Month: November 2017

by Doranna Durgin

This story features another world, parallel to ours, that has magic. Technology isn\’t developed because they use magic for everything- from keeping bugs out of the house and starting fires to sending messages and travelling far distances. But anything done with magic can be felt by other people with magical abilities- and intercepted by magic as well. To avoid that, important items are written down and carried by couriers on horses. When the book opens, a new and possibly dangerous spell is being taken on horseback from a magician\’s hold to his ruler- and the courier gets attacked by men who want the spell for someone else. In the confusion of a fight, the courier invokes a charm that should protect him- it does, by transporting him and his horse to our world.

His horse is somehow turned into a woman. Two people walking in the woods find her there alone and unconscious, naked except for the horse\’s tack, saddle and blanket. They take her home intending to call authorities in the morning. But after arguing about it, decide she has suffered some kind of trauma and they\’d rather help her personally, than see her locked up by police or committed to an insane asylum. She still has the mind of a horse, so she acts very strangely for a person. She has a limited use of language, which gets better with some practice. Once over her shock, she is very anxious to find the man who was her courier- but it so happens that his attacker was also transported to our world. So the horse-woman gets her new friends involved in trying to find the courier and help him return to his own world, while evading \”the bad guys\” as I kept thinking of them…

I expected going into it (from some other reviews) that this book was a little weak in points, so I was able to overlook some of that. There were a few typos, occasionally a phrase that didn\’t quite make sense. The e-book edition I read has some odd formatting, worst of which was the title of contents included as the last pages of the book, instead of at the beginning where it would actually be useful.

Hardest to get around were the poorly-written characters- human characters, that is. The horse-turned-woman is very convincing. In fact, she\’s the best aspect of the entire book, and the main thing that kept me reading. The author obviously knows horses, and her idea of how an animal suddenly transformed into a person might think and behave was excellently done. But the other people in the story often had me baffled. They frequently jumped to conclusions in an unbelievable manner- convenient for advancing the story but frustrating the reader. Their arguments with each other felt flat and unconvincing, dialog was awkward. Sometimes I was completely confused by decisions they made and responses they had to situations. Personalities did not stand out well- in fact, I didn\’t even care when one of the group got killed. The two main villains were unbelievable as well- their statements and actions often didn\’t make sense. Parts of the storyline that had to do with conflict between the courier\’s side and \”the bad guys\” in the other world really started to bore me, so much that I almost quit halfway. However the description of this alternate, magical reality was interesting, and the details about horses so well done that I\’m considering reading the sequel- although prepared to roll my eyes at what the people say and do, and just pay attention to the animals in it, haha.

It\’s overall kind of an odd mix. Parts of this book feel like an action/thriller, parts like urban fantasy, and then it starts to lean towards being a romance as well. Not strongly any one thing- except for the horses.

Rating: 3/5             295 pages, 1994

more opinions:

by Norah Lofts

This is the story of a place. The home of a wine-seller at a crossroads. When a group of Roman soldiers moved through the area they left their wounded leader behind, and he found an ill slave girl locked in a room (for her safety). Together they struggled to survive in the lonely place- all other inhabitants in the nearby villages having fled. By the time the Roman soldier had healed enough to leave, he didn\’t want to- had found acceptance there- even when people antagonistic towards Rome moved in and he had to hide his identity. What began simply as someone\’s home became an important locale in the community; eventually it became a tavern and inn. Over the centuries the building with its specially tiled floor served many different functions, but always remained in the hands of the same family, originally formed by that Roman soldier and the slave he rescued from starvation, so long ago.

I liked a piece of historical fiction written by this same author which I read many years ago, so I\’d always hoped to have more of her books. Unfortunately I didn\’t care for this one. The initial story of the slave suddenly finding her freedom and together with the Roman finding ways to stave off starvation until the settlement was populated again, when they became prosperous- was interesting. But then suddenly the woman was old, invoking vaguely understood rituals the Roman had mentioned to her, baffling her companions. And the storyline quickly moved on to other characters, all introduced very briefly as the book tells of how this place remained useful through the centuries. It just wasn\’t keeping my attention at all, by page 95 I simply lost interest.

