Jun 22, 2019


Cheating by Nature
by Nick Davies

I didn't know a lot about cuckoos, before. I was aware that they laid their eggs in another bird's nest, leaving the host parent to raise their chicks, and I've seen the astonishing video footage of the naked cuckoo chick pushing the other bird's chicks out of the nest to commandeer the resources all for itself. I didn't realize how intricate the depths of relationship goes, between cuckoos and their host birds. This book goes into all the details, while describing the fieldwork and experiments done to learn exactly how it all works out. Cuckoos in different areas (and not only cuckoos- honeyguides and a few other species also parasitize other birds' nests) use different host nests, and individual female cuckoos each specialize in using a certain host species. They not only match the host eggs in color and marking patterns, but the chicks match the host species' gape colors and begging calls in order to keep the host parents feeding them sufficiently. A big question the researchers had was: why are the host parents fooled? why don't they get rid of the foreign egg or abandon or evict the cuckoo chick. Sometimes they do. Sometimes the risk of guessing wrong and neglecting the own young is high, so they don't. It's all very complex and I was really intrigued by all the details, especially how the author and his colleagues figured some of it out. It's evolution happening real time, this constant friction between cuckoo and host birds- can they trick each other, will one get pushed out or the other. In certain areas host birds seem to have become wise to all the cuckoo's deceptions, and cuckoo numbers have actually fallen. But then another host species will be duped a few times, cuckoos that match that host enough to get away with it will thrive, and it starts all over again.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                 289 pages, 2015

Jun 15, 2019

I'll Give You the Sun

by Jandy Nelson

Sorry can't help it there are some spoilers.

I read this book because my teen kept saying how good it was. I asked "what's it about?" and was told: "Relationships". It is, but so much more. Alternate narration by two teenagers- twins- very close, until something happens that splits them, perhaps irreparably. Their mother encourages them in art, they're both vying to get into an artsy California school, but their views and abilities are quite different, also how the parents treat them. One feels supported and praised, the other not so much. There's also the growing schism between the parents, the boy's secret infatuation with a new kid next door- and deep fear of anyone finding out he's gay. The daughter creates three-dimensional art and wants to make the most important piece of her life in stone- and finds a famed, reclusive sculptor who just might agree to mentor her- but there's connections she doesn't realize. Passion and grief and secrets. A dangerous English guy she finds herself drawn to, even though everyone tells her he's bad news. There's surfers and dangerous cliff dives, one kid has to deal with being harrassed, the other with rape. So much awful stuff. But also such lively, vivid language, such kindness and consideration between the characters- although they have their bitter, revengeful moments, too. One of them is really into signs, omens and voices from the dead- I'm not keen of that kind of thing but it didn't really put me off this time. I found it a few things in the story a bit odd, and others I had a hard time piecing together, because not only is it told in two voices, but also skips around in time, so I sometimes lost the context of things. But overall it was rather riveting, and the ending is very nice. After all that twisting and hiding and pain, there is finally acceptance, patience, tenderness and love. I found it rather unbelievable the sculptor would take on such an unpolished student, and teach her to use power tools so quickly. But a part of the novel that really resonated with me was the boy's passion for art, and everything surrounding that. It felt much more true to my own experience than, for example, Egret.

You should look at some of the other reviews I linked to below, because everyone describes this book differently.

Rating: 3/5                    371 pages, 2014

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot
Rhapsody in Books
Good Books, Good Wine
Reading Rants
So Many Books, So Little Time

Jun 4, 2019

Snow Leopard

Stories from the Roof of the World
edited by Don Hunter

Collection of firsthand accounts about tracking and studying snow leopards in the highest regions of the world. Also a few pieces by locals who lived there-  men protecting their livestock, stories of a snow leopard encounter told through generations. This book really gives a well-rounded look at what's involved in field work- the efforts of scientists and conservationists to find the animals and learn more about them, and the struggles of people who live near them in harsh conditions, to make a living. There's even a story of a misunderstanding with a poacher, who just wanted to earn money for his family, and another of how an organization set up an incentive program- locals were paid for making crafts to sell, on condition they never kill a snow leopard (sounds like it was very effective so far). The voices are very different- some describe the grueling marches and chilling cold, only to find tracks, never see the animal itself. Others describe the beauty of the landscape, the spiritual connection they feel to the secretive cat, or some personal incident in their lives that made them want to travel to remote regions in hopes of seeing one. George Schaller, Peter Matthiessen, Tom McCarthy (and his son), Rodney Jackson and many more writers are included. It was interesting to hear from two sides of some accounts- the scientist and the assistant each writing a piece. Very striking in my mind was an account of some scientists trailing a snow leopard across a glacier. Every place where the leopard (as noted by its pugmarks) had paused and leaped across an area, they took measurements and found a crevasse was hidden beneath the snow. I really enjoyed another by a photographer who observed a snow leopard on a kill interacting with other animals (magpies, fox) that came hoping to scavenge.  Oh, and I love the cover image, by one of my favorite wildlife artists, Robert Bateman.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               188 pages, 2012

Jun 2, 2019

Green Thoughts

A Writer in the Garden
by Eleanor Perényi

Just the sort of garden writing I love. A collection of short essays (organized alphabetically by subject) on everything it seems: plant choices, catalogue perusing, balancing acts against pests, shunning harsh chemicals (she was an organic gardener), designing outdoor space, composting, pruning techniques, controlling weeds and disease. Also on individual plants: strawberries, tomatoes, peonies, daylilies, beans, onions, sweet peas, tulips, potatoes etc etc. The parts that waxed historical were not as interesting to me- although I did pay attention to the section about the tulip craze, and another about the development of rose varieties. The part on historical aspects of garden design, not so much. Her voice is down-to-earth, amusing, frank and informative. I even laughed out loud a few times! This book goes on the shelf right next to Thalassa Cruso and Katherine White (whom she quotes- we are among good company). I took notes (on plant species to look for, mostly) and bookmarked pages. I don't agree with all her opinions, but everyone's methods are slightly different. She avoids the work of carting seedlings in an out of the house, for example (like me, not having a greenhouse) but commiserates on how this style of "labor-intensive" gardening is becoming an anomaly- surrounded by neighbors who use gas-powered, noisy machines that do a crude job instead of the care and finesse could have done by hand. And this book is from the early eighties! I would be glad to tell her (she passed in 2009) that not all old-school gardeners are gone by the wayside, in fact there's a rising cadre of us now.

Rating: 4/5                   289 pages, 1981

May 29, 2019

Tibet Wild

A Naturalist's Journeys on the Roof of the World
by George B. Schaller

I thought- mostly due to the cover image- that this book was about the field study of a Tibetan antelope called chiru. That's only a few chapters. It covers many different trips and field studies the author conducted or participated in, travelling through remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau- encompassing areas of China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Mongolia. His studies were all about wildlife conservation- but there is (disappointingly for me) not a lot of description of actual animal encounters or behavior. What little is described of the wildlife, is brief. Mostly it is a report on how many animals they find in the various regions, how they tallied death numbers (from poaching, trophy hunters or natural causes and predation), and their survey of the areas- in particular noting the attitude of local people to the animals, what they knew of them, how they interacted with them, what local laws were in place and how well enforced, etc. A lot of it is just plain facts, and rather dry reading. I did find it interesting enough to complete- but I think (similar to Joy Adamson's Queen of Shaba) this is a case where the author is relating crucial info and not really giving vivid storytelling, as I have encountered more in his works (the few I've read so far).

