by Melanie Gillman

I got this one from the library thinking it was the sequel to As the Crow Flies. Nope. In fact, I can’t find if a sequel was ever written. This one is set in the American Wild West, frontier times. A young woman traveling in a stagecoach is kidnapped by a bandit who holds up the stage, is disgruntled to find the safe chest only holds paper notes (not deemed of steady value yet) and takes the fine-looking lady to hold for ransom. Comes as a surprise to both: the bandit is a woman outlaw, riding rough and doing her own thing. The lady she kidnapped is trans- with quite a flair for putting on regional accents, and a longing to perform on stage someday. The two suddenly collaborate in a scheme to sneak into a Confederate gala, steal some information and hopefully a map as well. It doesn’t go smoothly, but they succeed in the end, and find they make good partners- in more ways than one. A very lovely ending where they literally ride off into the sunset together. Brief, clearly to the point, and nicely done. A lot of historical facts dropped seamlessly into the story as part of the dialog or background details, most of them pointed out or explained in a few pages of notes at the end. I liked this. Shows very clearly how queer and trans folk were part of history, even if not noticed nowadays.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/26/24.

Rating: 3/5
104 pages, 2019

by Mary Elizabeth Edgren

This isn’t usual for me, but I started reading this book the same day I bought it, at a library sale. Waiting for my kid and just fished a book out of the bag to idle away the time. Found it interesting enough I kept going, though by the end I decided not to look for the sequel. I liked some aspects of this story, others not so much. It’s about a family of somewhat anthropomorphic raccoons. They live in the forest, foraging for their food and have other habits just like real raccoons. But they talk to each other, have humanlike postures (in the pictures), make stretchers and beds, care for their injured and sick, use clamshells to hold water, teach themselves how to read, etc. Most of this I was able to accept and go along with as part of the story, but it got more and more unbelievable further into the book.

The main raccoon family gets displaced by a forest fire and has to find a new home. They have to avoid a rival group of raccoons who compete for territory and food resources. They end up rather close to some human habitations, which makes the older raccoons nervous and cautious, but the young ones are curious. A big part of the story is about how the young raccoons learn from the older ones to behave well, to be kind and obedient, and so on. Mainly because this raccoon family “follows the Maker” and the whole thing has a strong religious bent. There’s a mythology among the raccoons about how humans used to also adhere to the Maker’s teachings but fell away long ago and became enemies instead. These raccoons have specific teachings, a thing like raccoon version of a Rosetta stone that lets them translate human writing (very painstakingly), and eschew eating other animals as part of their moral code. The rival raccoons by the way, don’t follow any such teachings, eat anything they can find (like real raccoons) and are unpleasant, fierce and aggressive.

So one little raccoon goes over a wall on the edge of the forest and discovers a church with a graveyard (though they don’t know what any of that is). They puzzle over the writing on the gravestones, thinking it means something. They make contact with a little girl who gives them food, and then starts leaving them written messages, which they are able to decipher. One of the raccoons figures out how to write back to her, using mud instead of ink. It was quite clever. Where the story really lost me was how the raccoons were able to translate a Bible and read it, and from there extrapolate what some of the pictures they saw on papers left around the church meant, and make huge leaps of comprehension in regards to religious history. It just did not make any sense to me, even in the context of this fiction. How they could go from barely understanding a handwritten note that simply said “for you” to not only translating but reading and grasping entire pages of the Bible, was nonsensical to me. It was just too much. And to really hammer home the message, there’s a whole parallel series of events among the raccoons, where one of the rival group comes over to the “good” family’s side, a young one among them betrays their presence to a hunter, is forgiven by the elders, and an older raccoons puts himself in mortal danger to protect the group. Making the “ultimate sacrifice”. It was a touching story, it was just too overdone with the religious ideas and the crazy implications about what the raccoons could understand. I like my fiction to keep within some degree of reason. Or at least to follow its own logic

I did like that the raccoons called the humans “Uprights”. That was a unique take on it (usually books with talking animals refer to people as “two-legs” or something similar). The drawings by Kathryn Penk Koch are charming in their own way. (I was very surprised to see someone else’s review online remark that they learned so much about raccoons from this book. Uh, but raccoons don’t live and act this way!)

In a nutshell: raccoons in the forest find a new home, deal with rivals, learn to read the Bible and follow God.

Completed on 5/25/24.

