by Wendy Mass

Ever since getting teased about it in third grade, Mia has hidden her special ability, afraid of being called weird or accused of lying- because she sees colors in association with numbers and letters, sometimes also with sounds and other stimuli. But eventually some things become overwhelmingly difficult- especially math, as the number/color association interferes with her ability to combine and rearrange number units logically. She finally tells her family the issue- at first her parents are disbelieving, then they take her to the doctor, then to a psychiatrist. She veers between feeling that there’s something wrong with her that needs fixing, and reveling in the realization that other people have the same sensations. Meeting others with synesthesia at a conference is eye-opening. Now she’s so thrilled with her ability she finds ways to deliberately stimulate it- at the cost of paying attention to those around her, focusing on schoolwork, etc. There has to be a balance, but it takes a tragedy to shock her into finding it.

The main character’s synesthesia isn’t the only part of the plot, although of course it is her main focus. There’s other things going on in the background. Her older sister comes home from California with a new interest in healing herbs, yoga, and other things of a New Age vibe. Her brother teases her about boys, there’s ongoing ups and downs with both her best friend and other more casual friends at school, struggles with school projects, and an ongoing thread of grief. When the book opens her grandfather has just died, and she believes that part of his soul resides in her cat named Mango. Mango himself has an ongoing health issues, and at the end Mai has to face loss yet again. Yes, SPOILER the cat dies. The one detail in the family life I found a bit strange was that her dad owned a helicopter. Sure it made the ending a bit dramatic, but couldn’t they just as well have been getting ready to desperately drive somewhere in the car? I just found the helicopter thing a bit overkill when it didn’t really seem to have a reason to be in the story. And the whole thing about the acupuncturist also baffled me. I can’t imagine any kid nowadays being able to so easily arrange that kind of thing behind their parents’ backs. The results were really spectacular, though! (And according to another reviewer, a real phenomenon).

This was a really interesting book. I don’t think I ever read one about someone with synesthesia before, and I really appreciated the descriptions of what it is like, the different ways people experience it, and how they can learn to handle it (making the sensations less distracting or overwhelming). The book was written quite a while ago (apparent to me by the family computer situation, prevalence of chat sites and slow email communication, using the landline to call your friend and having a family member pick up on the line from another room- ha! I remember those days) so I do wonder if treatment or understanding of the condition is different now.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
270 pages, 2003

More opinions:
Bookshelves of Doom
Books Lists Life
anyone else?

and other curious truths about animals

by Augustus Brown

Tidbits of facts about animals- the odd, the outrageous and the downright unpleasant. Very similar to The Truth About Animals or Animal Ignorance. Unfortunately, this one lacked some in quality compared to the other two. It’s so breezy in style, I thought it would be a quick, easy read- amusing, fun and a bit informative. Well, the facts are presented so briefly there’s little to no context at all, so I was often left wondering if the author’s explanation was meant to be a joke, or was it just misinformation? That started to irritate me after a while, so at one point I wasn’t going to finish but I did. Lots of the details in here I was already aware of, some not.

Here’s some that stood out (to me): the cassowary has the deepest voice of all birds, using low frequencies that humans can’t hear. Rats (and other rodents) are physically unable to vomit. Screech owls put blind snakes (they’re quite small like worms) in their nests- apparently the snakes eat debris and keep the nest cleaner. There’s a small oceanic snail that uses minerals to make its shell into iron pyrite. This book says it is for protection against other snails that fire poison darts, but the internet tells me it lives on underwater volcanoes and probably has the iron shell to deal with pressure and heat. The blanket octopus has perhaps the largest sexual dimorphism (size difference between male and female). The male is only as big as the female’s iris! (it reminds me of that fish where the male is just a tiny thing that attaches itself permanently to the female when he finds one). Harbor seals listening to whales can tell if the approaching orcas are fish-eaters or mammal-eaters- a good distinction to make if you’re a tasty seal, and I’m not at all surprised by this!