The book describes in passing the yak, kiang (or wild ass), Tibetan gazelle, golden eagle, Tibetan brown bear, Tibetan fox and a number of other animals. More attention is given to the chriu- mostly in head counts- and an entire chapter is about how the desire of the wealthy to own shawls woven from the fine wool of chiru caused the animals to be killed in great numbers until protection was put in place. There's a chapter about pika- small rodents- all about how they fit into the ecosystem, but unfortunately local inhabitants blamed pikas for degraded pastures, and poisoned them in great numbers (on the contrary, Schaller explains that pika are important for a healthy land). Another chapter describes efforts to locate, track and study snow leopards, and a final one the Tibetan bear- but in both cases they barely get a glimpse of the animals, relying mostly on camera traps and information gleaned from the few individuals they are able to radio-collar in order to track movements. More about politics and legal tangles involved in protecting Tibetan wild sheep- the argali- and the Marco Polo sheep. A lot of it is just we-went-here, we-did-this, or in many cases, how they failed to. If you want to read about the difficulties and drudgery of field work, or an overview on how lifestyles have changed in that region of the world over the past decades - Scahller went there many times with repeated visits, so he was able to give a bit of perspective on that- by all means this is a valuable account.

It's just not terribly intriguing to the casual reader like myself. Personally, I would really like to read the book of pika fables he wrote, in order to teach local Tibetans why the small animal was valuable. Being written later in his career, Schaller also includes some introspective musings in this book, looking at what his life's accomplishments had been so far-
I have not lived up to my potential. I am neither leader nor follower, and instead inadvertently subscribe to the dictum of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not go where the path may lead; go where there is no path and leave a trail." It affords me great pleasure to observe the rich and complex life of another species and write its biography. . . I have published interesting and useful scientific information. But all scientific work, unless there is the grand, everlasting insight of a Darwin, Einstein, or Newton, is soon supersceded, forgotten or rated at most a historical reference as others build upon your research. That is how science must proceed.
This makes me think of a comment on Wild HeritageBut I wholly recognize that Schaller's work in surveying and reporting on wildlife in various parts of the world has contributed greatly to conservation efforts, even if his books aren't wildly popular or always make fun reading (I however, plan to read all I can get my hands on, even though my library only has a few. I've been collecting the others- have one on gorillas and another on pandas on my shelf. Really want to get the one about his first study, on lions in the Serengeti).

I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5              372 pages, 2012

May 25, 2019

The Winter Garden

by Johanna Verweerd
translated by Helen Richardson-Hewitt

I picked this one up at a free book exchange, because I thought it was about a garden. Well, there's a garden in it, but it's really part of the background. The main character, a lonely sombre woman called Ika, works for a landscape designer, she's planning a garden for a greenhouse setting, with careful selections to bloom in the dull, cold months. But not much of this is mentioned beyond her at the drawing board, and although there are suggestions at how important the small garden at her childhood home was to her, it's not a large part of the story, either. Most of it is about relationships- the strained, cold, unloving relationship Ika had with her parents (while her younger sister was cheerful and beloved). The narrative moves often between past and present, showing how Ika feels now and how memories arise of her miserable childhood. She had finally escaped her family's unloving environment, leaving home to work for a landscaper and rent her own small place, but now returns home over a decade later upon learning that her mother is very ill, probably dying. There's awkward quiet moments caring for her bedridden mother, brief conversations with her sister and some neighbors, the village doctor, the teacher from her old school- all slowly piecing together her past. Why it was so painful and unhappy. Why she still feels burdened by those feelings. It wasn't until the very last pages that the dark secret of her childhood finally came to light- and the answer wasn't shocking, or very satisfying either. I really wish there had been more to the story about her slowly growing hope in the new life of young plants as she cared for the garden, but this seemed to be more a metaphor stuck in, for the unfolding hope in her heart that she could build a new life for herself. Mostly it is stilted and understated, full of unexplained resentments and quiet suffering. I suppose a lot of the stiff feeling could be because I read a translated text, but perhaps it is just this author's style, as well- understatement, things told and not much shown. I just - didn't really get a strong feeling for most of it.

Also, it's a book with religious themes. It really didn't detract from the story for me, but it didn't add a lot either- I suppose because phrases and quoted scriptures which seemed to have a lot of weight and meaning for the characters- just didn't for me. I felt like there was a depth of intent there, which I wasn't picking up on. I failed to really grasp the more current relationships, either- the new friendship Ika had with her employer, the warmth she felt meeting her sister's husband and her nephew for the first time- it was all stated, not really felt. At least by this reader.

Rating: 2/5                    269 pages, 1995

May 15, 2019

Personalities on the Plate

the Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat
by Barbara J. King

This book looks at the lives of animals we humans tend to eat: fish, chickens, goats, cows and pigs. It also starts off with a chapter on insects- is it better to eat insects than mammals, because they need fewer resources (lighter burden on the planet), and have less apparent intelligence? maybe- but most people in the western world can't get over their repugnance. On the flip side, I can't think of anyone who would eat chimpanzee meat, for entirely different reasons- but the author tells us there definitely are people who do, in other parts of the world. There's also a chapter on octopus, how smart they are, how much a delicacy in certain cultures- but having not-too-long ago read Sy Montgomery's the Soul of an Octopus- which is quoted plenty in here- I found myself skipping through a lot of it. In fact that was a damper for me in most of the book- I've also read several Michael Pollan books, Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and Barry Estabrook's Pig Tales, plus several others which are quoted or heavily referenced here. So although the author brought in a lot of personal experiences and incidents I hadn't heard of, still much of the material felt repetitive to me, not a lot new, and I skimmed plenty. I also gather that much of it was first written as a blog, which might have something to do with how brief and light some of the writing feels to me. It's also strong on the emotional slant, in giving reasons for moving away from eating meat and being vegetarian or vegan. However there was enough of interest in here - and some very convincing rationales I hadn't though of before- that I read it all the way through, regardless of the skips. So please don't take my rating to heart this time; it's more my personal response to the book because I already felt fairly saturated with this kind of information, than anything else. I think I need to switch subject matters for a while.

I was really horrified by the story of Mike the headless chicken by the way- just google that, if you will. Even worse is the fact that after this chicken gained fame (and money) for his owner, lots of other men tried to duplicate the curiosity- killing tons of chickens just to try and get one that would freakishly survive it. What??!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5                 229 pages, 2017

May 13, 2019

Closer to the Ground

An Outdoor Family's Year on the Water, in the Woods and at the Table
by Dylan Tomine

