Sep 27, 2019


by Kenneth Oppel

I don't remember where I first heard about this book- it's been on my TBR list since 2010! I'm glad I finally got hold of a copy to read, it really had me turning the pages. Darkwing is set far back in prehistory, when the dinosaurs are dying out and mammals are starting to fill the gaps in the ecosystem. The main character, Dusk, belongs to a colony of 'chiropters'- an imagined species that precluded the bats (all the other prehistoric animals in this book are based on real species). Dusk is different from his companions- he has weak, stunted hind legs and a stronger chest and forelimbs as compensation. The chiropters cannot truly fly- they glide between trees and then climb the trunks to a higher vantage point again. But Dusk- also born with near-naked wings (the chiropters call them 'sails') and larger ears- feels a strange urge to try flapping his forelimbs. He is fascinated by the birds that fly above- the upper reaches of the trees are forbidden territory, belonging to the birds. He also discovers later in the story that he can use his echolocation not only to hone in on insect prey, but to 'see' in the dark. Needless to say, Dusk does not quite fit in, and his community finds his differences at first suspicious, then later on an outright threat. Now there are more beasts stalking the land, as the dinosaur species die out- and when some felids (weasel-like precursors to cats) that have developed a new taste for flesh find their colony, the chiropters might need Dusk to help them escape to safety and find a new home.

Even though some aspects of this story felt a bit simplistic- how convenient was it that Dusk had not one unusual characteristic, but all three making him one of the first true bats- I found it really intriguing. The world of the batlike chiropters is pretty believable, and their conversations didn't upset my suspension of belief too much. The idea that the dinosaurs died out not only from sudden climate change upsetting their world- too cold for their bodies that can't regulate temperature, lack of food sources weakens them and disease becomes widespread- but also because of actions taken by the smaller, weaker mammals- was a new one. The parallel storyline from the viewpoint of a felid that moved beyond their normal died of insects, larvae and eggs to eating other animals and got exiled by his fellow felids who were horrified by his new cravings, was just as interesting to me. Eventually the paths of the chiropters and felids intersect, as Dusk's colony set out on a journey, encountering all kinds of dangers and new strange animals. Really, the conflicts piled on thick and fast near the end, but it wrapped up pretty tidy.

This book reminded me of so many others. I'm not alone comparing it to Watership Down. I couldn't help but think of Ratha's Creature- prehistoric talking animals, one has a new ability that threatens the established way of the group. And even oddly enough, Stellaluna came to mind- the bat that interacted so much with birds, struggling with self-identity. As Dusk is seeking his own way- can he suppress his desire to fly in order to fit in? why is he so different? - he's torn by loyalty to his family and deeply troubled at growing friction within his colony as he learns more about their past and the group disagrees on how to face their future when all the dangers seem overwhelming. Darkwing is shelved among juvenile fiction, but I would say it's for older, mature readers in the age range. There's some brutality, descriptions of animals attacking tearing apart and eating each other, and other frightful scenes. Also really serious stuff about loosing family members, challenging the status quo and more. Oh- and reminding me of Bannertail, there's one scene where Dusk eats a psychoactive mushroom, and another where the young bats eat tea leaves enjoying the jittery feeling (which their parents frown upon). Ha.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5            422 pages, 2007

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Sep 24, 2019

Beyond the Bird Feeder

habits and behavior of feeding-station birds 
when they are not at your feeder
by John V. Dennis

This is a nice enough guide to bird behavior. Unlike the subtitle claims, there's actually quite a lot in here about behaviors seen at bird feeders, but that's always a starting point to lead you to see what birds are doing elsewhere in the yard, edges of forest or city parks. The chapters cover migration patterns, what attracts birds to feeding stations (including what color catches their eye quickest- according to this author it's white), what foods different species prefer, why they would choose human-offered foods, what kind of space makes a feeder more likely to be visited, how birds use provided water, how they take dust baths or sunbathe or deliberately fly through smoke or even put ants on their skin (reasons for this unclear). How they warn each other and mob up against enemies, what types of friction or aggression you will see among common birds, how they use plants and specific habitat types for shelter and natural food sources, and avoid or suffer through bad weather. Also how they utilize houses and other building structures. Differences in bird-feeding tendencies between America and Europe. The author lives in the Eastern side of the United States, so happily a lot of his personal observations and notes on habitats and native plants used by birds were very relevant for me. It does feel a bit dated and simplistic- the author quotes Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz as making recent observations in the field- and this comment made me raise my eyebrows: Since around 1850, North America, as well as Europe, has been in the kindly grip of a warming trend. Thanks to the milder weather, a number of animals have pushed their ranges northward . . .

