by Sonya Hartnett

I read another book off my eleven-year-old’s library stack. And this one was really good. Now I’m going to look for all other books my library might have by this author. I love her way with words, and the characters are so well drawn. The style and wording makes me think of both Frances Hodgson Burnett and Helen Griffiths- a rich setting, people who are both kindly and cruel, sharpness in the turn of phrase and keen observation of children’s natures.

It’s set during both WWII and much further back in history- a story is told within this story, and eventually you see how they interconnect (though the ending was a bit vague). Two siblings, Jeremy and Cecily, are sent with their mother away from the dangers of London to stay in the countryside with an uncle, who has a grand old house. Another child evacuee joins them, due to Cecily’s whim to help out, her desire for a playmate and, to be honest- to have someone she can boss around. (Only it doesn’t work out that way!) Cecily is not the smartest child, and not always the nicest, either. But she felt so real to me. She and May wander the grounds, while Jeremy frets about not being allowed to go fight, or at least do something for the war effort. On the edges of the estate in the forest, the children discover a ruined castle. And two boys hiding there. At first they think the boys are also evacuees from the city, run away from their host family perhaps. But their manner is odd, their clothing too fine and out of style . . . May is the one who realizes who they might be, when the uncle tells them about two princes who were shut up in a tower four hundred years ago and never seen again . . . a piece of history I had heard before, but never quite with this slant. I wasn’t expecting a ghost story- but by the time the book got that far, I was too interested in the characters to leave it be. Cecily struggles to face difficulties and hardships, Jeremy fights with his mother and runs away, the boys in the ruined castle are sometimes there and sometimes not, fading and fretful. There are discussions and debates about war- the morality of killing an enemy, the wastefulness of lives, suffering and destruction. A lot about power. How power corrupts, how powerless the children feel in the throes of larger events and especially, told more subtly through the actions of the children themselves, how power can only be held over someone who allows you to. Sometimes it gets a bit dark for a children’s story. Although troublesome and sad in parts, with children who act unpleasantly, it was beautifully told. The ambiguous ending puzzles rather than annoys me. I’m glad to have read it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
266 pages, 2012

Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories

by Alice Walker

The chapters are very short, taken from the author’s blog (I didn’t know she had one). Mostly they’re about her chickens, but veer into other subjects as well, such as visiting the Dalai Lama. The quality- or at least my personal reaction to them- varies widely. On the one hand, her observations of chicken behavior, relating little incidents, bemoaning the death of some (one got its head shut in a door, another was eaten by a predator) and extolling the beauty of their feathers, made for a nice read. I even learned some things (chicken combs get brighter in color when they are laying eggs, which makes me think how fishes color up vividly when they’re breeding). On the other hand, she gets so effusively enthusiastic and emotional about the chickens I’m either scratching my head or feeling a tad uncomfortable. She ties chicken musings into spirituality and life lessons- some of which seemed spot-on to me, others left me baffled. I felt like I was reading a book written by someone whose life experience and though process are very different from my own- something to respect and admire, but I just couldn’t connect sometimes. Interesting that for all the love she has for her chickens (she writes them letters from her travels and calls herself their ‘Mommy’), the author will occasionally eat chicken. Sometimes she feels guilty about this, sometimes not. She writes a bit about the morality of eating animals, mostly leaning to the opinion that if they were treated humanely, it’s okay (as far as I could tell).

Some things that made me laugh, or sit up and think: she says gophers eat chickens (I don’t think this is true). She has a favorite emotion: astonishment. I have favorite books, foods, people, places to visit- but emotions to feel? Honestly I never thought about this before! She also kept using this term “space nuts” that she made up (referring to people) which she explained but I didn’t really get it.

Audiobook- read by the author herself, which was lovely. Three hours forty-five minutes listening time. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
208 pages, 2012

More opinions: Farm Lane Books Blog
anyone else?

I found through Annie of A Bookish Type, an article at Tor about books readers love, that they feel nobody else has ever heard of (much less read). The richness is in the comments, where other readers chimed in with all their beloved, unknown favorites. I myself left an embarrassingly long comment. And wrote down a long list of titles that have now caught my interest. To my happy surprise, the first two are even in my public library’s catalog!