This book was very enjoyable. It's about a family that does a lot of what I wish I did more of- forage, grow, harvest and catch their own food. Well, they benefit by living right by the ocean- literally five minutes from a boat ramp. They go crabbing, fishing, deer hunting, gather mussels, dig clams, hunt chanterelles and pick berries in the forest, and grow a vegetable garden. The father is passionate about finding and cutting deadfall trees to heat their house all year round. Not all trees are equal in this- I didn't realize by how much. Not all goes as planned- but Tomine writes with wry humor his own mishaps, and describes in glowing tones his small triumphs, and wow the food sounds delectable all round (this book makes me hungry.) His kids get muddy, wet, cold and tired- and are happily involved, delighted in their part. They are always eager to try one more fishing spot, drop one more crab pot. They point out the lovely things alone the way- porpoises and seals in the Sound, birds on the water, when dad often just wants to find the thing they came to catch and get it home again- kids make you slow down and appreciate the doing of it. He talks about the tricky balance between trying to live "green" and being practical about it- especially when it comes to what kind of car they drive, and where they source materials for an addition to their house. It's honest about how much one can do- when their tomato crop fails due to blight, they recognize it's okay- they don't solely live off their garden produce, and they have a ton of stuff growing wonderfully even when the tomatoes didn't make it. It's about doing what you can to be good to the Earth, living close to nature and making the most of the available bounty. It also makes me nostalgic, being written by a man who lives on an island in Puget Sound- right around where I grew up. I heartily recommend this book to my siblings and parents- I'm sure they would really appreciate it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                  230 pages, 2012

May 10, 2019

Down from the Mountain

the Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear
by Bryce Andrew

This book is gritty honest and sobering about the conditions that pitch grizzly bears and man into conflict, but also full of beautifully lyrical writing about the landscape, people and animals. It really makes you feel you are there. The author writes about a particular valley in Montana where bears have been strongly attracted by the richness of crops, feeding on apple trees and gophers in fields instead of staying up on the mountainside eating things like cutworms and berries. Some bears discovered corn, and more and more came every year to ravage corn fields- and they are extremely dangerous because invisible inside the tall corn. The author became involved helping a rancher experiment with new fencing around his corn field, hoping to keep the bears out before the corn ripened. He writes about why bears in corn is bad all around- not only bringing them into conflict with people, causing huge amounts of crop damage and loss, making the bears unhealthy (corn is more fattening than their natural foods), young bears learning this as a prime food source which could put them in lifelong trouble with people. He brings his parents (artists and writers) to visit the field and see the bears, noting their different perspectives on the situation. He accompanies law enforcement to seek out a man who shot one particular female bear, maiming it in an awful way that left it suffering for months on end. He visits with leaders of a tribal group on a local reservation, to learn from and work with them resolving bear conflicts. And finally, he follows the fate of two young grizzlies - presumably orphaned by the injured bear. It all winds up in a sad place, was my thought.

Illustrated with black and white photographs. I borrowed this book from the public library. Similar read: True Grizz.

Rating: 4/5             274 pages, 2019

May 7, 2019

Touch Not the Cat

by Mary Stewart

Took myself by surprise, here. The book is a mystery and a romance- genres I don't usually read, but I could not put it down regardless. The characters are well-written, the situation intriguing, the descriptions of place vivid and real. Heroine is a young woman named Bryony, who grew up on an old family estate- now slowly falling into ruin, held together by a trust established by one of the family ancestors, and part of it rented out to strangers. Bryony had been living away from home for a while, but hurries back at news of her father's sudden death- and hears from their lawyer that the estate will now pass into the hands of her older cousin Emory. There's several older male cousins- Bryony has always found them rather attractive (this is back in the day when it was okay to marry your cousin?) and she wonders if one of them is he who has spoken with her telepathically since she was a child. It's a family gift handed down from a gypsy woman who married into the family once- but for Bryony it is much more than just an exchange of thoughts. She feels so close to the one she's been mentally communicating with, she calls him her lover, even though they've never met in person. I found this- really odd and uncomfortable- especially with the idea it was her cousin- and I don't usually like stories that include paranormal elements at all- so that tells you what a darn good writer Stewart is, to get me intrigued anyway.

Well, Bryony finds a lot of subtly suspicious things going on when she gets home to the estate. She starts to wonder who is lurking in the shadows, who her "lover" really is, and was her father's death an accident- or did someone purposefully run him down. His last words were written down and handed to her- they seem to include a warning and she's determined to figure it out. Meanwhile, there's a wealthy American family living in the better part of the huge old house, Bryony soon meets them and that was pretty interesting- sorry to say I sometimes find English opinions of Americans to be rather- disparaging? - but this one was admiring and astute. She also meets some childhood friends who still live nearby, peruses old books in the near-empty library in search of clues (there's some lovely literary references, I always like it when characters in books are well-read), and puzzles out the overgrown maze in the center of the garden- which might also hide secrets to some long-ago obscured scandal.

I won't say more, except that this story surprised me at so many turns. What was hidden at the center of the maze- I really thought it was going to have some magical properties- an ancient curse perhaps- but the truth turned out to be much more matter-of-fact! Who the un-met lover was- this part surprised me too, but I also found it very satisfying. The cousins turned out to be nasty fellows, and really deserved what they got in the end, I thought. I don't know if I'd pick this one up again- I'm still a bit weirded out by the closeness of cousins and the telepathy stuff- but if I ever feel game to read a mystery again, I'll probably reach for a Mary Stewart.

Rating: 3/5             336 pages, 1976

May 5, 2019

The Solution

Animorphs #22
by K.A. Applegate

This book was really tense! It wraps up the "David trilogy." The newer Animorph is obviously a dangerous loose end. He quits the team for good, but his very existence is a danger to the others, not to mention he obviously intends to use his morphing powers for crime and gain, and now he wants to get his hands back on the blue box that grants those powers. It is really strange to see the Animorphs facing danger from one who wields their own abilities- you can see how they've managed to hold on so long against the alien enemy, even though small in numbers and only teenagers. David can easily threaten them, sneak in amongst them unseen, he could be anywhere, any time. He infiltrates Rachel and Jake's extended family in a very clever and disturbing way. It makes it doubly hard for the team to get rid of him- but also more determined to do so. They have to be very careful and smart to outwit one of their own- and meanwhile still have to put a stop to the summit where the enemy are trying to get at the heads of five different nations. Which they decide to do in a ridiculously straightforward fashion, since their last attempt using subterfuge didn't work at all. More significant to me than all the action, though, was the constant second-guessing Rachel (the narrator) did. She finds herself questioning why Jake specifically puts her in situations that call for threats, violence and even ruthless behavior, to get the better of David. She's angered and frightened by the knowledge that there is a dark side to her character that enjoys the challenge of a fight, and upset that the other members of the team might see her that way too. Also it becomes clear that Jake is starting to stragetically use his friends as team members for their specific abilities- they don't always like what that entails or suggests about them.

There aren't really any new morphs in this book. David uses the snake, they all morph birds of prey at some point, they morph dolphins and a whale at one point- battling David as an orca at sea- he's trying to kill them off- and several of the Animorphs acquire elephant and rhinoceros forms to (literally) crash into the summit. Rachel morphs the rat in order to lead David into a trap. None of these were really described in detail- and I rather missed that. However it was nice to have far fewer of the drawn-out sound effects written in! (I think this is among the first of the Animorphs books that were ghost-written- most of the second half of the series weren't directly authored by Applegate).

Rating: 3/5               152 pages, 1988

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

May 3, 2019

The Threat

Animorphs #21
by K.A. Applegate

Warning for SPOILERS.

