Month: October 2020

three wonder stories 

by R.J. Palacio

     I\’m in the middle of re-reading another western similar in feel to Sam Chance when this book came up on hold for me at the library. It felt odd to jump into a different genre, with a different style aimed at a younger age group- but I went with it since I want to read and return fairly quickly. As you can guess from the cover, this book has three short stories from the viewpoint of side characters from Wonder (originally they were short stories individually available as e-books). It\’s a companion book, as the events overlap same timeframe as Wonder.

The Julian Chapter is about one of the kids who bullied Auggie. Though of course he doesn\’t see it that way at all. He found Auggie\’s appearance very disturbing- in fact it triggered old nightmares and brought up issues of anxiety he thought he had already worked past. Rather understandably, though not at all kind, he reacted to his fear and distaste by lashing out at Auggie, in an underhand way. I found it even more insightful that the story showed (if you read between the lines, which isn\’t hard to do) how Julian\’s parents- especially his mother\’s attitude- had something to do with his behavior and way of interacting with peers as well. I\’m glad that at the end the father stood up to the mom and kind of put a stop to the direction things were going. I also really liked the story the grandmother shared with Julian about her past, hiding from Nazis and how her dislike of a local boy with legs disabled from polio turned to appreciation when he helped her.
Pluto is the story of a childhood friend. They lived in the same neighborhood and Auggie had arranged playdates with him since they were very little. When they got a little older, some of the moms in the group stopped being part of it and other kids drifted away but Chris remained friends. He and Auggie obsess about outer space stuff together. This is the shortest of the stories and has two main threads- Chris trying to navigate an after-school band (organized by a teacher) where he wants to be accepted by the older kids who play well, but not offend his friend, who isn\’t that great with the instrument. There\’s also the issues he has with taking personal responsibility, getting a handle on his forgetfulness, and how when his mother gets into a car accident, he thinks it\’s his fault. Some pretty heavy stuff for only 76 pages. 
Shingaling– I didn\’t quite connect with this one as well, probably because it has so much focus on the ins and outs of girl friendships- who likes whom and who is speaking to who again (or not) and who sits where at lunch and why- for me it was hard to keep track of! Well, this is Charlotte\’s story. She\’s one of those who is kind to Auggie and avoids teasing him, but won\’t take a bigger step like actually sit with him because she\’s afraid of what other kids will say. A lot of it is about the dance class she\’s in, and a performance they prepare for at Carnegie Hall. Competition between the girls and how she gets to know one of them- that she would never have dared to approach otherwise- because they both win a place to dance in this performance. There\’s also a thread about a man she used to see playing an accordion on a street corner- and when one day he isn\’t there she wants to know why and find him again. She\’s worried that maybe he is homeless and something happened. The conclusion of that little mystery was nice. It winds up with another speech (given at fifth-grade graduation- sorry but I still don\’t get graduation ceremonies from things like kindergarten and grade school) I kind of skimmed that last page but still I liked this one too.
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 3/5               304 pages, 2015
more opinions:

by Banjamin Capps 

     Story of a man who helped build the West. As a young man he was a sergeant in the Confederate Army in Georgia, saw nothing there for himself when it was over. Left his girlfriend in Tennessee and traveled West with a buddy to see if he could make a success of something. Ended up in the vast land of Texas (at least, it seemed endless at the time). Started out catching wild cattle and taming them for use, selling some, eventually hiring a crew of men and breeding cattle. Follows his endeavors through the years as he gradually took ownership of more land, improved his cattle stock (quite a few breeding experiments, one with imported beef cattle and another with bison) and eventually brought his sweetheart out to live with him. Must have been a rough life for her (not much from her perspective). Eventually Chance became known around the region as a cattle baron- but he always felt indignant at those who challenged his use of the land, owing to all the work he\’d done to build his ranch up from absolute nothing. As the book closes he\’s an old man, having watched the world change, a town grow up around him, the native americans and bison disappear. He\’s not apologetic for his part in that, either. There\’s some rough and brutal parts, a lot about the hard choices he has to make as a rancher, always trying to decide what\’s best for his animals and the land, even if others don\’t see it that way. 

