Month: November 2008

by Jane Lindskold

I thought I would enjoy this fantasy novel about a feral child who winds up in the middle of court intrigue. In this alternate universe, \”Firekeeper\” is a woman who was raised in the wild by extra-large, super-smart wolves. She\’s discovered by a group of men from the King\’s court, searching for remains of a lost expedition into the wilderness. Instead they find her- and guess that they might have found an heir to the throne. Firekeeper goes back with them, accompanied by one of the wolves. Once at court, she sets herself to learn how to act more human, making friends and enemies along the way. She has an uncanny understanding of court politics, facilitated by her life with the wolf pack. The first part of the book was pretty good, I liked reading about her experiences in the wilderness and wolfish interpretations of human behavior. But once the story got into schemes for the throne and headed towards warfare, I lost interest. So many new characters were introduced, it became difficult to keep track of them all (in spite of the book including both a family tree and a glossary of characters). Too many side plots added more confusion and bulk. I would have kept reading if the focus remained on Firekeeper, but it didn\’t. I quit Through Wolf\’s Eyes about halfway through.

Abandoned                  594 pages, 2001

by Louis Sachar

Holes is about a kid named Stanley who mistakenly gets accused of a crime and ends up at a reformative camp for delinquent youth. A camp in the middle of a dried- up desert lake. Where the boys have to dig five-foot deep holes every day. It\’s supposed to be character-building. Even though he\’s not guilty, Stanley doesn\’t protest much when he\’s sent to the camp, because his family has suffered a long series of misfortunes they attribute to a \”dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather\” who brought a curse upon them. At first the story is just about Stanley\’s efforts to learn the rules of camp, survive the desert heat and make his way among the other boys. But before long he realizes there\’s more than just character-building behind all the holes: the camp director is looking for something. Something which is connected to his own family history, which is revealed bit by bit in alternating chapters. The whole thing about the pig-stealing grandfather was a bit ridiculous, but woven in well, the two storylines unfolding side by side until at the end you learn the mystery behind the grandfather\’s curse, what\’s hidden under the dead lake and how Stanley aims to solve it all. I never really expected to read a book that had prison life, a hidden treasure, an ancestral love story and desert survival. It\’s pretty entertaining.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 233 pages, 1998

Read more reviews at:
Book Addiction
Books and Movies

by Clare Bell

I’ve just finished reading this book for the umpteenth time. Several years have passed since the last re-reading, and the story has not lost it vivid impact for me. Ratha’s Creature is a fantasy novel featuring prehistoric big cats who speak and have an organized society. The main character is Ratha, young female of a clan called the Named, who herd primitive deer and horses for their livelihood. They are constantly at odds with the less-organized but more numerous Un-Named. Ratha has always thought (as her clan teaches) that the Un-Named lack intelligence and the ability to speak. But sudden events precipitate her out into the world beyond Clan territory, to face a revolution of her beliefs and assumptions. Her doubts begin with unsettling encounters with an Un-Named raider during clan skirmishes. Then a forest fire rages across the land and instead of being terrified, Ratha is fascinated by patches of flame she finds in the remains of trees. She figures out how to control and handle fire and bears it back triumphantly to share with her people- only to be perceived as a threat and thrown into exile. Having been taught herding skills exclusively, Ratha struggles to survive as a solitary hunter until she falls in with the Un-Named themselves…

Ratha’s Creature is such a moving story. Every chapter runs high with emotion and pivotal events, firmly rooted in rich descriptions of the environment and the characters’ perceptions. One of the things I love most about this book is how it puts the reader inside the feline mind. Rather than relying solely on dialog, the characters communicate a lot via body language, gestures, scents and sounds. Instinct often vies with reason in Ratha’s mind. Despite being a cat, she’s a very believable character- struggling with feelings of pride and hate, bold and daring one moment, cringing from her own mistakes the next. Her world is one full of savage brutality, and she faces its challenges with a curious, questioning mind, searching for hope and friendship amid moments of betrayal and despair.

Rating: 5/5
259 pages, 1983

Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species
by Scott Weidensaul

I saw this book mentioned on Vulpes Libris a few months ago. It is based on several years the author spent traveling around the globe in search of extinct and seriously endangered species. In The Ghost with Trembling Wings, Weidensaul discusses why and how many species have disappeared, describes some which were thought lost forever but found again, and looks at errors and misguiding information that kept them in obscurity. He also examines many of the controversial issues surrounding efforts to recover those species teetering on the brink of disappearance.