Other bits I felt dubious about: rattlesnakes shake their tails to generate static electricity which they use to find prey? I found one article online about this, but couldn’t read the whole thing (paywall). Female guppies are attracted to males with orange spots because they like orange fruit. Um, what? I don’t think guppies eat fruit on a regular basis. Sure, the females probably like orange spots on their suitors, but not because it looks like food. The population of amazon molly fish are all female. Yes, apparently this is true. They reproduce asexually, but actually need to mate to start the process, although they don’t use the male’s sperm. They usually mate with male sailfin mollies, which live in the same habitat. Male quolls die after mating, so they only live one year. It’s because they don’t sleep during the mating season and become so exhausted they collapse. This is true! Female ferrets on the other hand, might die if they don’t receive a mate- because they remain in estrus until the act occurs, and the high level of hormones in that state causes health problems if sustained too long. I don’t at all get the paragraph that says sloth bears are the only mammal that carries its young on its back. What about possums, chimpanzees, marmosets, koalas, baboons . . . ? and I’m sure there are others, too.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
301 pages, 2006

by Ben K. Green

More short stories about cowboy work by one of my favorite authors. The accounts are always interesting, sometimes funny, engaging and well-told all around. In this case though, the focus isn’t horses, it’s cattle. The stories are from a time period when as a young man, the author frequently took jobs hunting wild cattle that had eluded roundups, hiding in thick brush and ravines. So a lot of the stories are about how he outsmarted them, which I really enjoy. Also about his dealings with other cattlemen, traders and bankers (so often about making a deal or outsmarting other people, too). About how he worked with his horses, treated minor wounds, camped out on the range, dealt with tough situations. Not for the squeamish- one time a bull got his leg with its horn, and it started to fester. Instead of going into town to find a doctor, he seared the wound with hot metal- held in the campfire. Yikes. Also sometimes the cattle are not treated too nicely– I understand these were different times, and it’s one man on a horse trying to outmaneuver and subdue a large, belligerent and dangerously strong bovine. Some of them had very nasty tempers and were very determined to avoid capture. It’s one thing to read about him tying them up short and sawing off the tips of the horns to make his job safer. It’s quite another to read about things like whittling little pegs and piercing holes in the cows’ eyelids to force them to keep their eyes open so they’ll be afraid to get near brush on the side of the road or trail, and thus become more docile and easy to handle. (He says he had no qualms about doing this because he knew well they would kill him and his horse in a flash if they got the chance, and the piercings healed up quick enough once the cattle were confined in the stockyards and the pegs removed. And I think he only did this once, with some particularly difficult and volatile animals. But still, hard to read).

Well, I found a lot of it interesting, reading how he would utilize the landscape, the weather, and his knowledge of bovine behavior to do his job, usually solo (sometimes he had assistants or other help, but often not). There’s also some musings on how the beef industry and cattle breeding changed over the decades, how mechanized equipment affected his job as a cowboy, and small details about things like what type of rope is good for what task, etc. I enjoy Ben K. Green for an easy, lively read any day- right on par there with Gerald Durrell in my book (delivery and subject matter a bit different, but my pleasure in reading them very much of the same quality). My personal copy has the cover show top left of this post, but I also like this one which I found online, and the many illustrations by that artist Lorence Bjorklund in the interior. Most of the stories in here are good long chapters, some are just a few pages.

Rating: 3/5
306 pages, 1969

Citizen Hawk of New York City

by Janet Schulman

I had forgotten that when I saw this book on another blog years ago, it was identified as a children’s picture book. Forgot and didn’t notice that when I came across it in the library catalog and put in a request. Pulled it off the hold shelf, had a moment of surprise and decided to read it anyway. It has lovely (if a bit loose in style) watercolor illustration and the text isn’t dumbed-down. About the red-tailed hawk of unusually pale feathers that took up residence on a ritzy apartment building in NYC and hunted squirrels, rats, pigeons etc in Central Park nearby. Most of the details about the hawk’s life in a big city were familiar to me, from having read Red-Tails in Love earlier. I did find one piece of info that felt new- this hawk living in the city was remarkable because most red-tailed hawks are too shy to live in such a busy, populated location. I thought he was just notable for his coloration and the decision to build a nest on a building instead of in a tree. Since Pale Male’s first successful nesting (initial clutch failed), other red-tailed hawk pairs have begun living in the city- one on another building not too far from Pale Male’s preferred roost, and others in the park trees. People suspect that one of the second hawk pair that nested on the other building, is Pale Male’s offspring, and so too might be the others that live in the surrouding area. I was curious how the hawks fare with competition from peregrine falcons? do they have conflicts? but the book didn’t mention anything about this.

