Month: August 2020

by Pearl S. Buck

I think this book may have sat longest unread on my shelves, and it’s actually been there twice. I had a different copy and tried it a few times when I was in high school, didn’t get far, re-shelved it. Weeded it out once, then after finding that I liked Peony, decided to give this a second chance when I came across another copy.

This is about the Wang family, in China. When the story begins Wang Lung is a young farmer on his way to get married. It\’s an arranged marriage, with a woman who has been a slave in a wealthy household in the town. She’s not beautiful but he’s satisfied because she’s a faithful wife, a hard worker, and bears him many children (promptly going straight back to work in the fields after each birth, without complaint!) The family survives through floods, drought, and locust plague. Every handful of years one or the other natural cause results in a famine and people around them starve. During one famine (so bad that people are literally eating dirt) Wang Lung takes his family south to a big city where they live in deplorable conditions, beg, and work at hard physical labor for very little pay. There’s no way to get ahead, until unrest sweeps through the city. The homes of the rich are broken into, Wang is swept up with the mob and intimidates a terrified wealthy man into giving him handfuls of silver. Then they flee the chaos and return to the countryside. Wang uses the money to rebuild his house, and eventually buy more land. Soon he needs help with the harvest, eventually finds himself as a landowner instead of a farmer- with hired help and overseers, never actually working the fields himself anymore. He moves his family into the town. Being frequently idle now, he starts to explore the pleasures of the wealthy class- and dissatisfied with his wife’s appearance, takes as second wife a much younger woman. He thinks that having success and money will ease all his troubles, but new problems arise instead- unpleasant relatives connive him into letting them live in his household, there’s constant friction between his two wives, and his growing sons have their own interests- none of them really want to keep or work the land as he did. As the book closes, Wang is an old man and his sons are inspecting the fields, talking among themselves of selling the land that Wang had worked so hard for, and built the security of his family upon.
I can well see why The Good Earth is a classic. It’s not very descriptive, the writing style is kind of plain- in the manner of he-said-this and they-did-that which usually bores me. But this was compelling nevertheless- I read it straight through in just a few days. In the end, I didn’t like the main character Wang much- I felt like he sometimes made selfish or poor decisions, thinking of prestige and appearances more than I expected, when he came into wealth. In particular I felt bad for his first wife. Overall women are not treated well in this story. It’s simply a fact that in the era and culture it depicts, girls were not valued and if the family was in need, they were often sold as very young children to be slaves or prostitutes. During the famine times some poor families quietly performed infanticide rather than see their babies suffer and starve. In this case I was glad of how sparse the prose is, reading about such hardships and terrible things people did to survive.
The story really shows a broad spectrum of human character. It wasn’t only what people stooped to when their survival was at stake, but also what they indulged in or did with their money when fortunes changed, that seemed to demonstrate what they were really made of. Or what they cared most about. I think that’s why I liked and felt most for Wang’s first wife. She was steadfast, never asked much for herself, saw and did the work required in hard times as well as good. Wang really was unkind to her in the end.
There’s a sequel called Sons. I’ll probably read it at some point. But I’d have to be in the right mindset, this one takes a particular kind of mood to appreciate it.
Rating: 3/5 
357 pages, 1931

More opinions:

made by Galison ~ artist Geninne Zlatkis ~ 1,000 pieces

or, Birds and Oranges. There’s four bees in here too:

I’ve added few puzzles to my collection during this quarantine time. Most from people in nearby neighborhoods who are apparently clearing out their closets, but this one I bought from a local indie bookstore (free delivery!) I love the colors in this one. My only complaint is the material quality- lots of the pieces had layers pulling apart and knobs dinged or bent, even as brand-new. I don’t know how many re-workings this puzzle would stand up to, so I probably won’t buy another Galison puzzle unless I really like the picture.