The first few chapters of the book are full of birds, but after ninety pages the subject shifts to black-footed ferrets, and then deals with the Eastern cougar, some unlikely black leopard sightings in Great Britian, and an exploration of cryptozology (particularly Nessie of Loch Ness). The second half of the book interested me more, especially the part that describes some projects attempting to breed the likeness of extinct species out of their descendents who still retain genes for primitive characteristics, re-creating (in a sense) the aurochs, European forest horse and quagga from modern cattle, tarpan horses and zebras. Then there are descriptions of a trek through Tasmania in search of the thylacine- which reminded me of Carnivorous Nights, although this book is far more serious about it. The book closes with a chapter about the author\’s own search in Brazil for a bird that was seen by one man in the 1930\’s- and never since. A lot of the information in this book is dismaying, but it is also imbued with hope and persistent desires to discover some unknown and wondrous creatures lurking out there in the wild, still hidden somewhere in a pocket of virgin forest from the presence of mankind.

Rating: 4/5                  341 pages, 2002

I used the same toss-papers-into-air method of picking a winner for this giveaway, but am in the middle of thanksgiving preparations and didn\’t have time to take photos. One name landed on the book at the first try.

Darbyscloset, you\’re a winner! Send your postal address to jeanenevarez AT gmail DOT com and I\’ll mail your prize today or tomorrow. Congratulations!

by Lauralee Summer

This is the memoir of a college student with an uncommon background. Summer spent most of her childhood homeless. Her father was absent, her mother usually jobless. They rarely had money for food or clothes, much less to rent an apartment or own a car. They moved frequently, and spent time in homeless shelters and welfare offices. Summer\’s mother taught her to read and write and fed her hunger for knowledge. In Learning Joy from Dogs Without Collars, Summer talks about how much she loved her mother while at the same time often feeling ashamed of her circumstances. She found mentors in high school who encouraged her to strive for a higher education, and ended up getting accepted to Harvard- via the unexpected route of a wrestling scholarship. She became the only woman on the Harvard wrestling team. It was very interesting to read about her joining the wrestling team, and how classroom lectures about sociology- in particular discussing welfare and single mothers- contrasted with Summer\’s own experiences. This is an inspiring and thoughtful book. I did keep expecting to find a dog in it somewhere, because of the title. It comes from a line in a poem written by a homeless youth, quoted on the frontispiece.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 351 pages, 2003

more opinions at:
Shannon\’s Book Bag

by Viktor Frankl
translated by Ilse Lasch

I don\’t remember how I first heard of this book, but I know I read it twice in high school. The author is a psychiatrist who had survived the Holocaust- three years spent in four different concentration camps. The major portion of the book describes his personal experiences in the camps, full of introspective musings on the meaning of life, observations on how the horrors and degredations there affected the mentality of the prisoners, and his theories on why some survived and others (including his own family) didn\’t. The main message I got out of Man\’s Search for Meaning is that in the face of suffering, we can choose our response to it, and that the greatest factor of a person\’s will to live is their inner purpose.

This first part of the book was the easiest to understand. While it\’s never easy for me to read stories of Holocaust experiences, Frankl\’s descriptions are less about the brutality of it all, and more focused on the people themselves. He was particularly interested in what caused prisoners to respond differently to camp life- some gave up all hope. Others lost their sense of civility and acted in self-interest for personal survival, often to the detriment of their companions. And some retained their dignity and compassion, helping their fellow-prisoners when they could. I did find that at times Frankl came across as being condescending to his fellow prisoners. There were also incidents where he took credit for completely changing another\’s attitude, via one or two sentences of advice. It struck me as a bit conceited.

The last seventy-five pages describe Frankl\’s theory of \”logotherapy\” and how it was based on his experiences in the camps. I admit I didn\’t understand most of this. It is very dry reading. In fact, a lot of the first part of the book can also be rather technical, hung up with psychiatric terms. I often felt like I was wading through that material to read the more personal anecdotes. But maybe this book just wasn\’t written for a layperson like me.

Rating: 3/5                    165 pages, 1946

More opinions at:
Books n\’ Border Collies
You GOTTA Read This!
anyone else?

by Jack London

Another old favorite of mine, White Fang is almost a mirror image of London\’s other dog book, Call of the Wild. That one is about a pet dog named Buck from California who adapts to a harsh life in Alaska, eventually running off with the wolves. White Fang, in contrast, is about a wolfish dog born in the wild who eventually comes home to man- back to an estate in California that feels, in fact, very like the one Buck left. Reading the two stories back to back feels like traveling a complete circle.