Rating: 3/5                 261 pages, 1965

by Timothy Zahn 

Sorry book, I skimmed most of you. The more convoluted the plot got, with suspicions abounding about who knows what about whom, who is infiltrating or conniving or scheming about what- well, I just lost interest. Kayna and Taneem stow away inside a bomb-rigged safe to get aboard the enemy spaceship; Jack and Draycos wind up in jail, then get sprung and for the bulk of the story are hiding on another ship in a gap between the hull and the inner wall- each party spying on the crew and those in charge, sowing unrest in the thin alliance their enemies hold, and attempting to sabotage the ultimate weapon. There’s lots of sneaking through air ducts, and using sophisticated tools to eavesdrop. Kayna isn’t who we thought she was (no surprise) and Jack finds out a few more obscure secrets about his past. Taneem realizes she can slide onto other people’s skin without them even being aware (the guy was asleep) which was kind of weird, but not really explored much. In the end more about the K’da background and their bond with humans came to light, which is really why I pushed through this. My main curiosity was about the ongoing development of the K’da/human relationship, and the interactions between the four main characters- but this book was much more about the tension and excitement of space battle. Not really for me. However fans of the author like how this wrapped up the series with drama and speed, so there you are.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5                364 pages, 2008

by Timothy Zahn

     More curious twists. Jack and Draycos happen to be near the planet where his parents last were – before dying in a supposed accident. Jack decides he can\’t pass up the chance to visit the place, and get some closure. Upon landing they are promptly accosted by an alien group that lives in a secluded canyon. (I happened the really like the naming convention of the aliens- it was quite unique). These aliens claim to recognize something about Jack and press him into service as a judge, to settle disputes they\’ve had lingering for years. Because the last set of assigned judges in their community- provided by the intergalactic entity- died under suspicious circumstances. Jack quickly realizes that something else is going on in this alien colony, and he\’s determined to get to the bottom of it. So he pretends to accept his new role (using the manipulative and people-reading skills he learned from his criminal uncle) while practically living in captivity and sending Draycos (whose existence is still a secret) out at night to spy around. But then he finds out that events in the past here involved his own parents- and if he\’s not careful, his old enemies might turn up to finish him off before he can expose things. Meanwhile there\’s a parallel storyline of Alison and her new alien/dragon companion Taneem, who have been captured by the enemy who coerce them into opening the safe that was owned by the advance team of Draycos\’ people- which will give them the coordinates of the arriving remnants of his race. Alison and Taneem have to outwit the enemy while hoping to gain access to that information themselves, but the reader is starting to wonder if Alison has her own, darker motives as well. Just like the other stories in this series, there\’s plenty of action, intrigue, and delving into ethics, especially between Jack and his K\’da companion with his high standards of self-imposed chivalry. 

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5          318 pages, 2007

made by Milton Bradley ~ photographer unknown ~ 1,000 pieces

From the MB ‘Nature’ series- like my red fox one. Funny this also had one incomplete cut! It’s in pretty good shape otherwise, even though I must have once bought it used (can’t remember). This is only the second time I’ve worked it.

It’s very much two hues- golden brown and greens. I don’t know which was more challenging, the blurred background foliage, or the jumble of spots in the wildcat’s coat. Kept me busy!

 (Click on arrows to flip through assembly sequence).

a thrift store find

by Timothy Zahn 

     Fourth in the Dragonback series. I like that not much was predictable in this story. Jack is trying to locate those who want to commit genocide against Draycos\’ race, and at the same time pinpoint a rendevous where he can meet the ships carrying the K\’da, before they are intercepted and wiped out. He winds up on a strange planet with Kayna (yeah, she showed up again) and soon finds himself fleeing some enemies he made in the past. To everyone\’s surprise they encounter, living in symbiosis with a native species on the planet, a remnant of the K\’da. Just as dragonlike as Draycos himself but unintelligent and apathetic, treated as herd animals by the locals. Jack and Draycos can\’t let these creatures get killed by the misfortune of being in the path of battle- so they round them up and take them along as they flee into the alien forest. What follows was very interesting. I paid less attention to all the description of fighting and evasive tactics, and would have rather read more about the curious turns the human\’s relationships with the K\’da took. Jack finds himself attentive to the different abilities and personalities of the degenerate K\’da, learning how to guide them and taking care of their needs. Draycos finds himself drawn to a gray female that reminds him of someone he once knew. And -without much apparent forethought- Kayna becomes host to one- with unexpected results. Everything is changing, even preceptions of the past- hints arise that the noble warrior ethic and legends Draycos has told Jack about K\’da history, might well have a darker side. I was just a tad disappointed that a lot of this got glossed over- for example, the characters\’ reactions at discovering the dragonlike animals, and likewise at seeing what happened later on, when Kayna let one slide onto her skin in two-dimensional form, seemed really downplayed. I would have expected more shock, or curiosity, or arguments even- but then maybe Jack and Kayna accepted new things so readily because they had to- their main focus being on the run for their lives. The writing really has more emphasis on the action scenes which I\’m sure is plenty exciting for the younger audience this is aimed at. 