Most of this book takes place at a summit, where the Animorph team are desperately trying to thwart the aliens' attempts to take over the minds of several leaders of the world, without being detected by the human security in place. It's confusing. Especially all the levels of holograms that occur. Deviousness galore. Not just on the enemy's part- also apparently from one of their own. David, the newer Animorph member, proves himself more and more untrustworthy. He has an unpleasant, look-out-for-yourself mentality, an unpalatable glee in watching fights, an obvious callousness to animal suffering. At one point he wonders aloud to Jake which animal would win in a fight: lion or tiger? (David has a lion morph). The summit turns out to be a huge trap, the Animorphs once again confront Visser Three face-to-face, David ends up exposing himself as being human, and in a moment of visceral fear, pleads for his life and caves in to the enemy- admitting he'd go over to their side. But they manage to get away and later he tells the Animorphs it was all a sham, he'd never do that. Now this kid has nothing to loose, though- his parents are controlled by Yeerks, the enemy knows his face, he can never go home again. He has to live in hiding or morph other humans (something he has no qualms about doing). Makes it clear to the others that he doesn't care about their fight, he'll use his morphing powers for gain any way he wants (already having done so to some degree) and he threatens Tobias' life (I yelped aloud when I read that page near the end). Yet already I was suspicious enough about David's motives I wondered if that, too, was a sham- did he, as a golden eagle, attack and tear apart a random hawk, to make the Animorphs think he'd killed Tobias? the book ends with the Animorphs new and old turning against each other, a battle between lion and tiger (in the mall) in the dead of night, while Ax races to get Rachel for help, and Tobias is ominously silent to all communication attempts. It's a very tense cliffhanger ending-I have to read on.

Rating: 3/5                  158 pages, 1998

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

May 1, 2019

How to Be a Good Creature

a Memoir in Thirteen Animals
by Sy Montgomery

This little book is deeply personal. I've read quite a bit of Sy Montgomery, and always been impressed. It's very obvious she loves animals and feels a close connection to them; this book explains why. Montgomery tells about the dog she loved as a child, problems in the family she grew up in (although she loves them very much) and how inspired and comforted she felt by the animals around her. She tells of the study on emus in Australia that changed the direction of her life, the huge lovable pig she adopted and cared for during fourteen years, a series of border collies she and her husband lived with- each strikingly different in personality and needs. She tells of assisting with a study on tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea, of encountering and holding a giant tarantula in French Guiana, how delicate and beautiful this arachnid was, that most would fear. Of a dazzling fierce weasel that raided her chicken coop one winter- and how she admired it, in spite of the sorrow the chicken's death brought her. And there is the octopus. At first approach, I thought this book was sweet, a lovely affirmation of the connection people can have with other animals. But it is also very sobering- later in the book she tells how the death of some she was very close to, contributed to her plunge into a deep depression, her thoughts of suicide, and how encounters with other animals helped pull her out of that. I didn't know I was going to read about this. So brave of her to write. So important, the other lives around us that touch us for good or ill- the creatures that share our world are so very different, and so much the same.

The illustrations by Rebecca Green are simple, but very charming and expressive. I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                 200 pages, 2018

Apr 29, 2019

Father's Gone A-Whaling

by Alice Cushing Gardiner
and Nancy Cabot Osborne

I found this book browsing on the Internet Archive. Picked it up for a light read, was slightly disappointed. It shows its age, but also was written for juvenile audience and has two authors, that might be part of the reason it fell a bit flat for me. Story of a young boy who lives on Nantucket during the heyday of whaling. Most of the narrative is just about his daily life- bored in school, roaming the beaches when he can get away from the strict eye of his mother and grandfather, getting into a bit of mischief with his best friend- searching for buried treasure (which turns out to be a crate of bottled wine). He's forbidden to go the wharves but enthralled by sailor's stories especially of pirates. Finds a parrot and returns it to a Spainard who lives in a shack near the beach (he's afraid of this foreign man until the Spainard offers him food, and thanks them broadly for the return of his parrot). Witnesses the rescue of crew off a shipwreck near shore- and the adults talk of scavenging the goods (I gather this was customary if there were no survivors). There's mention of local customs- a bit interesting was the communal sheep-shearing day. He's proud to bring down a goose bird when he goes duck-hunting with his grandfather. Uppermost on the boy's mind is going away to sea, but he's considered too young. He attempts to sneak aboard a ship and stowaway so the captain will be forced to accept him as cabin boy, but his plan doesn't work. Sneaks home again and gets in trouble for getting his boots wet (any little chill or soaking and he was sent promptly to bed!) The book closes with a final promise from his parents that next year when he's ten, he can sign up to go to sea. It doesn't sound like a glamorous occupation, though. One of the men described to the young boys in detail what work it was to cut up a dead whale and process the blubber into oil- it sounds very messy and odorous, not to mention stomach-turning. I was mildly surprised that this frank explanation of the hard work on board ship did not deter the boys at all in their eagerness to go. Especially since it was made clear to them that the first several years with the crew, their job would be to wait table on the captain, assist the mess cook and clean things. What fun.

I think this book is based on true events, because the frontispiece dedication is to those Nantucket people whose memories have made this book. So it has value as a historical piece, but honestly wasn't a very fun read. I found  myself skimming a lot, hoping the story would get good when the boy snuck aboard ship. It's probably very realistic, though.

Rating: 2/5                pages, 1928

Apr 26, 2019

People of the Sky

by Clare Bell

Wow, this book. It really had me riveted. Very interesting- it's sci-fi set in a future where the ends of a Native American population had taken the chance to colonize a new planet. They barely survived and generations later were nearly forgotten by the humans left on Earth. The protagonist, a woman from Earth named Kesbe, is descendant of a pueblo group- Hopi, Zuni and Havasupai are mentioned- come together in a final move to preserve some of their heritage. Kesbe learns bits and pieces of it from her grandfather, but forges ahead in her dream to reach the stars as a pilot.

She ends up with a job on one of the new planets flying an archaic, refurbished plane to deliver it to a wealthy collector. Runs into a dangerous thunderstorm and makes an emergency landing on a ledge in a steep canyon- in an uncharted area. She is rescued by an isolated group of people who live on a remote, hidden mesa. They've never been contacted by the outside world- in fact they don't even believe the world exists beyond their canyons. They are just as baffled by Kesbe's differences- mannerisms, speaking patterns, habits etc- as she is by theirs. Strangely- and thrilling at first to Kesbe- these people have a symbiotic relationship with a native animal- a creature something like a dragonfly- which their young people ride in order to hunt, carry water, etc. Kesbe finds the creatures beautiful and fascinating, and wants to learn more about them, and how they enabled the people to survive in their hostile environment. As she shares with them some Native American roots, they find it easy enough to assimilate, but when Kesbe learns the true nature of the people's intimacy with their alien fliers, everything changes.

There is so much going on in this book, and it has such interesting shifts of focus. First you're reading about the details navigating an ancient aircraft, then about riding flying alien beasts (which really reminded me of Anne McCaffrey's dragon/rider relationships), then about customs and legends of a re-imagined pubelo culture, then about women's identity and control of their bodies, then about the power belief systems can wield, and so on. There is a young boy initiate among the natives who befriends Kesbe at the cost of his standing in the tribe- some are very suspicious of her. There's an interesting man on another part of the planet -descendant of Maori and some African tribe- who is re-creating a safari experience on his vast land (he needs the airplane). Some of the most fascinating writing was about how Kesbe adapted her very body- via a drug the people made from a plant- to enhance her senses- especially that of scent- so she could communicate with one of the fliers- it is hard to imagine how a sense we consciously use very little of could carry so much information and messages; I think the author did a remarkable thing here.

I won't say more or I might spoil the story for someone else- it really is full of surprises, daring discovery and horror, later reconciliation and hope. Also some very tender and gentle moments. I want to read it all over again. I have a copy of this one on my e-reader.