The illustrations are nicely done. Although not as detailed or scientific as some other books I've read on bird behavior, I think this one would be appreciated by anyone who enjoys watching birds in their yard and wonders about their interactions with each other and other various behaviors.

Rating: 3/5                  201 pages, 1981

Surf Monkeys

Choose Your Own Adventure
by Jay Leibold

I never thought I'd give a book meant to be all fun a low rating, but this one had me rolling my eyes and impatient to finish. Read it with my kid at bedtime last night, not at all interested to try another storyline on my own. Mostly because it doesn't really seem to follow the format of Choose Your Own Adventure books I recall. Usually they have a page or two setting up the premise, and then nearly every page there's a choice at the bottom. This book had many many pages of setup- and not all tidy in the beginning either- I was flipping from front to back to middle to font again, without ever having made a choice. I got annoyed and fanned through the pages looking at the lower margins- surprised to find that nearly all of them said Turn to page -- instead of If you choose-- or Do you choose-- ? It's only got nine possible endings with pages and pages of straight reading to get to them, and I bet none of the threads intersect each other. The storyline is fine considering it's aimed at kids- you're spending the summer on a California beach with a laid-back uncle who lets you do whatever you want, learn surfing and try to chum up with a surfer gang when a friend goes missing. There's possible shark attacks, friendly dolphins, suspicious men on an oil rig offshore and bad weather to be dodged while you try to find out what happened to Jorge. There's just not enough choices for the very specific genre this book is supposed to be. I was annoyed because it didn't meet my expectations, and not interested enough in a surfer detective story to try again.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5                144 pages, 1992

Sep 21, 2019

The Magic of the Unicorn

Choose Your Own Adventure
by Deborah Lerme Goodman

My eight-year-old has recently discovered Choose Your Own Adventure books. I hadn't read any since I was a kid myself, until now. In case you're not familiar, these books have alternate endings and threads of storyline; when you get to the bottom of each page there's an option: do you follow the path or climb the hill? or whatever- and you turn to a different page according to your choice. Some choices lead you to a happy or satisfying ending, in others you fail to succeed, or die. In this book there was one ending where you simply forgot about the mission and got distracted by something else, leading an entirely different life. Sometimes what seems like the safe or rational choice leads you to disaster, while the risky-looking option obtains the goal. It's unexpected. Which adds to the fun. Sorry for a few spoilers below.

So, the main premise here is that you live in a medieval village, there's a drought and the well has been tainted by a dead rat. An old woman tells you that a sorceress could help, or a unicorn could purify the well with its horn. The rest of the book is a search, either to find the unicorn or the sorceress and magically clean the well. I admit after doing one or two reads for fun- picking options I would imagine myself choosing in the situation- I read through the book methodically, choosing every possible variance to see where they all lead. In some, you end up tramping through the forest following different suggestions where to find the unicorn. The unicorn has inevitably lost its magic and needs your help to restore it. In other scenarios, you go searching for the sorceress in unlikely places, or follow another path to rumors of someone possessing a unicorn horn who might let you use it. In one instance, you end up stealing the horn from a wealthy duchess! In another, you end up crawling through a tunnel under a church to follow a bat- weird. There's not only a sorceress in this book, there's also possible encounters with an evil warlock, or an old witch. One thread leads you to meet a griffon, in another you encounter a dragon (not good endings). I was kind of surprised how many endings had you finding a cure for the poisoned well that didn't involve the unicorn at all, but some other magic. Some threads lead you to find the unicorn dead from its loss of magic, you didn't make it in time. But there's plenty of options where you do find the unicorn, help it out, and in gratitude it fixes the well. In one ending, the unicorn ends up your pet. My favorite was the one where you don't find the unicorn at all, but get turned into one yourself!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5            118 pages, 1985

Sep 20, 2019

A Useful Dog

by Donald McCaig

This is a tiny little book, the first thing that surprised me about it. It's a collection of writings about sheepdogs- mainly border collies the author keeps and works with in Virginia but there's also one part about large white guardian dogs helping to move huge flocks in Montana. Most of the pieces- a few pages each- are about personal experiences with the dogs and the sheep, at home bringing lambs in from bad weather, facing down wily ewes, or working sheepdog trials. I liked all that. I found it interesting and thoughtful. But at least half the book diverges to talk about dog breeding, how shows have changed the animals, how they might have evolved in the first place and what DNA studies have taught us about dog origins. Which I've read about in much greater detail in other books, so I rather would have preferred more personal stories by McCaig about his own dogs. Oh well. It does make me remember that another of the author's books Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men has long been on my TBR list and I will probably like that one better.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5              80 pages, 2004