Click arrows to scroll through assembly sequence:

bought new in store

by Lucy Irvine 

Fine adventure story, if a bit odd at times. In 1981 this guy who literally wanted to live like Robinson Crusoe, advertised for a woman to accompany him for a year on an uninhabited island. Lucy Irvine answered his query and went with him to Tuin Island, which is near Thursday Island (I\’d heard of that one) which is between Australia and Papua New Guinea. It sounds kind of crazy- they didn\’t know each other, and after a week of being together didn\’t even like each other (and notably had very different reasons for going to the island)- but had to officially get married or the Australian government wouldn\’t let them live on the island. They started out with meager supplies, knowing it was going to run out but planning to subsist on local fruit, coconuts, fish from the sea, and vegetables they would grow. It was far from easy. In fact, a lot of the time it was downright miserable. They soon suffered from heat exhaustion, tropical ulcers and malnutrition. Fresh water in the creek soon ran dangerously low. It\’s doubtful they would have survived the year except some people passing by in a boat spotted them on the beach and offered them some supplies. Not long after they were getting regular visits from Badu Islanders (in the Torres Strait). Eventually they visited Badu Island as Lucy\’s companion became known to the locals for his skill at fixing engines. His work was soon in demand, and they were able to trade the service for rice, flour and other goods- which changed the dynamics of survival mode on the island. It\’s interesting how their relationship also changed once he got treatment for the sores on his legs, recovered his energy (having been laid up much of the first part of the year), and made an occupation for himself repairing things. A lot of the book is Lucy writing vivid descriptions of the island\’s beauty and how deeply it affected her- she loved that island. It\’s also a lot about the friction in their relationship, and of course the survival skills they employed, how they simply adjusted and got used to doing without many things, and acted with ingenuity to overcome other hardships or lack. Pretty interesting the description of the local islander\’s lifestyle and personalities as well, once Lucy deigned to leave the Tuin and visit Badu- she refused for a long time, wanting to stick to her commitment to stay on the island for an entire year. I would really like to read the book her companion wrote about the same venture- The Islander by Gerald Kingsland (the whole time she only refers to him as G). Forewarning: this book has a lot of profanity, and Gerald addresses Lucy with awful words, though apparently meaning nothing ill by it (she took offense plenty of times, though).

Rating: 4/5                    288 pages, 1983

Evidence that I still read your book blogs!

here’s what you influenced me to put on my list the past two months:

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild- Shelf Love
Strange Birds by Judith Gilliland
Feral by Nicole Luiken- Thistle-Chaser
Timothy by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth
The Changeling by Victor Lavalle- Shelf Love
Being Toffee by Sarah Crossan- Rhapsody in Books
Dominicana by Angie Cruz- Bookfoolery
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel- Indextrious Reader
The Tusk that Did the Damage by Tania James
The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith- Captive Reader
I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell- Bookfoolery
The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay- Bookfoolery
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue- A Bookish Type
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes- Rhapsody in Books and It’s All About Books
Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Richardson- Last Book I Read

King a Street Story by John Berger
The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya- Indextrious Reader
Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
The Way into Chaos by Hary Connolly- Thistle-Chaser
Rat by Andrzej Zaniewski
The Honey Farm on the Hill by Jo Thomas- Read Warbler
Garden on Holly Street by Megan Attley- Captive Reader
Winterbound by Margery Williams Bianco- Semicolon
The White Road Westwards by B.B.- Read Warbler
The Better Half by Sharon Moalem- Caroline Bookbinder
No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture by O’Hara- Sustainable Market Farming Blog
Grow Great Vegetables in Virginia by Ira Wallace- Sustainable Market Farming
There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In by Petrushevskaya- Indextrious Reader

by Rebecca Rupp 

Sequel to The Dragon of Lonely Island. Title is a bit odd- the dragon didn\’t return from anywhere, it\’s still living on this island and the children come back to visit. Once again it\’s a summer vacation for them, parents are off on their own holiday and their great-aunt who owns the island also absent. So it\’s just the three kids and the two caretakers of the grand house. Of course they immediately go to visit the dragon in its cave on the hill, and find trouble- there\’s a stranger on the island, a rich man has a yacht tied not too far from the dragon\’s hill, and a team of researchers has set up camp with tents on the beach. The children are frightened and upset- it\’s a private island, owned by their aunt, no visitors allowed. First they spy and try to figure out what the strangers are doing, and report their presence to the caretakers and via letters to their aunt. They warn the dragon, who cautions them that these visitors may be innocent, just studying wildlife or birdwatching. But the kids suspect they aim to find the dragon. Just like the prior book, this one has four stories- the main one of the children trying to figure out what the strangers are doing, and thwart them, and separate stories that the three-headed dragon tells them, giving them lessons on not jumping to conclusions, observing the evidence at hand, making their own choices, etc.