Rating: 4/5               345 pages, 1989

more opinions: Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Apr 22, 2019

Dakota Dream

by James Bennett

Sometimes you find the most interesting books unexpectedly- I came across this one in a secondhand store on a trip this past weekend to Pacific Beach (and it was culled from a library in Anchorage- stamped top edge). Wasn't sure at first, but this turned out to be a pretty good read, the story kept me interested all through.

It's about a teenager who's bounced around in foster care and is now living in a group home while he waits for his next placement. He's something of a loner and a bit distanced from other people, but has this ongoing fascination with Native Americans, especially the Dakota (or Sioux) tribe. He knows the history, legends, customs, religious beliefs, etc. His most treasured possessions are a real peace pipe and some authentic moccasins. But his differences get him into trouble, adults in the institution and at school see his moccasins and his general attitude as troublemaking. He really dislikes the system (kind of reminded me of Holden Caulfield) but rather than becoming bitter or fighting, turns his attentions inward to his dream: to become a Dakota tribe member. Literally. A dream spurs him to believe this is his destiny, and when he talks about it too much people start to think he's mentally unstable and he winds up in an institution for what's supposed to be a short stay. Not really a surprise. In fact the way he rambled on about his fixation with Dakota culture to people made me wonder at first if he was neurodivergent or an unreliable narrator. Nope. He just needs a place to fit in, and wants to live among the people he feels an affinity for- the Dakota. All these adults around him think he's simply crazy, for wanting to live in a different manner. And for doing things like trying to make a real dugout canoe, or attempting to dye his skin darker.

So he steals another kid's motorcycle (rationalizing to himself why this is okay, as he holds himself to a high standard of honor gleaned from his reading about Dakota culture) after fixing it up some, and runs away to a nearby reservation. It's not exactly as he imagined, but he actually gets to meet the chief, who after listening to him carefully and posing some questions, has him undergo ritual purification and isolation in a four-day fast to seek a vision that will direct his future.

I won't say more- except that the ending was satisfying, although I would have enjoyed the other direction I hoped it might go in. The story is not told completely linear- it goes from present to past and back again a few times- but in large chunks so not annoyingly. I did wish there was more time spent on what happened after he got to the reservation, instead a bulk of the story is about his frustrations in the group home and what leads up to his decision to run away. I found the character of his social worker a bit puzzling- it's pleasant that she was a new, "green" social worker and nice to the kid- he really needed that- but she just didn't feel like a real person to me. The other background characters are a bit flat- the chief is a good one- but then it's all told through the close viewpoint of the main character, so perhaps that's why.

Rating: 3/5                 182 pages, 1994

The Discovery

Animorphs #20
by K.A. Applegate

This one was a quick read, kind of uneven but okay. Basic plot: the Animorphs realize a new kid at school has come across an alien object that holds the morphing technology. They spend a lot of time trying to get it away from him- first attempting to pay for it, then outright stealing when plans go awry. Of course the enemy very much wants this object also, and they find out where it is, so there's a sudden battle between most of the animorphs and the Visser in the new kid's bedroom. Where Marco morphs a snake. After that, things lead to the Animorphs letting this kid in on their secret and turning him into one of them. A bit reluctantly- they don't really know him- and perhaps unwisely- he seems to have a penchant for cruelty- but they don't see any other way to deal with it. They have to save the president of the US from falling into alien clutches- so there's a very confusing and ridiculous fight involving a cloaked alien space ship and a helicopter, where the Animorphs turn into cockroaches to avoid detection- but barely escape with their lives, not succeeding with the rescue mission at all. Well, maybe they failed- that's where the book suddenly ends- I am not sure why it didn't just continue, could have easily been 200 pages and finished the storyline but yeah stopping in the middle of the action makes it a cliffhanger. The part I was really interested in was seeing the conflict and dilemma they had with the new kid- they want to get to know him, figure out can they trust him, ease him into the idea of morphing into animals- but they don't have time because of the pressure to go save the president. So it all moves very quickly and the kid is in shock for a lot of it, and they really jump on the decision to include him. I'm curious to see what that all leads to.

Rating: 3/5            153 pages, 1998

more opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Earning My Spots

by Mark Eastburn

Wanted to like this one, but I just couldn't get into it, probably because it's juvenile fiction and the writing just a bit too simplistic for my taste. Things were glossed over that I really wished had better treatment. Such as, when the main character's family is apparently kidnapped, his reaction is so flat. Well, he does go off on a quest to find them again, but I would have expected more shock or anger or something. Maybe- because he's not quite human? His family are were-hyenas, shape-shifters. I haven't read a lot of books with this concept, aside from Animorphs really. I was into it at first- the hyena boy faces off against a group of bullying werewolf kids at the school- his is the only family of were-hyenas in town so he gets picked on and misunderstood. Then his parents disappear during a sudden confrontation with harpies - that really threw me- and he goes off with a new acquaintance- a were-jaguar kid- and some others to find them again. Eventually- I gathered this from synopsis read elsewhere- he encounters a population of were-hyenas in another part of the country, learns more about his heritage, finds out that his quest is much bigger than just saving his family. A lot to like- but for some reason I lost interest when the harpies showed up. I don't know why I can suspend belief to read about people who change into wolves, hyenas, jaguars, coyotes, etc. but the inclusion of harpies makes me roll my eyes. Maybe because it's a different kind of genre? harpies seem like they belong in a fantasy story with magic, while shape-shifters fit into urban fantasy type? it's all fiction so I don't know why it matters to my brain. Oh well.

I had this one on my e-reader.

Abandoned                 288 pages, 2016

more opinions: Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Apr 16, 2019

Mama's Last Hug

Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves
by Frans de Waal

We are not separate from animals in our ability to feel emotion, and now science is finally able to prove this. Studies show that animals have the exact same chemicals and structures in their brains that produce emotions in people, so why do we assume they don't experience the same types of feelings? He discusses how our culture and assumptions of superiority have stood in the way of this understanding for centuries, but also (more interesting to me) describes many incidents and experiments that show animals are capable of feeling anger, unfairness, jealousy, disgust, shame, affection, guilt and empathy (to name just a few). They laugh. They deceive each other. They manipulate power struggles. They learn from their experiences, support their friends, and wait for chance at revenge on their enemies. The author studied chimpanzees so a lot of his examples are about great apes, but many other animals are also included- dogs, elephants, even fish. It's an very thoughtful and eye-opening book that will make you see animals in a different light- they are so much like us. Which- particularly in light of a recent book I read- makes you feel consternation about how we treat thousands of them in captivity and on factory farms- the author addresses this a bit as well, in his final chapters.