White Fang begins with a few chapters describing two men traveling through a desloate Arctic wilderness, striving to reach the safety of a fort before the famished wolves get them. Then the storyline pivots and follows the wolf pack on its journey through the forest. It isn\’t until chapter eight that the real protagonist of the book comes in- a little puppy whose mother is hybrid wolf-dog that had run off with the pack. As the wolfish puppy grows up, the reader gets to experience the world through his eyes and see how his development and temperament is shaped both by instinct and environmental pressures. The young wolf-dog learns harsh survival lessons in the wild before following his mother back to the Indian camp of her origins, where he submits under the dominion of man and acquires his name, White Fang. Life in this camp isn\’t any easier for him, and by the time a brutal white man named Beauty Smith finds him, White Fang has a reputation for ferocity and killing other dogs. Smith encourages White Fang\’s belligerence, using him in numerous dog-fights until at last he is rescued by a kind-hearted man who tames his wild spirit and shows White Fang for the first time what love is. Then he has to learn new laws of conduct all over again so he can live peacefully in \”sun-kissed California.\”

To me, this book feels more savage than Call of the Wild. Mostly because there are pages upon pages of violence and fighting. This is usually between the animals, but there are also scenes of people abusing them. Reading this story as a youth, I was captivated by the viewpoint; I\’d never read a book before that portrayed so vividly the consciousness of an animal\’s (albeit limited) reason and intelligence. As an adult, I find the incessant fighting a bit unrealistic and disturbing. I\’m also unsure how likely it is that White Fang could be tamed after a lifetime of bad treatment. But it\’s still a thrilling story nonetheless.

Rating: 4/5                        272 pages, 1906

by A. A. Milne

This book doesn’t really need much introduction, but I’ll describe it to you anyway. My mother read it to me when I was young, and I was delighted to share it with my own daughter now. It took us about a week to get through, reading a chapter every night or so. I don’t recall if there were Winnie the Pooh cartoons when I was small, but for my daughter her first introduction to the characters has been stuffed toys, cartoons and picture books from the library. It took a bit of convincing to get her to sit down and listen to the original story. Once we finished the first chapter she was hooked and wanted to hear more and more.

Winnie the Pooh is a collection of stories based on stuffed animals the author’s son had, and imaginary adventures he made up about them. The introduction tells me that the artist, Ernest H. Shepard, visited the author’s home and sketched the real Christopher Robin and his toys for his illustrations. The main characters are Pooh (of course) a “Bear of Very Little Brain” who loves honey, the shy and endearing Piglet, Owl who likes to feel important and use Big Words, the busy Rabbit and grumpy donkey Eeyore. Later in the book a sixth character is introduced, the practical Kanga and her baby Roo.

There are ten stories in the book. The humor in them is mostly based on the characters being confused about something the reader can clearly see (if there’s a literary term for this, please let me know, I can’t think of it). Some of the adventures include Pooh disguising himself as a cloud to try and get honey from some bees, Eeyore loosing his tail and Pooh finding it, Pooh getting stuck in Rabbit’s doorway (from eating too much honey), Piglet needing rescue from a flood, and Rabbit hatching a plan to get rid of the newcomer Kanga, by stealing baby Roo (and putting Piglet in his place). They’re all amusing and charming tales, with the characters expressing desires and concerns young children can easily relate to like feeling safe, helping someone who’s made a mistake, trying to get something you really want, feeling important, and valuing friendship. I really like this book. Reading it to a child brought out all the wonder for me again.

Rating: 5/5
176 pages, 1926

Read another review at:
Come With Me If You Want to Read

anyone else?

by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is the story of Eustace Conway. A man who wanted to live entirely self-sufficiently, and be a part of nature. He grew up in a comfortable suburban home, but spent most of his time in the woods behind his house. He learned woods skills as a child from both parents and could accurately use a bow and arrow by the age of ten. At twelve he spent a week alone in the woods, just to prove he could do it and survive. At seventeen he moved out of his parents\’ house to live in a tipi he built himself in the mountains, catching his own game for food and making clothes out of their skins. In the years that followed, Conway (among other adventures) traveled the Mississippi in a wooden canoe, hiked the Appalachian trail, kayaked across Alaska and crossed America coast to coast on horseback. But what he really wanted to do was own a piece of land, where he could work out his ideas and methods of living close to nature in his own way. Eventually he managed to do so, and set up a ranch called Turtle Island where he not only lived his dream but tried to spread his vision to others, running summer camps which immersed children in nature.

The Last American Man is a fascinating book. Not only for its many passages describing how Conway did everything by hand- weaving baskets, starting fires without matches, stitching his own clothes, etc. but also showing how frustrating it was for Conway when he couldn\’t entirely escape modern society. He continually had conflicts with other people, particularly over his land ownership. His summer camps were a bit controversial- in return for their nature lessons, the children had to work on Conway\’s own projects, which included hard physical labor. He was always trying to think up schemes to fund his projects and promote his ideals, and comes across as a rather arrogant perfectionist. He had a very difficult relationship with his father, which shadowed his entire life.

I cannot say that I found Conway to be a likeable person, but reading about his efforts to live entirely detached from modern conveniences is very interesting. Did any of you daydream as a kid of going off and living in the woods by your own skills? I know I did at one time. Conway\’s experience breaks the illusion of nature survival being at all idyllic or easy- but it\’s intriguing to read how very seriously he tried.

Rating: 4/5                271 pages, 2002


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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