The three stories are thus: a young boy tending is tending his family\’s sheep on a mountainside when other villagers cry alarm that there\’s a monster in the area stealing and eating sheep. When one of his own lambs goes missing the boy goes looking for it and finds the dragon who, polite as always, protests that it doesn\’t eat sheep. He finds the lamb stuck in a nearby shrub and warns the dragon to escape as the villagers are searching for the monster to destroy it. But after the dragon flies away he encounters the real sheep-eater: a large wolf . . .        I liked this one okay.
Second story is of a young page who longs to become a knight and fight battles. His friend is a princess in the castle who hates doing embroidery and listening to the other young ladies swoon over knights. They overhear tales of a dragon hiding in the nearby forest, and sneak out together to find it. The boy takes a sword, encouraged by the princess to attempt killing the dragon. Upon meeting the dragon, they soon realize all their preconceptions about dragons are wrong- and then one of the knights shows up and promptly attacks the dragon. They have to do something!       This was my favorite of the stories.
Third tale is set in America during time of slavery. Its main character is a young slave girl who with her family runs away from the plantation they have lived on all their lives- because of rumors that some of them will be sold. They\’re trying to connect with the Underground Railroad but are discovered by men with dogs just before reaching a river they need to cross to reach a free state. Earlier in the story the girl had met the dragon in the forest, now it saves them by setting fire to the trees between them and the trackers, so they have time to get across the river. This last one felt out of place to me, for some reason. 
I\’m not sure why. Maybe it\’s easier for me to mentally accept a story about a shepherd boy or young page in medieval times encountering a dragon, even modern kids on a remote island- but pairing dragons with a story of escaping slaves feels more along the lines of magical realism or urban fantasy, which never sits well with me. I guess why not have escaped slaves rescued by a dragon? but the historical subject matter of that feels so much more serious, it felt oddly jarring with the other material in this book. The spying and mystery aspect of the modern part of the story isn\’t quite my thing either, but it was lively enough and I liked the characterization of the children. It\’s still a well-told tale with some very good lessons but overall this wasn\’t as enjoyable for me as the first book.
Borrowed from the public library. 
Rating: 3/5                  150 pages, 2005

by Judith Guest 

This was a re-read for me. A while back I decided I should read a handful of books in my permanent collection that I feel dubious about. If it turns out I don\’t care for them anymore, this becomes an easy way to cull. Last time I read this book I must\’ve been in high school.

I remembered some of it, but most of the nuances and details had been forgotten- or had simply gone unnoticed by me at the time. I did remember it was about this kid struggling after the death of his older brother, how awkward family friends were about it, how unspoken most of the emotional burden he faced daily, how his parents were drifting apart under the strain. 
I\’d forgotten that part of it is told from the father\’s viewpoint, but the mother is always described in third person. She seems cold, sometimes indifferent, accuses the dad of being overly concerned and too involved with his now-only son. The kid- Conrad- is repeating his junior year of high school while all his friends are now seniors. He became severely depressed after loosing his brother- in what sounds like a very frightening, traumatic incident (when it\’s finally revealed at the end of the story) made a suicide attempt, and spent time in a mental institution. Very little is described of that, but what is firmly shows how old this book is- the diagnosis is clear yet he\’s given no medication although several times a teacher or friend of the parents asks if he\’d been put on tranqilizers. Nope, there\’s just mention that he received shock treatment, and when he comes home it\’s left up to him to take initiative to call a psychologist and go to appointments of his own accord. I found that surprising, honestly. 
What did feel very real and relevant no matter what the timeframe of this story- was how people struggled to know how to relate to Conrad now that he\’s home again. Things are the same- but also very different. Friends are awkward. He tries to meet and talk with a girl he knew in the hospital- there were quite good friends there- and that doesn\’t end well. He tries daily to beat down the anxiety in his head, to find the motivation to do normal everyday tasks, to focus in school. The therapist is odd and eccentric, but aside from that very good at his job as far as I could tell. I remembered from this part of the book the dramatic scenes when Conrad went in there upset and there was a lot of yelling- but during this read I noticed all the moments of careful guidance, of sound advice that wasn\’t too preachy, of how he helped Conrad figure out what he wanted to do and how to build himself up again as it were. And finally, in the end, to actually face the emotional turmoil he\’d shoved down inside surrounding the incident with his brother. There\’s also some very nice parts about him facing down kids at school who are unkind, standing up for himself when he realizes being on a sports team isn\’t what he wants, finding a few new friends and even getting brave enough to ask out a girl he admires. 
It doesn\’t have a perfect, happy ending. It\’s a normal family with some heartbreaking difficulties, and they don\’t come through it all in one piece. Some things are better, some are not. The realism of that is what makes this book such a strong read. (I was terribly bored with all the mention of golf, though). Liked this book much better than I expected to; turns out I\’m keeping it.
Rating: 3/5                                    263 pages, 1976