I enjoyed this book because I like artwork and reading about animals, even though I’m well into adulthood! I’m sure any kids who are interested in animals and how they adapt to live among people, or just birds of prey in general, would find this a great read too.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
34 pages, 2008

More opinions:
A Sea of Books
Chicken Spaghetti
anyone else?

made by Easy Planet ~ artist unknown ~ 1,000 pieces

This wasn’t a puzzle I chose. It came along with another one that somebody gave me. She had fond memories of doing it outside on a porch with family and friends during Covid times. I don’t really like the picture much but I shrugged and said, okay, I’ll do it at least once. And I did. It’s nice enough as puzzles go- the pieces are fairly sturdy, there’s enough variation in the limited shape (just two knobs, two holes every one) to make it doable, it’s not too shiny, and no skin irritation for me (a big plus). But again, I just didn’t care for the image, though it reminded me distinctly of a certain style of artwork I had to emulate in class one time (with pastels and charcoal on toned canson paper, I remember clearly). The colors just seem muddy, the pictures around the edge don’t mean anything to me, though I’m sure they have association for the artist- and I have no idea who that is. When I made some kind of remark about it, my daughter said: “Mom, sometimes I just think you don’t understand art!” Well, it’s just my opinion. Funny thing, the box is marked missing 1, with a little circle in a certain spot- but there weren’t any missing pieces at all! The previous puzzler must have found it later. I was glad of that. I put it together because I was going to make a replacement piece so I could swap this puzzle, and then I didn’t have to.

Assembly. The first picture already has a lot put together because there were many pieces adhered out of the box. Instead of breaking them up, shuffling and starting anew, I used them as-is (I think I’ve only ever done this with the zebra puzzle before). Just to get it done faster. Ought to have taken a photo between the step of doing the border (with some inside pieces attached) to adding the middle already-together pieces, but I moved on too quickly.

by Allan W. Eckert

Wow, this book. It was a bit rough going at first. Due to the age of the story, the way people talk felt awkward, the background explanation of the boy’s family felt over-explained in a rather stiff way. But once I got into the real part of the story, I was blown away. Especially by the ending. Very traumatic, bittersweet and delightful all at the same time. It’s about a boy who has a secret ability- he can transfer his consciousness into any animal nearby. There’s no element of magic (why I tagged this one as ‘speculative fiction’) it’s just something he’s always been able to do. He can taste, hear, smell, feel every sensation the animal experiences- including exhilaration, fear, pain, etc- but not control them at all. So not quite like the Animorphs series, though I was strongly reminded of that (it’s so different though).

The boy has tried to share his experiences with his parents, what he feels and learns when spending minutes to hours as an animal- but they think he’s daydreaming and brush it off, then get impatient that he doesn’t give up the idea, then get concerned that there’s something wrong with him mentally or emotionally. They go away on a planned trip and leave him on a horse farm the mother’s friend owns. The boy has never been around horses before and he’s fascinated by them- and of course he goes inside them (as he calls the phenomenon). He has to be careful to keep what he’s doing hidden from other people, having learned from reactions not only by his parents but also his best friend, that nobody understands this, people make fun of him, avoid him, or are suspicious of his activities. However when a veterinarian visits the farm, the boy is intrigued by his work and hangs around watching. He’s able of course to feel what the animals do, and tries to hint at the vet what’s wrong if the problem is not found. This works for a while but it starts to get more difficult to hide his ability, the vet (who becomes a close mentor, almost a father figure) starts to get suspicious. And then a prized horse in the barn falls deadly ill, but nobody knows except our protagonist. He tries to do something, but it all goes terribly wrong . . . leading to an almost tragedy.