I feel like I skipped something reading this book before Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? but the author says he wrote them as companion volumes to each other, though I feel this one probably builds a lot on ideas and facts presented in the former. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5                   326 pages, 2019

Apr 12, 2019

The Boy Who Talked to Dogs

by Martin McKenna

Memoir of the author's childhood when he ran away from home and lived on the streets in Ireland, taking up company with a pack of stray dogs. It's not like Dog Boy. This kid was older, and wrote his own story, and told just as much (in alternating chapters) about his home life and the incidents that led up to his running away. He had ADHD, in a time when it was completely misunderstood, so his behavior just led to punishment, frustration, and teasing from other children. His home was rough- a father who regularly got drunk and beat him, numerous other siblings to compete with. School was awful- he couldn't read, failed to comprehend a lot of the material, and got sick of the teachers' corporal punishment when he didn't fall in line. He became the target of bullies, as well. Ran away from it all and lived in a culvert, then hay barns, stealing food and attracting the company of several dogs, which eventually became seven. He felt more comfortable among the dogs than with people, so settled in with them. Eventually he took up a few odd jobs- helping at a horse fair, assisting with coal deliveries. It was at the horse fair that he watched a small dog boss around a bunch of larger ones, and wondered how it was able to get away with that behavior. He figured out that somehow the little dog was dominant to the others, and going home to the barn, recognized the same kind of behavior among his own dogs. Observing more closely he started to figure out some of the dogs' body language, and used it back with them. Some of his ideas I'd come across before- such as that a lot of dogs don't really like being hugged, they interpret an arm around them as threatening- and others I'm not sure if he accurately interpreted what he saw, but regardless he lived long enough with the dogs to get himself together and eventually return home. That's where the book ends. He also managed to face down some of the bullying, and set a few rights in the community (confronting some men who illegally baited badgers, for one thing) but there's no explanation of what happened with his schooling. It's a pretty good read, though.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                    223 pages, 2014

Apr 10, 2019

Eating Animals

by Jonathan Safran Foer

This book has made my heart heavy. It put a lot on my mind and now I hardly know where to start talking about it. It starts as a personal narrative- the author had waffled for most of his life about eating meat or not- and finally decided to do some research on it: why do we eat animals? where does it come from? how are the animals treated? He also tells quite a few family stories, illustrating how important food is in culture and family heritage, emphasizing how difficult it is to change, and to reason out why. A lot of it is about how screwed up the food system is in our country, particularly factory farming of animals. The author took a very close look at all this. He interviewed many: a man who runs a large operation, a small scale farmer who personally knows all his animals, an activist who sneaks into chicken sheds. It's not just about how appallingly the livestock is treated in the poultry, cattle and hog farming industries, it's about how terribly they pollute the environment, how dangerous they are for our health, how wretched the working conditions are for humans employed there. How the power of the corporations enables them to shrug off fines or ignore audits and inspections that don't get enforced. I was shocked to read that over ninety percent of the meat now sold in America comes from large factory farms. Humanely raised animals are so few- not from lack of demand, but because the system makes it so hard for small farmers to function- they would never feed us- not even one city. Apparently even fish isn't a good choice- if you're not worried about mercury poisoning, or alarmed at how devastatingly commercial fishing ravages the ocean (killing hundreds of species for each one they actually keep), farm-raised fish isn't all that better: the conditions on fish farms are just as bad for the animals as those in land-based facilities, and are even less regulated. Foer makes it sound like the only way to avoid being part of all this nastiness and horror is to simply not eat meat. For the first time it sounds like a proper idea to me.

This book was written a decade ago- I'd like to think that things have improved, but I'm rather pessimistic about that. However, there are at least two restaurants near me that specialize in farm-to-table fare, we are definitely going to patronize them although it's expensive (for good reason) I will just eat out less. As if I did much before, anyway.

Rating: 4/5              341 pages, 2009

Apr 4, 2019

Pig Tales

An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat
by Barry Estabrook

This book is mostly about the pork industry. It starts out looking at the intelligence of pigs, their resourcefulness and success at going feral in practically any environment, and the idea that pigs may have been one of the first domesticated animals- before sheep, goats or cattle. The author visits different people doing research on pigs and accompanies some people on a boar hunt in South Carolina. Then he visits both a small pig farmer and several large factory operations. The comparison is stark. There are several chapters on different details about the huge operations- inhumane treatment of the animals, contamination of meat, lack of enforcement for safety rules, dangerous use of antibiotics- and how it spreads to people- and pollution of the surrounding environment- often not only making noxious odors that ruin the air quality for people who live nearby, but also cause serious illness. He discusses lawsuits and protests that have ensued. He looks at the economics- why are factory farms driven to produce pork this way. To be fair, he does visit one place that runs to industry standard and keeps it all as clean and humane as possible. But there are many others that push production as far as they can, pressuring workers into dangerous conditions and stressing the animals, to say the least. It's unpleasant and puts the public buying the end product at health risk.

The final chapters make you feel okay about eating pork though, if you can get it from a good source. Estabrook visits a sustainable pig farmer in upstate New York who raises heritage breeds on pasture. He gets their family story, describes the pleasant environment and health of the pigs and sees all parts of the operation- from farrowing sows in a roomy barn to young pigs romping on the land, then the trip of grown eight-month hogs to a clean, small scale slaughterhouse. In the final pages he rides in the delivery truck with the owner to an upscale restaurant, where the pork is obviously admired and appreciated by the chefs. You have to pay a premium for it, though- and he pretty thoroughly explains all the costs involved, how someone can make a decent living running a small pig farm, all the details that give you a quality product, a pig that lived a pretty good life and died without feeling distress- why it all costs more. However this can be done on a larger scale. The author traveled to Denmark to visit a hog farm- not as large an operation as factory farms here, raising 12,000 hogs a year without stinking up the environment or using antibiotics. They have better controls in place it sounds like.

Descriptions of what goes on in the factory operations is so disgusting and alarming I never again want to eat pork from that kind of place, if I can help it. It doesn't make me swear off meat altogether, it just means I will probably eat less of it because I will be a lot more picky about what I buy.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           335 pages, 2015

Apr 2, 2019

Nature Wars

the Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks 
Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds
by Jim Sterba

This book is a different take on human/wildlife interactions. It first looks at the history of settlement in America- early colonists cleared the land and farmed, hunting wildlife extensively as predator control, crop protection or food supply. Nearing modern times, many kinds of wild animals had become so scarce they were rarely seen. Early conservationists instilled in people the desire to preserve pristine nature and help wild animal populations recover. When family farms began to be abandoned and the pattern of living changed across America, fields grew back into new forest- rather quickly. Later, sprawling suburbs supported a lot of new habitat- scattered trees, bushes, open edges- perfect for certain kinds of animals: deer, foxes, turkeys, possums, squirrels, raccoons, etc etc. These animals have proliferated so much they are now a problem in many areas, sparking conflict about how to manage them. The author looks at many ways in which animal control has been attempted- and how successful the various methods are. It appears that hunting and trapping is the most effective (and least wasteful) but that meets with a lot of protest by people who consider it cruel or don't want firearms used near where they live.

The book has a lot of facts- it was a slow read for me at first due to the amount of statistics and such, but got more interesting once it focused on certain animal species. There's chapters specifically about issues regarding beavers, deer, wild turkeys, bears and canada geese. There's a close look at rising vehicle traffic and mounting numbers of roadkill, whether feeding wild birds helps them or causes more problems, and feral cats. It has a lot of criticism for the system of capturing, sterilizing and re-releasing feral cats. Overall a lot to think about. Some of it I'd heard before, a lot was new to me, or presented in a way that caused me to see the issue in a new light. I wasn't aware of a much about the beavers, for example. I felt like the author mostly gave an impartial look at both sides of the problems, but it's also clear what he thinks the best solution might be in many cases.

Older book on similar topic: Alligators, Raccoons and Other Survivors.