The Time in Between

by María Dueñas
translated by Daniel Hahn

I saw this at Indextrious Reader, and wondered immediately if my nearly-fifteen-year-old would like it. It has a lot of elements my teenager enjoys in books: romance, a bit of drama, intrigue and spying. This is a war story, set during the Spanish Civil War. The main character, a young seamstress-in-training named Sira, flees the turbulence in Madrid and goes to Morocco with her fianceé. Where she gets unexpectedly stranded, betrayed and burdened with a heavy debt due to someone else's reckless behavior. She turns to her sewing skills to get herself out of the mess, and it evolves into something else, leading to connections that get her involved in espionage.

I didn't quite get that far. I read about a third of it and then began skimming, loosing interest and not willing to push through six hundred-plus pages. It's a good story, with a strong female character who remakes her life several times over, but I just didn't find anything I could quite connect to. The political events all felt like flat background material and Sira's personality never really felt alive to me. I suppose it could be the fact that the text is translated, or it could be that it's just not my usual type of read, so I didn't find it exciting. I did, however, get enough of a feel for it to surmise there's nothing I'd object to my teenager reading! although I don't quite know if the author's style will be appreciated more than I could.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned                   615 pages, 2009

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Sep 17, 2019

The Eye of the Elephant

by Delia and Mark Owens

Many many years ago I read Cry of the Kalahari- the story of this couple's studies in an untracked African desert, and I was enthralled with the descriptions of close encounters with wildlife and rough living. Now I finally read their following book, and it was- not the same. Eye of the Elephant isn't as much about wildlife behavior as it is about human behavior. Poaching. After having to leave the Kalahari, the Owenses searched for a new wilderness to make their home, hoping to study lions and other animals again. They thought they had found the perfect spot in a remote valley in Zambia. It was rugged, difficult to navigate, sparsely populated, full of lions, rhino, crocs, antelope etc. But they were puzzled at the scarcity of elephants, until they started finding piles of bones. Dismayed and -on Mark's part- enraged at seeing the elephants killed in huge numbers, the Owenses took it upon themselves to stop the poaching. They tried to encourage game patrols, to teach local villagers that wildlife was worth more alive than dead (many other animals were killed in addition to elephants- for bush meat), to give the people jobs and support them in creating cottage industries- all to save the wildlife. Really it's amazing what they went through, literally bending over backwards to turn things around. Never having time to just sit and watch the animals. Doing things that threatened their own health, driving themselves to exhaustion, many close calls with wild animal encounters and flash floods, not to mention the dangers of facing down heavily armed poachers keen on protecting their habitual livelihood. There was a lot of corruption, they faced death threats, and several times were nearly trampled by buffalo. Some of Mark's tactics against the poachers surprised me, and his flying at night sounded hair-raising. At one point Delia couldn't condone the direct approach Mark was taking and set up her own separate camp. Not surprisingly, their relationship suffered somewhat. In the end they finally accomplished a sort of peace after a lot of difficulty, hardship and frustration. What descriptions of animals there are, I found intriguing, but because of all the focus on their efforts against poaching, this book reminded me far more of The White Bushman than of anything by the Adamsons. The parts Mark wrote about flying his plane made me recall Beryl Markham.

Rating: 3/5              306 pages, 1992

Sep 13, 2019

An Elephant's Life

An Intimate Portrait From Africa
by Caitlin O'Connell

The author spent some twenty years doing research in Etosha National Park in Nambia, and wrote this book about the social lives of elephants. It's really a grand photo essay. The observations were all done from a research station set up next to a water hole, and while some of the book is about how that was conducted, their daily activities and hardships living out in the bush, most of it is about the elephants. Their interactions, tender and threatening gestures, friendships and enmities, shifting relationships as they age and elephants move in and out of the herd. New births, mother's guidance, the matriarch protecting the group from other elephants that encroach on the water rights (as elephants perceive them). Also against predators- lions hanging around. Mostly, though, the focus is on the male elephants- how the young adult males start to show their independence, until their behavior becomes obnoxious and the females push them out of the herd. How they form alliances with other young males, or shadow adult bulls. How the bulls compete for water and access to females- but also surprisingly spend a lot of time just in each other's company or supporting one another. The final chapter details the fall of one older bull from power, when he sustained an injury that weakened him. It was all pretty interesting because I never read so much about the social interactions of male elephants before, always assumed them to be loners except when it came time to mate. I think the author put a lot of focus on the males to change these assumptions.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5               196 pages, 2012