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
My Teacher is An Alien by Bruce Coville


of course, most of them are not found at my library:

Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea
Ludo and the Star Horse by Mary Stewart
The Merro Tree by Katie Waitman
Prince Ombra by Roderick MacLeish
Rude Tales and Glorious by Nicholas Seare
The Unicorn Window by Lynette Muir
The Beginning of Unbelief  by Robin Jones
Terror Wears a Feathered Cloak by Thelmar Crawford
Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly
The Hunting of Wilberforce Pike by Molly Lefebure
David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd
Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliffe
Spirit Gate by Kate Elliot
Two Thumb Thomas by Barbara Freeman
I Will Go Barefoot All Summer for You by Katie Lyle
The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan

The Vision of Stephen by Lolah Burford
The Light Maze by Joan North
Lydia, Queen of Palestine by Uri Orlev
Silver Chief  by Jack O’Brien
The Long Afternoon of Earth by Brian Aldiss
Land of the Lord High Tiger by Roger Green
The Blind Knight by Gail van Asten

I really feel like I might have read My Teacher is An Alien and Silver Chief when I was a kid, but I have almost no recollection so a re-read would feel like new. Happy news: of all the books not available at my public library, I found two on Project Gutenberg, and many many more at Internet Archive- except those I can’t download for keeps, just for a two-week borrowing period. So will have to plan when to access them, but I’m thrilled that I can!

(a true story)

by Joni Rodgers

This book is also about cancer. It has a completely different tone than the last one. The author’s personality is pretty much a polar opposite, she was an actress (teaching children theater classes, doing voices on the air, commercials, etc) married in a loving relationship with two children when cancer struck. It’s so similar to the last read in terms of describing the shock of diagnosis, the difficult treatments, the awkwardness of people not knowing what to say, absolute drain of being so ill for so very long. The strangeness she felt when it seemed to finally be over: she’d made it, she’d survived, but fighting off cancer had consumed her life for so many years- nothing felt the same. Unlike the prior read (I can’t help compare the two so closely)- which seemed to take place in solitude and hospital stays, not much family present in the book- this story is permeated with the author’s family. How terribly hard it was for them. How confused her young children were about some things, totally accepting of others, angry when she was unable to care for them, and so on. All the ups and downs, how they made it through. Especially with her husband. I admit, some of the parts about how cancer treatment affected their love life was told a bit too intimately for my taste! And for such a very long time her relationship with food was affected afterwards. What it’s like to go through this illness and survive it is described in such brutal detail, it can be hard to read- but it’s all lightened by her humor. Jokes everywhere. They didn’t always make sense to me (or make me laugh), but still I think this book might be a keeper, to stay on my shelf, just because it’s such a contrast to the other. Something else took me by surprise- her exploration of faith didn’t bore or exasperate me (my usual reaction nowadays to reading someone’s religious effusions). What she said made sense, I respected and appreciated how she worked her way through re-evaluating life, and also explored some alternative ideas and views along the way (once consulting a shaman, another time visiting a naturopath, for example). It’s a very candid, forthright story about one woman’s journey through the black gulf of cancer and out the other side.

Parallel read: Autobiography of a Face

Rating: 3/5
253 pages, 2001

by Lucy Grealy

Lucy Grealy suffered from cancer in her jaw as a child. It was treated with surgical removal (an entire third of her jawbone), chemotherapy and radiation. She survived the cancer but her face was forever disfigured. It sounds like she spent most of her childhood and young adult years in and out of hospitals, or convalescing at home- years and years of reconstructive surgeries that failed, when the grafts were reabsorbed by her body. It’s difficult to read about the loneliness and pain she endured (including a family that rarely discussed things). But to her those were almost nothing, compared to the mental and emotional suffering by how people saw her afterwards. Such was the internal life of a child, for a long time she didn’t even realize how sick she was, she had no idea what chemo and radiation would do to her body. She found comfort and security in the sameness of the hospitals, being surrounded by other patients, not seen as someone unusual or unattractive there. It was when she returned to school and other kids cruelly made fun of her, that she finally understood how her appearance differed. For a long time after she always hoped that the next surgery would be the one to restore her face, to make her look normal again. She was baffled by women in a plastic surgeon’s office who were there to alter their noses or breasts- thinking she’d be happy to have just regular features like them. College years followed, where she finally found friends who saw past her appearance, where she cultivated an air of otherness, honed her writing skills as a poet, and longed to be loved by someone.

There were also horses. She worked in stables, briefly owned a horse when a friend moved and couldn’t take him (it died suddenly), then had another years later when her parents were able to buy her one. She talks a lot about how comforting it was to be around the animals, to work closely with them. And how restorative the non-judgemental attitude of her co-workers in the stable, people who like her just mostly cared about the horses. On another note, she also found comfort in words, philosophers and poets, explored Buddhism, existentialism and even Christianity. I admit sometimes I didn’t quite get what she meant, her thought process was occasionally obscure to me, but her musings on the nature of beauty, the importance of knowing people for who they are, really struck me. So many painful words, insightful and beautiful ones too

She was friends with Ann Patchett, who wrote about their relationship in a memoir Truth and Beauty. However reading accounts like this makes me have some reservations on reading it or not.