Rating: 2/5
178 pages, 1989

A Mostly True Story

by Suzanne Fisher Staples

Based on some experiences the author had as a child, not sure how much is fictional. It’s all about one summer when she obsesses over getting a dog. She’s a loner, likes walking in the woods and fishing. Her mother keeps encouraging her to make friends, but she insists she doesn’t need a friend, she needs a dog who will accompany her on her favorite activities. She even has a picture of this dog in her head and daydreams about it constantly. But her brother is very allergic. She collects animals out of the woods (much like lonely child in Fetch, but in this case fairly well-cared for) and spends her time with them. Then fate seems to put a dog in her path, she and her sister beg, and the parents allow them to keep it- as long as it stays in the basement or yard. Thrilled to finally have a dog, a bit disgruntled at having to share him with her sister, and turning a blind eye as long as she can to his misbehavior. Some of the incidents were very funny, a lot just a dog being a dog- and then there’s the one that led to the title! (Which made me think of Ramona for some reason). Eventually some trouble the dog causes- especially with neighbors down the road who have a prized hunting dog in heat- and they usually sell her puppies for good money- you can guess what happens there- makes her father lay down the law: one more incident, and the dog has to go. Of course she tries to keep the dog under control, but finally enough’s enough. The ending was kind of sad, and a bit abrupt. Most of the story is about these long days of summer, dealing with siblings, roaming the woods, wheedling with her parents, trying to handle the dog. It didn’t impress me super much, but I enjoyed the read.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/20/24.

Rating: 3/5
120 pages, 2003

Our black one had to be put to sleep a few months ago- he was almost 20 years old. We missed him a lot, and the house just doesn’t feel the same without a cat. That void is filled now, but this young one is quite a handful! She’s always into everything- on the bookshelf, on the desk,

and of course insisting on being part of puzzle time.

She can be very sweet and funny too, and we love her already- but sometimes I just want her to leave my puzzle boards alone!

by Esther Averill

What a cute little book. I found it browsing the J Fic shelves (still my current level of reading concentration, most days). I almost instantly recognized the illustration style and one of the characters: we had a copy of the book about the firehouse cat when I was a kid, and he’s in this one too. But the main character is Jenny, a shy little black cat who lives with a ship’s captain. When her owner goes away to sea, Jenny is sent to a kind of boarding school for cats. It’s an odd little fantasy: the cats talk to each other and do silly things like drive toy cars, but when a kid walking by the yard asks the woman who runs the school if they really teach cats to read and do arithmetic there, she laughs and says oh no, we just teach them manners and how to get along with each other. So it’s more like a boarding kennel for cats? but with schooling mixed in. And they sleep in beds in a row. With posts made of tree branch sections to scratch their claws on. Very amusing.

Well, Jenny arrives at the school very nervous and scared of everything- the new environment, the other cats, the very idea of school. She hides under a bed and just watches what goes on at first. If the other cats behave well, they get dried catnip to roll around in as a treat before bedtime. Jenny has just gotten brave enough to venture out and sit with the other cats when she gets scared again. This time by a deliberate action: one of the other cats is Pickles (from the firehouse book!) He has a miniature-sized fire engine with a ladder that he can drive, and he zooms it around chasing the other cats and showing off. Jenny is so terrified by the fire engine she bolts up the chimney and won’t come out. She stays there all night, and when next morning finally looses her grip and falls down, she dashes out the front door and runs away. Everyone goes out looking, but they can’t find Jenny. She runs through the village to the train station, hoping to somehow get on a train back home to her Captain. While hiding there, she sees two other cats arrive on the train for the School, and admires them. Overhears some conversation that makes her start to regret running away. Maybe she would like some of the things at school after all. She certainly would like to get to know these two cats.

But then something else frightens her and she runs again, off into the nearby forest. Turns out the forest isn’t scary to Jenny at all. She feels interested in everything and confident there. She meets a fox and watches the birds. And then goes back to the school, where she is welcomed without fuss. Except that Pickles brings out his fire engine again, just to see what she will do. And she runs at him with fire blazing out of her ears, overturning the fire engine and impressing Pickles, who never bothers her with it again. In fact they become friends, and Jenny ends up enjoying her summer at the school.

I guess it’s a story about facing down a bully, who is just picking on others to amusing himself and be something of a pest. Or about this little shy cat finding ways to be brave. Really it’s rather endearing and the illustrations, though a bit awkward-looking sometimes, are quite charming. I’ve gone and requested from the library all the other books they have in this series- I never knew there were so many!

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/19/24.