Abandoned               376 pages, 1980

by David Vann

I didn\’t like this book. Halfway through I started skimming so much I really ought to call it Abandoned. It\’s about a couple in Alaska trying to build a log cabin on a small island, while their marriage is falling apart. The husband, Gary, has always rushed headlong into projects without adequate planning and then gets frustrated at the inevitable failure: this cabin is no different. It was really ridiculous that the island already had a cabin- one that Gary admired and tried to copy, but couldn\’t. Why didn\’t they just live in that one, cut down some trees for the view? It made no sense. Through all their difficult work (in endlessly bad weather), the wife is suffering from debilitating headaches that doctors can\’t find a cause for. She\’s bitter at being dragged into the building project which she doesn\’t care about, and seems to harbor years of resentment against her husband. There\’s a lengthy side story about their grown children, one of whom is cheating on his girlfriend with a tourist. I don\’t know why that was such a large part of the plot, it felt pointless. I didn\’t care about any of these people. I did like the descriptions of the wide landscape. Nature was beautiful, but the weather terribly oppressive- the cold, wet and relentless wind are emphasized. It\’s full of miserable people wallowing around in their unhappiness and ineptitude with relationships, career choices, building projects and all. The ending is horrible. (Something awful happens right on the last page).

Oh, and I was once again thrown off by the sameness of conversation and thought. This book has no quotation marks whatsoever. I suppose it heightens the sense of unease, not being able to trust your own senses, not knowing for sure if something is spoken aloud- or maybe it\’s a style thing, to make it feel seamless. But on the heels of a different book which overused quotation marks to the same effect, it was just annoying.

I should have known better. I picked this up off a library shelf recognizing the author- I did like his book Aquarium not so long ago. But I had a sense from other reviews that most of his works are very dark, and they weren\’t kidding. I don\’t think I will pick up any more by this author.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 1/5                293 pages, 2011

more opinions:
Savidge Reads
The Asylum

by Rumer Godden

Middle-aged Englishwoman Fanny has always done the right things. She cares for her home and children, socializes with her friends, she is kind and patient, never improper. Her husband often travels for work, so she is alone and rather bored when the children go off to boarding school. A film company comes to their village to make a movie, and Fanny catches the director\’s eye. Rob takes her out to the theater, for drinks, to dinner. She thinks she is just keeping company and having a bit of fun, but it turns into an affair. Fanny finds herself happier than ever with Rob- sees a new life opening up with delights that she\’d never imagined- so she leaves with him for Italy, filing for divorce.

Her children are shocked. They have to leave their country home and live in a small London flat with their father. The youngest girl is forced to sell her beloved pony. The children are unhappy with all the changes- big and small- in their routine. Suddenly refusing to accept the situation, two of the kids run away to find their mother in Italy, intending to make her come back home. Things in Italy are not exactly what they expected, the situation is of course strained. Rob wants to send the children back to their father immediately but the boy falls ill and his mother won\’t allow him to travel. So Rob brings his own daughter (who has been raised by her grandmother) to stay with them as well. She is also opposed to the new relationship. Although not quite on friendly terms with each other, the children band together against their parents. Their presence makes Rob show another side of his personality, opinions about raising children quite different from Fanny\’s. They\’re all discontented in the end.

Sadly, this is not one of my favorite Rumer Goddens. I read through this book rather quickly, intrigued by the characters and their interactions, but in the end felt dissatisfied and don\’t think I will return to it. It is very slow going at first. Lots of description of time and place- which is enjoyable in its own way- but the details of Fanny\’s unfolding affair made me feel bored and impatient. I suppose it was to show how gradually it all happened- how she excused the little deviations of her behavior until they piled up into one big thing she couldn\’t extricate herself from, but I wasn\’t terribly sympathetic. The story got a lot more interesting once the children were in the picture. But the writing sometimes felt a bit awkward- it shifts back and forth between recollections and present events without clear indications. As the characters\’ spoken words and thoughts are both framed with quotation marks, sometimes I didn\’t know if someone had said a phrase aloud or not; I\’d have to read a sentence over again to make sure. It\’s a shame, because I really do like this author and her depiction of how kids think -in this case especially, how acutely they are affected by divorce- is very astute. I was glad the children decided to stand up for themselves, but when all was done, I wouldn\’t call it a happy ending.

Side note: the prim young Italian girl would absentmindedly sing while reading crime novels. That small detail baffled me. I do have a habit of fiddling with the pages while reading (my hands can\’t keep still), but I can\’t imagine singing. I often hum, whistle or sing while painting or doing chores- but reading? How do you divide your brain like that.