There’s an interview with the author here.

Rating: 4/5
223 pages, 1994

More opinions:
Books on the Brain
Draft No. 4]
anyone else?

I have been doing this 2,000 piece puzzle for the past three weeks. Love the spring colors, and think I would gladly collect more Eurographics puzzles. Colors are bright, piece fit is good, shape variety great. Surface did irritate my fingers somewhat. I got this puzzle for only four dollars because it was missing one piece and several others looked like they were chewed by a small dog (not disclosed to me by the seller). 

I patched in the missing piece (my kids had to look three times to find it!)

 ironed flat the mangled ones, 

and touched up a few that had the image worn or rubbed off. 

Not very noticeable when it’s all done! It felt like quite an accomplishment to finish this one, I really liked walking past the puzzle table seeing the light reflect off all the tidily aligned piece shapes. But only for one day. Usually I leave a completed puzzle up for a while to admire- this one I felt I’d seen enough of, quite ready to disassemble and start something new!

The artist of this image is Haruyo Morita and google translate tells me the title means “spring song”. Assembly pics below:

The Science Behind the 100 Most Common Recommendations

by Jeff Gillman and Meleah Maynard

This book makes a solid attempt at sorting out popular gardening advice into good, bad and questionable. A hundred commonly heard tips are examined: how well do they work? is there scientific backing for the idea? could it do more harm than good? I admit there was a lot of stuff in here I’d heard of and followed at times. I came across one piece of outlandish advice that was totally new to me: that beating a tree with a baseball bat will make it flower. What?? (No, this is not recommended). I have myself considered should I paint or seal a wound from removing a tree limb, is it good to fertilize the hole when planting a tree, how carefully should you space plants in the garden, does releasing predatory insects help against pests and so on. I like that this book tells you what will happen if you do follow the advice- good or bad. And it goes through all the things that are iffy- either they don’t work as well as people hope, aren’t worth the effort, or really depend on conditional factors. There wasn’t a lot that was news to me in this book, but it was a nice refresher and reminder that some things aren’t worth the time to bother with, or are probably just ineffective. The book is divided into sections: soil health; watering; controlling pest, weeds and diseases; using mulch; growing annuals, perennials and bulbs; trees and shrubs; vegetables and fruit; and lawn care. It seemed to me that most of the advice in the soil section kept repeating: don’t till! And I was a bit surprised how much synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were actually recommended here- just enough to keep the lawn healthy is better than none at all (if your lawn is suffering from lack of nutrients) but also they point out that just because pesticides are organic, doesn’t mean they’re safe. They can be toxic if misapplied or overdone. I took notes on a deer repellent (I use Irish Spring soap bits- this book suggests a mixture of eggs and hot pepper sauce), how to make a quick temporary shade for transplants, and using corn gluten meal on the grass.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
224 pages, 2012

by Adele Brand

I like reading about foxes. This book is from the perspective of UK resident who observes foxes in her backyard garden and sets up trail cameras in nearby forests. Also some mention of foxes in Canada, the US, and a few other countries. There’s lots on how foxes and humans interact especially in the UK- why they are so easily habituated to living around people and how that sometimes changes their behavior; the heirarchy of fox society, the sounds they make, what prey they eat and how that has driven their body design. I didn’t know before why foxes carry whole pieces of food home rather than regurgitating from their stomachs like wolves do. I’ve heard foxes scream outside my window and now have more insight into that- threatening my cat, or fox rivals. Do badgers impact fox numbers? do foxes attack house cats? And why do some people see foxes as a threat- inexplicably, though many people are afraid of rabid foxes, the author states that rabies is now virtually nonexistant in the UK- foxes are far more likely to suffer from internal parasites or mange. There’s bits in here about how to deter foxes from coming onto your property- traps and poisoning of course are considered inhumane, fences rarely work, surprisingly it’s not putting out a scent that deters them, but erasing their own! (a fox whose territory markers keep disappearing will be discouraged from “owning” the area). Intriguing as the animals are, somehow I felt a bit disinterested reading this book. I had to mentally remind myself to pick it up again. Something about the writing tone? not sure.

I was surprised to find a few typos, as it otherwise appears to be a professionally produced book. Not just a misspelled word, or an instance of they instead of the– but also a page where one word in the sentence was oddly a different font size:

and a caption that didn’t appear to match the depicted image at all.