Rating: 3/5              343 pages, 2012

Mar 25, 2019

Resurrection Science

Conservation, De-Exctinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things
by M.R. O'Connor

When I first picked up this book browsing at the library, I assumed by its title the subject matter was extinct animals scientists hope to one day revive: I've read before about ideas on resurrecting the woolly mammoth, for example. This book is much broader in scope and full of detail I didn't expect. It's about how complicated issues have grown around saving wildlife as human populations eat up space and climate change affects everything. It's about the real difficulties surrounding attempts to define what value a species has, what measure should be taken to save them, how well it works, etc.

Each chapter has a different focus: spray toads in an isolated waterfall gorge that were threatened by a dam to provide electricity for impoverished Tanzanians. Florida panthers reduced to such a small population they have become inbred. White Sands Pupfish that exist in tiny pools on a missile range. The giant enigma of northern right whales- nobody knows where they spend half their lives, the puzzle of why their reproduction rate is so low. The Hawaiian crow is extinct in the wild- attempts are now being made to release captive-bred birds back into their native forests. Passenger pigeons- why did they really disappear? is it possible to bring them back? would people want to (they were a terrible scourge for colonial farmers). Last of all - Neanderthals. Who according to this book, weren't the unintelligent 'caveman' brutes popular culture likes to portray- but highly intelligent in their own right, well-adapted to their environment.

All of these were full of information totally new to me. I had never heard of spray toads before. I didn't realize that Florida panthers used to interbreed with Texas cougars (a long time ago)- so scientists attempted bring in some Texan cougars to diversify the gene pool. But when the panthers started breeding, there was no space for the population to expand. Nowhere for them to live. Honestly, it was so dismaying I didn't read the book for a few days- then got online and looked stuff up. Some failed developments have been turned back into wild land for the panthers. The spray toad still lives- supported by artificial misting systems. I have to remind myself this book is a few years old! But some things in it are still hard to understand. The vast storage systems of frozen animal tissue samples- in case they can one day be re-generated. The methods gone beyond stem cells. The genome sequencing. Insights this gives us into things like when did the right whale population become so small (it was before humans hunted them apparently) and how closely related are passenger pigeons to band-tailed pigeons. I didn't know there were so many people passionate about bringing passenger pigeons back. I was even more surprised to read that some scientists think to bring back to life the Neanderthal- wow that is full of some strong implications. The end of the book got a bit philosophical and it was difficult to keep focus on the last few pages. Overall it was full of way more complex issues than I can describe, lots to think about.

Oh, there's also a chapter about the Northern white rhino. It was the same story as in The Last Rhinos but with slightly different details which made that a very interesting read.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5              266 pages, 2015

Mar 15, 2019

Bringing Nature Home

How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants
by Douglas W. Tallamy

This one was great. Just what I needed. Stuffed full of information and beautifully clear photographs. It's not necessarily about how to select plants, but instead focused on why homeowners need to reintroduce native plants to their land, and weed out aliens as much as possible. I've never been a purist in my gardening. I've always though ok: natives are good, feed the birds, but I like some striking, pretty plants that don't get eaten by the deer too. Although I haven't got very far in filling my yard with the perennials and shrubs I had my eye on yet, and a good thing I guess. This book has convinced me I'd do better with buttonbush than butterfly bush, and to really value the maples, oaks and crabapple in my yard- in spite of the mess they make with dropped seeds and small hard fruit.

His main point is that in order to support the wildlife we like seeing- the mammals- squirrels, rabbits, deer, foxes - and particularly the birds- we need to have plants that support the bugs. Because all the small creepy crawly things eat the plants and turn the value of the sun's energy trapped in plants into a major food source (their own bodies) for the birds. Most birds feed their young on insects, period. And he points out that the damage insects do to plants is usually minor enough that most gardeners don't notice it, if you have a good balance so there are enough predators attracted (birds, spiders, assassin bugs etc) to eat them! And he shows the scientific data that no matter how long an alien species of plant has been on our continent, the insect life here is not adapted to feed off it, and will take such a long time to do so it's pointless to consider. I didn't realize.

So a major part of the book is a gallery of photos showing all the little critters you might not notice in the yard, making a note of why they are important to the bird life (and other things), and what plants support them. There's also a section on trees, which native trees are the most valuable in terms of supporting wildlife- some feed literally hundreds of different species. I really like reading through the pages on insects. I learned some astonishing things, and found info on bugs I've seen in my own yard, but knew nothing about before. Did you know there are female insects that care for their young? some will guard the eggs from predators, others guard the nymphs, and one will lay its eggs near another female's clutch, then leave so the first female cares for them all! Did you know the female white tussock moth has no wings? I've seen their caterpillars a few times, had no idea. Did you know that monarch caterpillars can feed on more than just milkweed? any plant in the same family will do- and there's quite a few of them. So, so much more.

I paid to read this one, that's how much it galvanized me. I kept it beyond the due date (when someone else obviously wanted it- I couldn't renew) so I could finish reading, take notes, and find a copy machine for those lists of plants in my region that have the highest wildlife value (supporting the greatest number of insect and thus bird life). I really want to find a copy to add to my personal collection, so I can reference it often. I'm not going to stop trying to keep the bugs from ruining my vegetable garden, but if I plant more perennials and flowers around the yard they can eat, maybe they won't be so attracted to my little patch of edibles. And this book shows me how.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5                  358 pages, 2007

No Way Home

the Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations
by David S. Wilcove

I didn't finish this one. I read fifty pages. No fault of the book- I'm just very busy with starting the garden, dealing with things in my aquariums, the kids' school activities and so on. Reading has to fit into the margins right now, and this one just didn't have me eagerly turning pages every few minutes I could sit idle here and there. I'm returning it and hope to pick it up again at a later date.

It's about how animal migrations have been disrupted by human activity and habitat loss. Each chapter looks at a specific type of wildlife- the one I read was on birds (songbirds in particular) and it was very detailed, but I found the writing a bit dry so it was hard for me to stick with it. Later chapters - I gathered by skimming- are about monarch butterflies, wildebeest and other herbivores in Africa, bison and pronghorn in the American West, whales and sea turtles, salmon and other fish that travel up freshwater streams to spawn. Most cases are about how animals need to travel to follow food sources, or reach places where they can safely raise their young, how scientists have tracked them and learned about all this. The data about how travel routes have been disrupted and thus animal populations fallen, are kind of staggering if you haven't read about it before. There's some suggestions for how we can reverse the damage and support the animals' needs, but overall it sounded kind of glum. But then, I didn't read the whole thing so can't say.

I hope to revisit this one soon.
Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned               245 pages, 2008

Mar 6, 2019

The Departure

Animorphs #19
by K.A. Applegate

I was looking forward to reading this book, because I had hints from some others' reviews of what was coming. It was both more and - different- from what I expected. I really like the cover image. Someone (on Goodreads or Amzn) made it sound like Cassie just quits, and flits off into the landscape as a butterfly to escape everything. Not at all what happens. Warning for spoilers if you haven't read this far in the series.

Cassie's bad feeling for what the Animorphs do in the war against the Yeerks has been building, and in the dinosaur episode it just goes too far. Fed up with the violence and killing, Cassie declares to her friends that she's quitting the Animorphs. They're shocked, angered, disgusted by turns. Make her promise she can't use her morphing powers if she isn't in the fight, because it could endanger them all. She goes home, learns some bad news from her family, goes out on a horse ride for some mental space and there's a little girl being chased by a bear in the woods. Cassie runs after them on horseback to save the girl, they end up falling in the river and when Cassie revives, she finds that the little girl saved her. They're lost in the forest and (conveniently for the plot) there's a leopard on the loose- escaped from a private collector somewhere nearby. Cassie finds out pretty quickly that the little girl is controlled by a Yeerk, who suspects she is an Andalite and tries to force her to tell. Cassie stubbornly refuses to admit her true identity, until the leopard attacks. She tries to save the girl without revealing herself, but ends up morphing the wolf to threaten off the leopard, and the game's up.