Rating: 2/5            254 pages, 1963

more opinions:
Leaves & Pages
Desperate Reader

by John Boyne

Another story that depicts a horrible situation through the eyes of a child. Bruno is upset that his father\’s job makes them move from their nice home in Berlin to what he at first assumes is the desolate countryside. He mispronounces the name of this new place as \’Out-With\’ but the reader can soon guess the real location. Also the identity of his father\’s seldom-seen boss, of whom everyone is very much afraid- \’the Fury\’- is very clear to the reader, but then we are seeing it all through hindsight. In the middle of the story, nine-year-old Bruno is just angry and bored, squabbling with his sister, questioning the maid and finally wandering outdoors. Where after a very long walk he finds another boy sitting on the opposite side of a tall, barbed-wire fence. He slowly makes friends with this boy, all the time innocent of what is really going on. Who his father really works for, why are those hundreds of people standing around on the other side of the fence, looking terribly thin and all wearing the same clothes. There\’s a very real sense in this book, of how people- especially a child- could have been blind to what was going on during the Holocaust, how they started to deliberately not see- for fear of their own lives- when it became apparent what was really happening. Brutality. And this kid just wants a friend.

I read it in just two sittings. The ending is chilling.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5            216 pages, 2006

more opinions:
Vulpes Libris
Booknotes by Lisa
the Literary Omnivore
the Wertzone
Musings of a Bookish Kitty

by Emma Donoghue

This is another book that was all over the blogs some years ago. I think I avoided it back then because I assumed the subject matter would be too harrowing: it\’s about a college student who was kidnapped and locked up in a storage shed refurbished into a dismal prison cell. Her captor kept her there seven years. While held prisoner, she bore a child. Keeping her son as healthy and safe as she could in such oppressive circumstances gave her a reason to live. She taught and entertained him. The eleven-foot space and his mother, were all that he knew. They had a television, a few books, a glimpse of the sky and occasional \’treats\’ brought at their captor\’s whim- that was about it. The story works because it is told through the boy\’s perspective, at the time just five years old. He thinks everything inside the television is pretend, and personifies all the objects in the room- Table, Rug, etc. At night he hides in Wardrobe when his mother is visited by their captor, dubbed Old Nick. His energy and questions start to stretch the limits of their world, and his desperate mother finally tells him the truth of their confinement and makes a move to break out.

I was glad that the story moved quickly, that the filter of a child\’s mind kept the worst of horrors from being too stark, that a lot of the book is about how the boy and his mother struggled to adjust when they finally escaped to freedom. A huge shock to the child, a different kind of stress for his mother. He had never felt rain, never played with other children, never seen a real dog. He was smart in the things his mother could teach him- math, spelling, literature even- but completely baffled by so many ordinary things. His close relationship with his mother strained by their suddenly expanded environment, by so many other people crowding around. There are, of course, a lot of really disturbing aspects to this story- but it is also a tender one of hope and resilience, in spite of the dark premise.

There\’s a lot more depth to this story- and many other readers have detailed it better- see some of the links below. It was a good read, very compelling. Hard to put down and a lot to think about afterwards.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           321  pages, 2010

more opinions:
Farm Lane Books Blog
You\’ve GOTTA Read This!
Rhapsody in Books
Living 2 Read

the Aquarium Hobbyist\’s Guide to Observing, Collecting and Keeping Them: North American Freshwater and Marine Fishes 
by John R. Quinn

This book on fishkeeping addresses a very specific aspect of the hobby: catching and keeping wild fish in the aquarium. I suppose it all started once when an angler or fisherman caught a particularly pretty specimen and decided to take it home alive as a pet or for study. The book is focused solely on fish species that can be found in North American waters. It details the best methods used to catch native fish- varying according to the habitat and the behavior of the species- and where they can usually be found (without naming exact locations). Also information on how the fish should be handled to avoid damage and stress, what they will eat and their husbandry needs. Only those suitable to be kept in a home aquarium are discussed- fishes too large or otherwise unable to survive in healthy condition are omitted; a few endangered and protected species are identified so the collector will know to release them if caught. Explanations of the laws regarding collection are detailed, although the book is more than twenty years old by now, so regulations may have changed. I like the way this author writes, the book has an engagingly friendly, matter-of-fact manner. He was formerly an editor of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine, one I happen to subscribe to.

I had only one small disappointment with the book- the inked illustrations identifying the many fishes in the species profiles are nicely done- but it would be lovely to have color plates. This was one of those books I read with a computer close at hand, so I could look up fish species I wanted a better visual of. Also, the author frequently advocated keeping certain fishes for a short time and then releasing them again in the location where they had been caught. (Because some would outgrow a reasonable aquarium, thus only suitable to be kept as juveniles). However I thought this practice was generally frowned upon: a fish once kept in captivity should not be released again due to the risk of introducing pathogens into the wild population.

Aside from that, it\’s an excellent book regarding a very specific interest. I have never kept native fish and I don\’t know if I would ever collect my own, but I found it pretty interesting reading.