I won’t say more in case someone actually wants to read this. If you have a deep interest in animals, or ever daydreamed (like I did as a kid) about being able to fly like a bird, run as fast as a horse, walk quietly in the night as a cat seeing everything clearly . . . this book will become an instant favorite. There was so much love of nature woven into the story, and fantastic details about how wild animals live their lives, even new things the boy discovered about them (but then couldn’t tell anybody how he’d learned it). This is the greatest by Eckert I’ve read so far- even tops Incident at Hawk’s Hill, which has always been steadfastly among the best books ever, in my mind.

Rating: 4/5
225 pages, 1980

the Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard

by Joan E. Strassmann

Another book that I wanted to really like, but it was just a tad lackluster. I agree with quite a few other reviewers who said this book had a stiff or dry writing style and sometimes went into uninteresting details. I’m not the only one who found it very slow to get through- most nights I could only manage a chaper, or even half that, before getting tired and loosing focus. However I don’t agree with the complaints that the author’s descriptions of scientific experiments were out-of-place, for a book that claims to be about enjoying and appreciating common birds. (Just lightly ignore the implications of the subtitle, if you will). Personally, I find the experiments- both their execution, all the reasons for doing things in said ways, and the results- fascinating.

The book is divided into chapters, each about one of sixteen birds commonly seen around the author’s home in Missouri: American robin, house wren, dark-eyed junco, snow goose, cooper’s hawk, blue jay, European starling, white-throated sparrow, American coot, cedar waxwing, great egret, northern flicker, northern mockingbird, yellow-rumped warbler, house sparrow and northern cardinal. These chapters are interspersed with shorter ones that describe specific locations where the author viewed the birds (the less interesting details, in my opinion). The bird chapters are full of personal writing about what the author observed about each bird, what she likes (or doesn’t) about it, what she suggests the reader look for if you observe the same bird yourself (or similar species), and best of all, what very interesting questions researchers have asked about these common birds, what they did to find out the answers and what they learned.

Things like: how exactly do robins find worms in the ground? why are there two colors of white-throated sparrows (and most mated pairs are with the opposite color morph)? how have snow geese become so prolific when they are riddled with disease caused by overcrowding and eating out their food sources? why are egret chicks so vicious towards their younger siblings? do coots really recognize if a chick in the nest isn’t their own, and how (lots of birds lay eggs in another’s nest it turns out, not just cowbirds and cuckoos). What birds eat and where they find it, aggression between dominant and subordinate birds in a flock, cheating on the side by songbird mates, the complexity and variety of mockingbird song (and its purpose), and so many more things are explored, in far greater depth than I can hint at here. It’s a great book, just a bit difficult to get through and I can’t quite put my finger on why the writing felt tiresome at times. It could just be me.

I did appreciate the main message of the book: instead of travelling all over the world, checking birds off a list after barely glimpsing it, maybe take a different approach and more carefully study the birds that are close by. Learn about them more in depth. Certainly reading this kind of information about them, is far more engaging to me than books about a serious lister!

Similar read: Beyond the Birdfeeder. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
335 pages, 2022

made by Springbok ~ artist unknown ~ 500 pieces

This is a really sweet puzzle I knew would be fairly easy so good for a day I want to just relax and enjoy the process. Actually it got more difficult when I was doing all the brown animal fur, and then foliage- hard to tell things apart. However these vintage Springboks are great for having wonderful piece shape variety- it seems no two are the same! no chance of any false fits here. Nice and sturdy, only a bit faded and worn from being such an older puzzle. I got this one in a swap along with the Living Sea one. I know these pictures of animals sitting together as if for a portrait can seem so unrealistic and staged, but this one just looked so cute to me. And there’s a poem on the back of the puzzle box, that the title comes from. Sadly I don’t know the artist of this image, but the poet is Jeannie Hund-Stuart. Some details, of mouse and quail Assembly:
from online swap - Puzzle Exchange Group