Sep 12, 2019

Arctic Tale

Narration by Linda Woolverton, Mose Richards and Kristin Grove
Adapted by Donnali Fifield

Another book of striking photographs and brief paragraphs. I haven't seen the film this is based on, but it doesn't matter, it was a nice read by itself. It follows the lives of two predators in the Arctic- polar bear and walrus- from birth to independence. Shows a bit of family life, learning skills, social interactions, hunting attempts and so on. Mostly pictures, and the majority of those are good quality. There's images of other animals that live in the same region too, as their lives cross paths- arctic foxes, harp seals, caribou and various seabirds. Theme is on the struggle for survival- especially in the face of warming oceans which shrink the sea ice these animals depend on- the walrus as a secure resting spot, the polar bear as it gives access to food sources. I especially enjoyed reading the final chapter, where the filmmakers and photographers described how much work it took for this production, what they learned from it, their impressions and experiences of the arctic. Now I ought to get the DVD and watch it with my kids.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                 160 pages, 2007

The Mating Lives of Birds

by James Parry

Seems that this book has also been printed with a different title- The Mating Game: Bird Courtship and Display, which I find more descriptive. It's very accessible and general- an easy enough read, with a wide variety of examples from many species in different bird families. It's all about the interesting and curious behavior many birds use when trying to impress a mate or ward off rivals, as well as the beautiful plumage they grow during the breeding season. There's sections on how birds find and select mates, their often-stunning methods of showing off to each other, the varied types of relationships they form and maintain, territory defense and colonial living, nest building (presented in order from the simplest- a dry scrap on bare ground- to the most complex woven nests or mud-daubed structures), and how the eggs and young are cared for. Each section really only has a few pages of text, more space being taken up by large, striking photographs. Most of the birds mentioned in the text are shown in the pictures, which I definitely appreciated. Very nice book showing how birds manage one of the most intense events in their lives- finding partners and raising a family. Sample of the pictures- vivid throat feathers on a hummingbird:
Adult cuckoo:

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5             160 pages, 2012

Sep 11, 2019

The Genius of Birds

by Jennifer Ackerman

Birds are smart. They can be resourceful, curious, inventive and opportunistic. It is true that many show limited responses to novel situations, or avoid them altogether- living in a narrow band of specific habitat where their needs are met, following set behavior patterns. But other birds can vary widely in their habitat use, discovering new food sources, solving problems and inventing new ways of doing things. Like the blue tits in Britian that learned to skim cream off milk bottles on porches- and the behavior spread as birds learned it from each other. This book looks into things like exactly how birds learn to do things like that- what parts of the brain are used, what kinds of behaviors do they copy from each other. Which species of birds learn by mimicry, or by being actively coached (some parent birds give their offspring practice and guidance in learning certain skills). It discusses a ton of other stuff too- the complexity and variety of birdsong- in some cases akin to language. The ability of some birds to navigate hundreds of complex social relationships in colonies. How they can steal, cheat, deceive and conversely, console one another. How they can remember thousands of locations where they hid food. Recent findings that poke holes in many long-held notions about birds: many monogamous pairs (including swans) actually perform myriad "extra-pair copulations on the side" (and speculations on why they do this). How they perform astonishing feats of navigation- the details of this are still not understood. From the angle of the sun, position of the stars, magnetic field of the earth, visual landmarks and even olfactory memory- it appears to be a combination of it all. The intricacies of nest-building. The artistry of the bower birds. And the astonishing ability of some birds to make tools for specific uses- the New Caledonian crow will even save a tool it has made, and carry it around to use again later. The book doesn't just describe observed behavior about all these things, but specific studies done to investigate what types of skills birds could learn and how they managed to solve problems. Points out that scientists have discovered that birds' brains are organized very similarly to humans', and in some cases their intelligence level is on par with that of great apes. Pretty amazing.

Except that I've read a lot of it before: see Bird Brain by Nathan Emery. And it took me a while to get through this one because I found the writing a bit uneven. The introduction, in particular, is very redundant and it almost put me off reading the rest of the book. I was also sometimes dismayed to read how the experiments were done. Some simply presented wild birds -caught and kept in aviaries for a short time- with problems to solve and then released them to see what they did back in their natural environment, with their new skill. Fascinating. Others used birds in a lab, studying what parts of the brain lit up when certain behaviors or emotions were active - not hard to imagine what that really entailed. More disturbing was when researchers trapped birds during migration, cut a nerve that communicated a certain sense or organ with the brain, and then released them to see if they could still navigate. I guess that's a way to see what the bird relies on most to find its way, but I couldn't help feeling bad for all those individual birds lost and wandering because of their inflicted disability. They never found their way home.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               340 pages, 2016