So Cassie and this Yeerk end up having an in-depth argument in the woods: whose side is right? the Yeerks, it turns out, are not all in agreement with what the Vissers order. Some of them don't want to be in the war at all. All of them want to have the blessing of using limbs, having eyes to see, ears to hear. The little girl Controller lets Cassie know she thinks humans (and Andalites) are domineering, holier-than-thou busybodies trying to make everyone in the universe follow their rules- when all the Yeerks want is to use all five senses, not spend their lives swimming around as "slugs" in a murky pool. Hm. Really puts it all in a new perspective. And Cassie gets it. She and this Yeerk make a deal- if the Yeerk leaves the little girl host and goes back to existing in its natural form in the pool, she will make a similar sacrifice by morphing into a dull, wormlike Earth animal and staying there.

Of course, Cassie doesn't get stuck forever in the caterpillar morph, but I sure wondered how the author was going to pull her out of that situation. It never occurred to me that natural metamorphosis would yes be comparable to the Andalite morphing technology- tadpoles into frogs, caterpillars into butterflies. It seemed very clever to me that this would be used as a device in the story- although the explanation for how it works is lacking.

Anyhow, this of all the books so far really brings up a ton of gray areas- is the enemy really as evil as they've always seemed? is Cassie being foolish or a decent human being, by refusing to fight and kill anymore. What has the war done to these kids, that their reactions to Cassie's defection include declaring an end to friendship, and turning against her if it looks like she will betray them to the enemy- no matter for what reason.

more opinions:
Thistle Chaser
Arkham Reviews

Rating: 4/5          pages,

Mar 3, 2019

In the Time of Dinosaurs

Megamorphs #2
by K.A. Applegate

This one was alright, although some things didn't make sense, I tried not to let it bug me. Note there are possible spoilers if you haven't read the series yet.

The Animorphs find out there's a nuclear disaster at sea- so what do they do? dash over there in dolphin form to see what's going on and help out rescuing people. Well, the blast throws the Animorphs back in time, to the Cretaceous age of course. It takes them a while to realize they're not in a strange place, just in an ancient time. It's extremely dangerous. They nearly get eaten by dinosaurs- several times- and there's a scene where Rachel morphs the grizzly bear while inside a dinosaur's stomach - to claw her way out- yeah, ugh. Glad for the paucity of description there. Eventually they manage to obtain morphs of dinosaurs so they aren't outmatched all the time, and then make a sudden discovery. It involves two alien races that inhabit Earth, eons in the past. The two alien civilizations are in a kind of stalemate, but the Animorphs get involved, hoping to use the energy of a bomb to blast themselves back into the future they came from- meanwhile a huge comet is looming ominously close in the sky . . . . They had to make some awful decisions about choosing if the alien race would live or die- after the aliens had helped them- to save themselves. Cassie protested having to morph a carnivorous dinosaur, and then went berserk when the instincts overtook her. Tobias makes a decision for the group without telling them- nearly on par with betrayal. Lots of drama setup for future events I think. But in terms of how they got back home, well I saw the ending coming a mile away. Biggest disappointment was when they got back to their own time, and found out the dinosaur morphs no longer worked. Why? what's the point of having the characters travel back in time where they can gain these incredibly powerful forms, if they can't use them? and why is it possible that their enemy Visser Three can use morphs of alien creatures from planets they've never heard of, but they can't use a morph from an extinct animal of their own planet? it made no sense, but a lot of this series doesn't. In spite of all this (and the constant POV switch every chapter) I did find it an entertaining read.

Read as an e-book on my device.

Rating: 3/5              245 pages, 1998

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Arkham Reviews

Feb 26, 2019

Animal Wise

the Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
by Virginia Morell

This book is about scientific studies done to investigate the intelligence and thought processes of various animals. The basis of the idea that animals could be proven to have emotions was scientific discovery of the same chemicals and structures in the brains of animals, that are present in humans- and both activated during the same emotional stress. For the detailed studies cited in the book, the author travelled to different labs and study sites around the world. I found them all pretty intriguing, and in every case I would have gladly read an entire book about it:

Minuscule ants whose entire colonies can live in a petri dish teach their fellow ants where to find a new resource (they don't just blindly follow a chemical trail). Archerfish prove they make deft, precise calculations- and learn by example. Alex the parrot defines colors and shapes, and practices the sounds of new words he's learning. South American parrotlets have individual contact calls- they have names for each other- which are maybe assigned by their parents. Rats laugh when they are tickled, and solicit more fun if you stop. Elephants remember family members they have lost- they have a strong need for social structure and appear to suffer the equivalent of post-traumatic stress when witnessing the sudden, violent death of other elephants. Dolphins recognize themselves in a mirror, and their lives in the sea are not at all peaceful. The last two chapters which compared very closely related animals performing the same kinds of intelligence tests- gorillas and chimpanzees, then wolves and dogs- were very interesting. The apes were doing memory exercises on a touch-screen computer; the dogs and wolves (young ones raised by humans) were participating in a study looking into how they respond to social cues given by humans. It was pretty striking, the difference in behavior between the young wolves and the dogs.

I'm just touching the surface here- there are so many more details in this book- from how the scientists came up with their theories, how they figured out and executed the experiments, what further ideas they have to investigate, and many anecdotal stories of animals demonstrating their smarts and empathy as well.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5                   291 pages, 2013

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Rhapsody in Books
At Home with Books

Feb 21, 2019


by Laurence Yep

Middle grade fiction about a Chinese-American girl who takes ballet lessons. Walking home one day, she takes an angry swing at her dancing partner Thomas- who always teases- and accidentally breaks the window of a store. Confronted by the angry shopkeeper, she agrees to work off the cost of the window replacement. It's a pet fish store. And the man specializes in raising angelfish. So you can see why I liked this book! The details about how the man cares for the fish- cautioning the girl not to overfeed, changing the water, testing pH, raising brine shrimp for the young fish and so on- is background material here but so familiar I delighted in it. Most of the story though, is about how the girl struggles to keep up with her ballet class while meeting this new obligation. She is cross at first because the old man in the fish shop is critical and insulting. But some of the comments he makes intrigue her- he seems to know a lot about dance and music, while apparently despising it. She determines to learn about his past, then finds her heart softening towards him and wants to help heal his bitterness.

This is a really nice story, but as usual when I read books aimed at younger readers, I wished for so much more depth. Especially when it handles tough subjects like the suffering that happened during the Cultural Revolution in China, and what it's like to live in a mixed-race family in an immigrant neighborhood of America. The setting was San Francisco, but the only feel of recognition I had was some street names! Regardless, I liked it enough that I'm looking for the other books in this series- it begins with Ribbons and The Cook's Family. Once I realized I was reading a sequel, I figured that's why I felt like a something was missing- as if I should have known the characters better, but not enough was explained about them in the narrative. Still, it stands alone well enough.

Rating: 3/5           216 pages, 2001