A Journey to Season's Edge

by Pete Dunne

I really waffled between giving this one two or three stars. It’s the kind of book that would usually appeal to me- travel in a far off place to find and observe wildlife, in this case a husband and wife photography team on an ecotour with a group. The husband is also into bird watching. The book has a good mix of personal appeal, the small incidents and struggles of travel, banter between the companions, awe at the wide gorgeous scenery, and encounters with animals. But something about it just couldn’t hold my attention. I found myself skipping and skimming a lot. Maybe the explanations and history bits of geology, animal/human interactions and the like were interjected too much? the background info about all their traveling companions uninteresting? or the appearance of animals too few, and the remarks on them not engaging enough. Some of the observations about his travelling companions kind of rubbed me the wrong way, too. They saw many birds, glimpsed a wolf, found caribou after much searching, viewed hawk owls and had a close sighting of polar bears at Churchill. All these things I would have rather read more details about, instead of what they ate for breakfast or the brand of clothes their buddies wore. I did like the part at the end where the author attempts to hunt caribou, and explains why he’s a hunter, and talks with a French woman in the group (minimal conversation ability) about why she’s vegetarian. But it wasn’t part of what I thought the book’s focus was. I suppose that’s what it was- the book felt scattered, unfocused, like it was trying to tell all things at once. In this case, it just didn’t quite work for me.

There was also this incongruous thing about the leave no trace principle. More than once in the book the author complained about how previous tourists or visitors had left something noticeable behind – in the first case, it was just a blackened fire ring and some shifted rocks. (Honestly, that wouldn’t bother me. Trash on the other hand, very much would). He kind of went on a bit about how the landscape was no longer pristine and he deserved to see it untouched. But then when his wife made a sculpture of balanced rocks, well that was something in harmony with nature and so perfectly okay to leave for other people to see. I just- didn’t get this at all. His attitude about it bothered me.

I did, however, find one passage striking enough that I added it to my quotes page.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
258 pages, 2011

by Elspeth Huxley

This book is the third in the author’s memoirs, following The Flame Trees of Thika and The Mottled Lizard. I am sorry to report that I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much, it didn’t quite feel like a memoir to me and lacked the personal touch. It’s set between WWI and WWII, when the author returned to Kenya yet again, now as an adult. She went back in order to do research, to write about the country’s growth, the lives of ex-pats and pioneers that led rugged lives trying to make a living on wild land, and the upheavals and conflicts that occurred as colonialism neared its end. Most of the book feels like a history, with small anecdotal stories and glimpses into the personalities of some notable people in the community, and ranchers near where she had lived. Some of this was very interesting, other parts that got more into politics or how government mismanaged things, not so much (for me). In the first part of the book I was skimming a lot and wondering if I’d finish it. Later it held my interest more, even though some parts felt repetitive from the previous two books- here again is the story of the bank built around a safe that couldn’t be moved, of her first actual hunting safari, of the affair between her neighbors. It was intriguing to read her account of several other people I’ve encountered in books- she writes about Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen (aka Isak Denisen), but in the latter case, either it’s been so long since I read Out of Africa, or this account was from such an entirely different perspective, I didn’t recognize anything about it at all. Some parts I particularly liked: reading about how the native Dorobo people tended wild honeybee hives. The few parts where she actually describes her travels to different parts of the country to visit those she hoped would share their stories, journals, letters and records, or just sit for an interview. Brief accounts of incidents among nature, including some hunts (when she was still avid about that). Some bits of tribal stories and legends. It did spark my interest to read a few more of her books, that she mentioned in here. I am not sure yet if I will enjoy reading this one again, I have a feeling it’s one of those that will be better a second time around, when I’m in a different mindset. So it’s staying on my shelf for now.

One thing I found odd, and failed to mention about the previous two books although it was a constant feature there. She refers to her parents and her husband by their first names, and never once introduces who they are. The first time they’re mentioned on the page, it’s just something like Gervas met me at the station but the reader is never told what their relationship is. This really threw me off in the first book, written from her childhood perspective and constantly calling her mother Nellie, it took me along while to realize this was her parent! Here the same, she leaps right into telling what’s happening sometimes without alerting the reader to who all the people are, or framing the incident or place in any way, so I was left mentally floundering a few times. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying enough attention? but I don’t think so. One of those writers who just seems to assume you know all the broader details around their circumstances already. I don’t need all the things spelled out for me, but this seemed a bit lacking in that regard.

Rating: 2/5
262 pages, 1985


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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