But overall, a good read. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
213 pages, 2019

Love, Grief and Compassion

by Peter Wohlleben

This was an unintentional re-read for me. And uncommonly soon, as the previous read was only five years ago! What happened was, I had written the title wrong on my previous post (now fixed). So it didn’t come up in a search, when I thought: this book is so familiar, have I read it before? By the time I realized I had, I was far enough into the narrative to be intrigued by all the parts I’d forgotten, so continued to the end. It really was surprising, what things I so clearly remembered from before (the squirrel mother nearly strangled by young she carried to safety, deer hierarchy changing when the leading doe looses her fawn) and what leaped out at me seemingly entirely new. Did I just forget so much, or did my mind skim over them when I was reading? I wonder if it’s the different voice that made other parts stand out.

Because this time it was an audiobook. Borrowed from the public library. Reader’s voice Thomas Judd. The book is full of examples of animals experiencing emotions and demonstrating thought processes or intelligence. From lab rats dreaming about their tests in a maze to goats and dogs adopting orphaned animals (sometimes of other species). Crows sliding down snowy rooftops over and over again- seemingly for fun. Horses in old age becoming fearful of lying down to sleep- because they’ll struggle to get up again. Hedgehogs apparently having nightmares when too-warm temperatures in winter rouse them from hibernation- but they can’t actually wake up. Pigs running to get their feed when called individually by name. Sometimes the examples are of limitations as well: are dogs really feeling guilty when you scold them for wrongdoing? or is it just an expression of submission that we interpret that way. There was more in here about insects, tardigrades and other tiny life forms than I had remembered. Also some musings on the possibility of plants having some kind of memory or feelings- that causes a conundrum for this author who makes it clear he thinks hunting is abhorrent and we shouldn’t be eating animals at all- but then if plants can feel, is it also morally wrong to eat them. Kind of leaves you nowhere.

Anyway, this was an odd experience for me in another way because once again I switched technologies, ha. I got into audiobooks a short while back when received one by mistake. Then started having fun listening to more books while doing household chores. But my devices kept failing. First I was using an old boom box my teenager discarded, to play books on CD from the library. The power cord was missing but it had batteries. However when the battery life ran out I didn’t feel like buying more (it need six very large ones). We tend to hang onto lots of old stuff around here so I looked and found an MP3 player (also ditched by a kid years ago- everything is on their phones now). This worked great- except it will only read certain formats, so some of the audiobooks just don’t work. So I gave up on that and popped the audiobooks into the DVD/Blu-ray that’s still hooked up to our TV. That conked out on me entirely just a few days ago. Sound gave out. Popped a movie in there, same problem. Disappointing because I did like borrowing movies from the library now and then, to watch things I can’t find on any of the platforms we use (Netflix, Amazon Prime video, etc). It was a really old DVD player though.

Then my husband said well, let’s just look here- and pulled up the audiobook I was currently trying to finish on Youtube, via our television. I had no idea you could listen to entire audiobooks on Youtube. It’s actually a nicer experience than any of the other devices, because I can use the fancy new headset he got to listen to it anywhere in the house, doing any of my tasks, without disturbing other people. But really it feels so odd to finish the book and not have an item in hand to put back on my shelf, or return to the library. I don’t know how many other books on my TBR (still sticking to nonfiction for listening) are available in this format, curious to see now.

Rating: 4/5
277 pages, 2016

A Little Dog with a Very Big Heart

by Dion Leonard

Long-distance ultra-marathon runner was in a race in China’s Gobi Desert when a small brown dog started following him. At first he ignored the dog, then he carried her across a river, then he and other race participants started giving her food and sharing their water. They were very impressed with the dog’s stamina and determination, keeping up with the runners. The dog -soon named Gobi- began sleeping in his tent, and by the end of the race he felt attached to her and determined to take her home to Scotland. He knew this would be difficult, but it turned out to be a far more lengthy process than anticipated. First Gobi had to pass health inspections in China, then a lot of red tape navigation to get her on a plane, then possibly another long wait in quarantine in the UK. The author himself returned home while most of this was going on, but then it was all stalled because the dog went missing. So he flew back to China to try and find her, lost in a big city. The outpouring of help, as Gobi’s story spread online (due to a crowdfunding effort, blogs about the race and news coverage) was pretty amazing. When he finally located Gobi, he had to sneak her into a hotel, then later find other accommodations as it seemed some people might be trying to kidnap the dog for ransom. It got kind of crazy. But it all cemented their relationship, and in the end he succeeded. At great cost, mind you. Inserted sporadically through the narrative of encountering the dog in the desert and re-locating her in China, are chapters about the author’s painful childhood, why he became a competitive long-distance runner, and why the dog ended up meaning so much to him. It’s a very touching and ultimately uplifting story. And I certainly know more about this extreme sport than I ever expected to before.

Rating: 3/5
260 pages, 2017


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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