Sep 4, 2019

Fresh Eggs

by Rob Levandoski

Kind of a modern fable. It's fiction, with all the horrors of factory farming, and the tenderness of a young girl's heart. The main characters in the story are father and daughter- Calvin Cassowary has an abrupt career change when his father suddenly dies, leaving the family farm in sad state. Calvin doesn't want to sell the farm to developers to be turned into housing, as some of his neighbors have done. But he can't keep it running the way his forefathers did, there's no profit. Instead of growing multiple crops and raising a variety of animals, he signs a contract with a huge corporation that produces eggs, and builds layer sheds on his land. His young wife keeps a small flock of hens in the yard and sells eggs to the local customers, while the confined company hens - literally a million of them- keep the farm afloat. Until they don't . . . Meanwhile, Calvin's daughter Rhea loves tending her mother's chickens, but is horrified by what she sees in the layer sheds. As her father starts to sink under growing debt, falling egg prices and strict company rules that never allow him to get ahead, Rhea becomes more involved with the chickens and more determined to do something about those million layer hens locked up in the sheds, forced to produce for a mere eighteen months before they are turned into pet food . . . Calvin's wife passes away, and Rhea carries on her memory with the small backyard flock, and then something very strange happens which draws the attention of local media. There's lawsuits and drama galore. I can't say what or it would spoil the story for any of you. It's disturbing and intriguing and by the way it all has a very tidy ending. Unrealistic maybe, but nice- and why not, for such a quirky story.

The tone of the book kind of reminds me of Jane Smiley. There's a slight mix of fantasy and reality akin to Tender Morsels (although this book doesn't  have such heavy topics). There's a part that takes place at the county fair, reminding me a lot of Geek Love. It's also a story of young first love, and a lot of it is about how the daughter's relationship with her father changes over the years, and how she finds acceptance with who she is.

Side note- one interesting detail is that Calvin's second wife suffers from multiple allergies and sensitivity to chemicals in the environment. Basically everything makes her sneeze or itch or both and she's always miserable except when having sex- it's the only time when her allergic symptoms abate. Oddly, there was another character in the story who had an unusual physical affliction, which only started to go away after the loss of virginity. I keep trying to figure out what the author meant by this, if there's some symbolism to it.

Found this one at a used book sale.

Rating: 3/5                  252 pages, 2002

Sep 1, 2019

Winging It

a Memoir of Caring for a Vengeful Parrot Who's Determined to Kill Me
by Jenny Gardiner

Story of family life with an african grey parrot. When the author was newly married, she and her husband had always wanted a parrot. They couldn't afford a captive-bred bird, and felt dubious about acquiring a wild-caught one. So they got a dog. Who turned out to have tons of health problems- allergic to everything, including dog food. The family was advised to put the miserable labrador to sleep, but they insisting on keeping their family pet, in spite of its chronic health problems. Then a relative came home from a stay overseas and brought them a parrot. A frightened, unhappy, feather-plucking vicious young parrot they named Graycie. They tried to give Graycie the best care, but unfortunately whenever things happened in the family (leaky roof during snowstorms, multiple kids with chicken pox at the same time, frightening episode of seizures complicated by their daughter's adverse reactions to medication when she was older, etc) the parrot got ignored. In boredom it self-mutilated and destroyed whatever it could reach- including pulling tiles off the wall. Not to say they didn't speak kindly to it, provide it with veterinary care, research proper diet, etc- and recorded plenty of amusing moments, the kids' delight in the bird's antics, amusing incidents when Graycie repeated phrases in appropriate context- scolding the dog or the children, for example. But I have to say overwhelmingly it sounded like keeping a parrot is a ton of work and trouble, constant cleaning of messes, and not very encouraging when the bird never warms to you and is always ready to attack. It is admirable that the family never gave up on Graycie, nor on any of their other pets that turned out to be troublesome (after the hyperallergic lab, they had a dog with a penchant for biting). The author relates how caring for Graycie taxed her patience and sanity, but also taught her kids responsibility to other living things, a firm commitment to the creatures we take into our lives. It all cements my impression that parrots don't really make good pets. Similar read, but with a parrot that actually liked its owner: The Parrot Who Owns Me. Similar read in tone, but about a dog. In the end, I found this one disappointing. While the stories about the family's trials and challenges made me sympathize with them, I wish there had actually been more page space given to the bird, except that I was feeling bad for the bird, so maybe not.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5                240 pages, 2010

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