by Timothy Zahn 

This very sci-fi story is about two unlikely companions. Jack is a boy- about twelve I think- who was raised by a conman, decided to quit that lifestyle and at the opening of the book is hiding out on a mostly uninhabited planet because someone framed him for a very serious theft. Draycos is an alien being, a highly intelligent dragonlike creature trained as a warrior, with a strong sense of honor and ethics. Draycos and his crewmates are fleeing an enemy intent on commiting genocide against his race, when they\’re ambushed and his ship crashes on the same planet: Draycos is the only survivor.  Some dangerous mercenaries come to inspect the crash site, to do away with any possible survivors or witnesses. The boy had approached the crash site out of curiosity but finds himself fleeing alongside Draycos for his life. They strike up a very unusual partnership. Draycos agrees to help Jack solve the mystery of the theft he was blamed for, after which they intend to do something about the aliens that killed Draycos\’ people- because they are now approaching humankind as well, presumably with similar intent. This quickly becomes a story with a lot of action and intrigue, which ends up centering on a high-stakes heist Jack is forced to perform by his enemies, only in the end to discover the enemy isn\’t quite who he thought it was. There are encounters with other aliens, chase scenes with narrow escapes, sophisticated break-ins, and other adventures. Not my usual kind of reading yet I was riveted to the page. 
The dynamic between Jack and Draycos is a good one- Jack is not really pleased at having to use his thievery skills just when he was trying to start living a reformed life, but at the same time he is often irritated by Draycos\’ insistence on honorable actions which he perceives as being pointless or getting in the way of their goal. Draycos is literally bound to the boy in order to live (more on that in a moment) but finds Jack\’s everyone-for-himself attitude troublesome and at one point serious thinks of abandoning him, even though it might mean his own undoing. His often superior attitude reminded me a lot of Ax from the Animorphs books. And there is an even stronger connection:
SPOILERS in this paragraph. I didn\’t know this aspect going into the book, it took me by as much surprise as it did the main character, and I was instantly intrigued and delighted by the unique idea. The dragonlike alien shifts between dimensions. He can be three-dimensional for a six-hour limit, then must rest or he will die. And he rests by flattening himself into two-dimensional form that lays over the skin of an appropriate host- in this case the boy Jack. He\’s like a living tattoo that can slide around into any position on the body, and pop out into real space at any point. I\’ve read plenty of books featuring dragons that have some sort of bond with a human partner- mental telepathy or sharing emotions, etc. This idea! It was so fascinating to imagine, and of course gives Jack an edge when facing his enemies who don\’t know Draycos even exists, much less is travelling along with him at every moment, communicating, planning, and able to snap out into attack mode when the moment is right. The dragon can also bend himself somehow to move through walls, and says that when he is in two-dimensional form \”most of my body is now projected along a fourth dimension, outside the bounds of this universe.\” Does that sound like Z-space to anyone? Ha. But in this case it\’s handled so well- the alien\’s attempts to explain a complicated phenomenon of his life-form to an unbelieving boy is totally believable to this reader. 
And my fascination with this concept- that Draycos with all his speed, agility, intelligence, claws that can pierce metal and ability to go through walls- yet had a serious vulnerability in depending on this young boy for his continual existence (also he couldn\’t read written language, a crucial flaw in a few points of the story that he struggled to overcome)- kept me reading with a lot of interest, even though the main premise is outside my usual interest. It\’s a well-written story too, which also kept me very engaged. There\’s even some funny moments. Like when they are running from enemies, crash an alien celebration ceremony and avoid being outright killed for the intrusion by pretending to be hired performers. Draycos stepped up to the role very adroitly!

