark Owens- probably not coincidentally, as the debacle of the fence was actually discovered by the Owenses when they were in the Kalahari. The details of Alice's ex-pat life was like Rules of the Wild, but more serious here. I didn't find her story quite as interesting as Isaac's, and the romance in the middle of everything seemed a bit- unrealistic? but not enough so to bother me. It was a slow one for me to get into, but once I did I found this story, these lives weaving together in subtle ways that gradually intertwine stronger, very compelling. Part of the story takes place in a Jo'burg prison- it is atrocious and horrific, but thankfully there are not too many details of the suffering, more about how it affected someone very long-term. Honestly, I don't often get emotional reading a book but this one moved me to tears at least twice. There's also parts in it about the native San people, which I liked very much- I kind of wish there had been more about them. The heat is consistently oppressive and palpable, the landscape very real in all its emptiness, wildness and fierce kind of beauty. I would definitely like to read more by this author.

Rating: 4/5                 368 pages, 2013

Oct 3, 2019

Secrets of the Savannah

by Mark and Delia Owens

This one picks up where Eye of the Elephant left off. Most of the previous book was about their efforts to stop poaching; while they had made great strides it was not wiped out completely. So this book continues to tell about the conflicts with poachers and govenment corruption- although on a lesser scale, it did ultimately prevent them from returning to Africa. It's also more about the animals- lions, baboons and wildebeest but mostly of course the elephants. How the years of poaching had decimated the population, removing adult breeding males and females alike- and what effects that had on their social structure. Also that they saw increasing number of tuskless elephants born in the population because of the poaching. I remember just recently reading about this happening in Mozambique; the Owenses saw it in Zambia in the early nineties. This book also tells a lot about the continued programs that supported village industries and also has chapters about each of the author's childhoods. So I have mixed feelings about it. I found most of the book interesting- in some ways I actually liked it better than Eye of the Elephant. It was good to learn about the author's backgrounds- what led a farm boy from Ohio and a girl from South Georgia to spend decades of their adult lives fighting for elephants in Africa. But I can see how other readers found this book disjointed- it not only switches POV every chapter, but also veers from telling about the anti-poaching work, village life and wildlife studies in Africa to relating childhood memories. Pertinent, yes- but also a bit abrupt. Also, I found the title and jacket blurbs a bit misleading. The back cover would make you think this book is all focused on the wild animals, but it's not. And I didn't find the data they gathered about how elephant populations rebound from poaching (or natural disasters) so big as to be considered a 'secret' revealed. Title had me expecting a lot of details about the private lives of the animals, and I just didn't get that.

There's also, in hindsight, all the stuff they left out. Which I discovered upon reading more about the Owenses online- this article in particular is disturbing. I wasn't even aware that Mark had a son, you'd never know it from the book- but it appears he was heavily involved in the anti-poaching efforts too, which were far more volatile than the books let on. And that's the least of it.

Rating: 3/5                230 pages, 2006