Rating: 3/5
32 pages, 1947

More opinions: Becky’s Book Reviews
anyone else?

a Dog

by George Pelecanos

I didn’t realize how short this book was until I held it in my hands. I suppose it was noted in the online summary that it’s a novella, and I just didn’t notice. That would have been okay, except the writing style and some of the content just didn’t work for me. It’s the story of a dog’s life, a boxer. He’s born into a family in D.C., plays with his siblings, learns human language from the people around him and watching television. So from the very beginning in the book, the dog was discussing human concerns and what they did as if he easily understood everything. (Far beyond what I think even a very intelligent dog would grasp). It reminded me a lot of Black Beauty, albeit a lot briefer, rough-around-the-edges and of course, a modern setting- as the dog goes through so many different hands, before finally ending up in a loving home. His first home, where his mother lives, is with a poor family. The mother can barely feed all the kids well, let alone the dogs. A man who comes to the apartment to do some work sees the dogs and immediately cajols the owner into giving him a puppy. So Buster goes to a new home. Here he’s purportedly the son’s pet, but really there as a status symbol for the owner, and because he hopes to make money breeding him. The dog is beaten for wrongdoing, corrected with a pinch collar, and often left tied out in the yard. Eventually the owner gets reported and Buster is taken by animal control officers, but he busts loose and runs free before they reach the shelter. He knows and fears what that is, from having heard people (and his mother) mentioning it. Runs around on the streets for several days, hungry and getting sick from eating garbage. Then he’s taken in by an old man who just lost his beloved elderly dog. Soon it’s apparent the old man can’t take care of him properly, and gives him to his grown son. This man treats him decently, but makes his living as a drug dealer. When he’s caught by law enforcement, the dog ends up in a shelter for real this time. His owner eventually gets freed from jail and comes for the dog, who thinks that life is good again. But that man’s mode of living isn’t stable, more bad things happen, the dog finds himself at loose ends and runs on the streets again. This time he’s picked up by someone who finds him wandering in a park. He’s taken him by a very nice family, and all is good at last. The end.

I received my copy from LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 2/5
88 pages, 2024

by Randall Jarrell

A quiet little book, about a found family. It starts with a lonely hunter who lives in a cabin in the woods, no other people around. One day he hears strange singing near the beach, and discovers a mermaid. He gradually gains her trust until she accompanies him home. She is delighted and intrigued by all the strange things in his house and the very different way he lives. They learn each others’ language, though he can never properly make the mermaid sounds so pretty much she uses English with him all the time. I really liked how it showed the strangeness of life of land as it appeared to the mermaid. For example, she was baffled by the hunter’s desire to take shelter from rain, detested sweet foods (thought honey was a horrifying thing trying to choke her), and didn’t understand that fire could hurt. I did find it odd that the story never said how she got from place to place (she doesn’t have legs after all) until near the very end, it mentioned how she had to drag herself across the land. Before then, it was just casually mentioned how she went here or there, without any note of the difficulty. Sometimes the hunter would carry her. She often remarked how the sea people thought her odd and eventually shunned her because she liked to visit the land, so then she spent all her time with the hunter. It seemed they longed for a child, and then one day the hunter killed a mother bear in self-defense (he got too close, too suddenly, in very close quarters) and brought home her orphaned cub. The couple were very happy raising the bear. Later on the hunter stole a lynx kitten from its family (there were five, so he figured the mother lynx wouldn’t miss one) and brought that home too. And near the end of the book, they find a young child on the beach after a shipwreck. So then their family feels complete, with a man, mermaid, bear, lynx and boy. It’s really lovely to read about how they all learned from one another- the bear and lynx behave very differently from people and have their own kind of needs, but they all found ways to make adjustments and get along. The boy learned from the hunter how to be human, from the mermaid how to swim excellently, etc. It really is a gentle and heartwarming story (if you ignore the fact that the animals were basically abducted from the wild by this lonely hunter). Nothing much happens in terms of plot, it’s just their day-to-day life and it ends in contentment.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/16/24.

Rating: 3/5
180 pages, 1965

More opinions:
Shelf Love
That Book Broad

by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

A very powerful book about such a tough subject. It switches back and forth between present-day, with the author visiting and interviewing an elderly Korean woman living in a “house of sharing”. The other, major storyline depicts what the elderly “granny” related of her childhood and youth- a terrible time from the beginning as she attested. Her family was very poor, on the verge of starving. She always wanted to go to school but never had the opportunity. When she was still a little girl, her parents basically sold her to a restaurant owner. She went willingly because she was told her stomach would always be full, and she’d be able to attend school. But she was basically a slave. That seemed bad enough, but then one day when she was just thirteen, she was abducted in the street and taken to a place out in the middle of nowhere that housed “comfort women” for the Japanese military. Beaten and starved if they didn’t submit, nowhere to go if they ran away, suffering for years with the humiliation and degradation. When much later the war finally ended, the girls didn’t even know, they were just abandoned. They finally started walking away, nearly died of hunger before reaching a town, ignored and shunned by the locals who knew exactly where they’d come from. Begging on the streets. Eventually the main character met someone who would take her in, and later she married (twice) but the men didn’t turn out to be as decent as they’d seemed up front. She trudged her way through a decades-long marriage and was glad when it finally ended. Reunited with her siblings but that was awkward and painful, they knew what she’d been forced to do during the war and were discomfited by it. It seems she finally found some peace living at the “house of sharing” but she was angered about the current government’s blind eye and unfulfilled promises to make right what had been done to her and her companions in the past- she protested over and over, publicly, even at such an old age. It was heartbreaking to read about what she went through, and admirable that she still had a sense of hope, enjoyment for life, and touch of humor. This one will weigh on my mind for a long time.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/15/24.