Well, I picked this one up on a whim at a library sale once. Glad now that I did! I recognized the author\’s name, probably because he has written a lot of Star Wars books (even though I\’ve never read any of those). I liked this so much I looked for the rest of the series before I was even halfway done with this one. Someone else has #2 and 3 on hold ahead of me at the library, so I\’ll have to wait a bit, but I already have #4-6 in hand now. My only complaint- and this is a silly one- is that the cover image doesn\’t really match the description of Draycos. He has shiny gold scales with red edges, that color change to black when angered or excited. So I guess that\’s why the cover image dragon has dark skin, but it looks more leathery than scaly, hm.

Rating: 4/5                             248 pages, 2003
More opinions: Thistle-Chaser

My kindle e-reader is finally dying. A few days ago it started sticking- I couldn\’t swipe to go to the next page, or sometimes, even swipe to get into the main screen. Then it started randomly telling me that my book files are corrupt or protected and I had to re-download them from Amzn (not where I originally got them from, btw). Then it began telling me the battery was nearly dead and refusing to turn on, when I\’d just completely charged it less than twenty minutes prior. Sometimes it won\’t boot at all. I\’ve tried shutting down and letting it sit for a while, doing a hard reset, or having it plugged in while I read. Day before yesterday after twice rebooting it responded normally again, so I finished reading The Ultimate in one sitting while the pages would scroll. 

Now nothing I do makes it work. It\’s not a big deal- I\’ve backed up all my book files and docs onto my desktop harddrive, can transfer them to a new device at some point. And I have plenty of physical paper-in-hand books to read. But I was nearly at the end of this long middle-grade series, which just got good again and only four books to go. Now I don\’t know when I can finish. I\’m far beyond what the library has available, and I really didn\’t want to buy hardcopies of just these four, when I already have them in e-book format. 

The point where technology fails me.

by Rebecca Rupp 

Three children have to spend the summer at their great-aunt\’s house on an island. The aunt is not there, the parents and staff are usually busy, so the children explore. They find a hidden cave on a hill- and inside is a three-headed dragon. Each time the children visit, one of the dragon heads is awake, and tells them a story.

So it\’s really four stories in one. The children, their explorations and interactions and each of the dragon\’s stories, which are nicely interwoven. The children have a relatively quiet vacation- they explore the old grand house, go swimming and have picnics, bake cookies and play board games etc. but really they are always waiting for the day when they can visit the dragon again. Each has a difficulty or personality trait that the dragon addresses in its stories, giving them life lessons as it were. The oldest feels put-upon by having to be in charge, the middle child is something of a hoarder and doesn\’t like to share, the youngest lacks self-confidence and is easily frightened.
Dragon stories: first of a young girl in China during a time when girls were not valued. She finds the dragon injured in the forest, but nobody believes her when she tries to get help. Second story is about an orphan boy who goes to sea as cabin boy. Once he gets to the ship he realizes it isn\’t at all how the recruiting sailor portrayed things, but it\’s too late to turn back. He is mistreated on board and soon finds out the crew are actually pirates. He warns a ship they\’re about to attack and for that, gets dumped on an island, wondering how he\’s going to escape danger and get back home. Then he finds a cave full of treasure . . . Third story is about two children and their father, who are in a small airplane (back when planes were a very new thing) travelling across the world. They crash on an island, the father is injured and the children have to figure out how to survive. They find the dragon living in the forest, and ask it for help but it refuses annoyed being disturbed. 
Of course each story is teaching the children something: how to be brave and face down the status quo, the value of sharing, resourcefulness and attempting things even if you don\’t know how it might turn out. For how short the book is, I really liked how well the characters and the stories they heard were depicted. And yes, the dragon talking to the children is the same dragon featured in each story. There\’s no high-stakes exciting adventures, especially with the three main children; this book has a very different appeal. The dragon itself is polite and mild-mannered, although it does at times get annoyed with the children. Sometimes its abashed reply to some lack of manners or compassion being pointed out was a bit- odd, for a dragon, but I think it\’s just driving the point home: this isn\’t a wild, angry, fierce beast. And the dragon likes to point out how wrong all the stereotypes about dragons eating princesses are!
Rating: 4/5                    160 pages, 1998 
More opinions: 


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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