Rating: 4/5                  242 pages, 1990

by Peter Brown

I\’ve enjoyed quite a few of this author\’s picture books with my youngest, so when I saw he had written a chapter book (for middle grade readers) about a robot that interacts with wildlife, I was definitely intrigued. The story is fairly straightforward: a cargo ship wrecks in a storm, and of all the crates that wash up on the island, only one is intact. It contains a robot, packaged new from the factory. The robot\’s first awakening is when an animal accidentally turns her on. She has never known any other place- but the island is a hostile environment for sophisticated machinery. The robot (nicknamed \’Roz\’) has been programmed to assist humans, but must adjust to her life on the island. Roz has an acute sense of survival, and also the ability to learn from experience. The wild animals, for their part, have never seen anything like her. She is immediately labeled as a monster. It takes her some time to shake free of that stigma and integrate herself into the life of the island.

This book has a lot of great stuff going on. The contrast of technology and nature. The clever adaptability of the robot (whereas a lot of the animals are much slower to let go of their assumptions and trust Roz). The big question of what defines life. Roz can learn, she needs to take in energy and to rest, she can show compassion, she can be destroyed- but she\’s not alive. This baffles the animals. She even takes on motherhood, raising an orphaned gosling- you can imagine the awkwardness of some scenes- a goose raised by a robot who can\’t even get wet! By the end of the story, Roz has gained the admiration of the animals on the island, even the bears who at one point were her worst enemies. So when the company that lost the cargo ship discovers her location and comes to retrieve their property, the animals all rally in her defense.

I really liked reading this story, I just wish I loved it. The interplay of nature and the computer-brained robot is really cleverly done. It does a good job of showing how the lives of the different species on the island are dependent on each other, how the ecosystem is balanced and parts are thrown off by Roz\’s presence. I think the robot aspect would get a lot of kids reading this book who aren\’t necessarily interested in nature or animals- and it does teach a lot of facts about wildlife (although I was a bit irked that some were very stereotypical- birds singing to greet the day, for example). The ending has a lot of heightened drama- which I\’m sure will appeal to kids but I found it a bit tiresome. I really like Peter Brown\’s artwork in his picture books, and this one has plenty of interior illustrations, but they\’re all black-and-white which I found a tad disappointing. Just doesn\’t appeal to me as much, when it\’s monochrome.

There\’s a sequel; I\’ll be looking for that one. I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               277 pages, 2016

more opinions:
Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Waking Brain Cells

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol. 2
by Angie Outis

Continuing from Sorry So Sorry, the author writes about her painful awakening to something very amiss both in her marriage and in the community of her church. With the conformity and expectations to always seem pleasant and content, while her frustrations grew. Instead of being supported and encouraged, the tiny snippets shared in these poems show that she felt belittled and criticized. I try to imagine how she must have felt- the overwhelming sense is one of being stepped on. Constant reiteration that men were superior, important, women a secondary role. Her husband sparked with anger at small things that were wrong, and hid the large ones. She tried to shield her young children, tried to pretend everything was okay. Until a missive arrived from her husband\’s employer, which obviously held a dirty secret. I have to admit I\’m really curious to read what was revealed- maybe in the next chapbook of the series she opens the paperwork. Why do we always want to know each other\’s pain, to know how bad the worst of it was? I think it was very brave of her to write these poems about the disintegration of her relationship, all the little things that occurred in private to bring her down.The writing felt a lot more vivid to me in this volume. I was especially struck by the poem titled \”Why I Write\” that personifies her fear of emotion.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 4/5            23 pages, 2017

by Frederick William Pitcher

This is an outdated aquarium book that I swapped for, sight unseen. It\’s old enough that it talks about angle-iron frame tanks with all-glass aquariums being the new thing. There is no mention of an actual cycle, although it recommends to \’age\’ the water. I was a bit shocked to find no warnings against ammonia poisoning and it said ok to introduce fish when nitrites test at three or four ppm. Wow. So the info in here about husbandry, growing plants and the like is fairly basic. I\’m keeping the book because I like the illustrations. It\’s fun to look at the paintings in the guide that makes up most of the volume here. I amuse myself by guessing the species name before reading the text- some have them have changed in form and color over the years of selective breeding. There are a few- must have been popular or common for aquariums at the time- which I didn\’t recognize at all. I compare the notes on fishes with my own experience: this book says serpae tetras will only eat live foods and are difficult to breed. Not the case anymore. (Other old books I have on the subject note that serpaes are entirely peaceful: NO! and another that they are so prone to disease that not worth keeping. And in contrast I\’ve often read they\’re supposed to be really hardy!) This book: nice for the pictures if you like art and fish, fun for a bit of comparison to how things used to be.

Rating: 2/5           60  pages, 1977


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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