Rating: 4/5
480 pages, 2019

by Melanie Gillman

Charlie is going to summer camp- one run by a religious group. She’s uncomfortable right from the start, being the only person of color in the entire group, and also non-binary – or something. It was never clear what. Her given name was Charlotte but now using the name Charlie, and wearing decidedly non-feminine clothing, so I assumed Charlie was trans- but much later in the story we find out another character is trans (has a very straightforward, aggressive attitude but likes wearing skirts) and assumed Charlie was too- who affirms that no, she’s not– but doesn’t clarify what she is. Oh well. I suppose the point is that it doesn’t really matter how a person identifies, if they don’t want to talk about it, and that nobody fits into assumed stereotypes- but I was kind of annoyed that this conversation between the two characters was a big opening for them to discuss how they felt about things, and they avoided it entirely.

Well, Charlie feels discomfited mostly because a lot of the religious language keeps emphasizing how whiteness is equaled with purity, and it gets under her skin. She kind of seethes about it for most of the book, then finally brings it up to one of the leaders, who makes a point of being more careful with their language from then on. Most of it is about the kids taking a very long hike to the top of a peak where there’s some special place and ceremony to celebrate them all being women. There’s stories told around the campfire about how some women who were ancestors of those leading the hike, felt oppressed by their husbands and men in the community, and took themselves off on a women’s retreat into the mountains for several days, leaving the men a) worried about their safety and b) upset at having to do all the housework themselves. Ha. So a lot of it is about the hiking, with pages and pages of just scenery around the trail- I rather liked that. It reminded me of how a hike can seem to just go on forever! About the different jobs the girls had to do around camp, and how Charlie and her friend did or didn’t get along with the others, and did or didn’t comply with their assigned chores (turns out the friend is something of a pyro), and speculating the whole time what’s the secret ceremony at the end of the hike.

But when they finally got there- the story stopped. It didn’t show the ceremony! They went swimming in a lake (though some characters sat it out) and heard another story about the ancestral women around a campfire- and that’s about it. Getting to the lake part, I kept thinking: there’s not enough pages left for this book to wrap it all up. And then I felt really let down. All that talk about what was this secret and what would it be like and would Charlie and her friend disrupt it all – or end up appreciating it- and then the reader gets no explanation or closure at all. Ugh. Well, apparently there’s a sequel. I had no idea until I looked for other reviews.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/13.

Rating: 2/5
272 pages, 2017

by Kristen Radtke

This one was difficult for me to appreciate. The images feel very- static. Precisely drawn, but somewhat lacking in emotion. Bleak would be a good word for it, and that fits the tone of the novel, but it just didn’t resonate with me. I felt so unaffected. It’s about a time when the author lost an uncle she had admired and was very close to. He passed away from a heart condition that ran in the family, after beating the odds for so many years. The loss affected her deeply, and the author found herself inexplicably drawn to modern ruins, abandoned and decaying buildings, which she would visit and photograph. She ended up traveling to seek out deserted towns and closed factories in all these places where other people go to see iconic landmarks and tourist attractions. There’s a disturbing incident where she finds a pile of photographs in one moldy building, and takes them with her- and even when later she finds out why they were there, she doesn’t return or discard them, but keeps carrying them around place to place with her. While they are getting more and more moldy. I have a thing about mold. So seeing the depictions in this book of black mold creeping up the walls made me feel very unsettled. Even though it was in monotone illustrations, it was captured well enough to make my skin crawl. And when later I read words written by the mother and friend of the person whose photographs she picked up in that empty building, and then portrayed in this book, well that unsettled me even more. I suppose she succeeded in making some readers feel as empty as she herself did, but it didn’t make me feel glad to have read the book. More the opposite. Yes, there’s bits about finding her vision, about her boyfriend who became her fiancé, but none of that touched me either.

Interesting that a lot of other reviewers waxed on and on about the depth of this book (see links below) whereas a few were not really moved by it, like me. I suppose your mileage may vary.

Borrowed from the public library. Completed on 5/11/24.

Rating: 2/5
292 pages, 2017

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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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