Borrowed from the public library.
Rating 3/5               299 pages, 2006

by Timothy Zahn 

     Third in this series. It was a good story, even though the adventure is not my usual type. Jack and his symbiont companion are still trying to identify the enemy of Draycos\’ race. Having failed to do so as mercenary recruits, this time Jack deliberately gets himself sold into slavery, intending to hack the computers of the wealthy owner who has the right connections. Before ever having a chance to get close to a computer in the family household, Jack first has to survive his life of servitude- suffering deprivation, long work hours, unjust punishments and so on. He is astonished when his fellow slaves help him, with no obvious benefit to themselves. Draycos tries to help him plan an escape route and break into the house, but it isn\’t until the spoiled daughter demands him as her plaything (having seen him perform tricks for his companions) that he has a way in. It\’s not easier though. Inside the house is even more dangerous and tricky than just living in the slave quarters was. Somebody maybe is spying on them. Jack doesn\’t speak his owners\’ language. He guesses wrong at things several times. In the end, with a neat twist of irony, he finds the information he was after through no effort of his own. But then finds it impossible to leave safely- as now his skills as a conman and lockpick have been recognized by the owner, who plans to sell him to the highest bidder- or are there ulterior motives? I\’ve kind of left a lot out here- the plot got rather detailed and honestly sometimes it lost my interest but then new turns would make me eager to find out how they were going to get out of the mess. Something strange is happening with Draycos, too- his connection to Jack is changing, his senses are sharpening with no real explanation. I\’m curious to see what that\’s becoming, as the alien/human relationship is what intrigues me about this series. Funny, the girl Kayna which a few other reviewers speculated was being set up for a future enemy or love interest, wasn\’t present in this book at all.

Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 3/5              300 pages, 2005

by Timothy Zahn 

     Sequel to Dragon and Thief. Not quite as good as the first book was for me, but that could be due to the focus on battles and such. Jack and Draycos need to identify who had attacked the dragon\’s species, without revealing the fact that Draycos survived. They figure they can get this information from the database of mercenary companies that keep tabs on all their enemies and competitors. So Jack enlists in a mercenary unit that regularly takes children (base age is fourteen, though quite a few lie and join up younger). Supposedly they do this because their families are desperate for the payout money, although the contracts of course have fine print that often lets the company weasel out of paying- but that\’s beside the point. Jack goes through a ten-day boot camp, trying to fit in but his dragon \’tattoo\’ gets noticed and he has to pretend to show it off, not hide it. Which makes keeping Drayco\’s existence secret a bit more tricky. Meanwhile they have to figure out how to access the computers, and get sent to their first battle assignment before accomplishing that. A place where they are not welcome, and after a short while Jack realizes they\’re not actually there to defend the civilians as he was told. The fighting in this book is not hard to read- it\’s mostly bombs, tactical evasion, spying, getting taken captive and interrogated, and so on. Draycos takes matters into his own claws a few times, but even in that case the descriptions are light on gore (and he prefers not to kill unless it\’s necessary anyways). 

More interesting is the continually developing relationship between Draycos and his host- he\’s still trying to instill his code of honor and ethics in the boy, while Jack can\’t help falling back on the conman mindset he was taught. There\’s also an intriguing character Alison Kayna, who seems a lot more experienced than the other new recruits. Suspicion goes both ways between her and Jack- they each wonder what the other is up to, but avoid close questioning or striking up a friendship. The story closes with Kayna zeroing in on the fact that Jack is definitely involved in something- which probably leads right into the next book in the series.
I kind of like the fact that something I at first assumed was a weak point in the plot- Jack sabotaging a natural resource that was the crux of the whole conflict the mercenaries were there for with an item that could withstand the blast- actually turned out to be something he did on purpose. Seems like his desire to be a better person- turning away from his shady upbringing- and Drayco\’s strong sense of chivalry are sinking into each other. There was also a really cool scene where Draycos and Jack\’s uncle spoke in code using poetry- they basically took turns quoting a lengthy poem, with critical information given in lines were deliberately omitted. (However, the dragon\’s line-by-line explanation of that to Jack later on was a bit tedious).
This one has my favorite cover of the series. I just happen to like the tattoo detail and how Drayco\’s tail is snapping out of Jack\’s arm (even though there was never a scene where the dragon showed himself while Kayna was nearby).
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 3/5             301 pages, 2004

-Looking at People Looking at Animals in America

by Jon Mooallem

     In this book the author explores the attitudes of everyday people to threatened and endangered wildlife, and the convoluted efforts of conservationists and scientists to save them. Convoluted because the more closely you look at each issue, the more insurmountable and unrealistic the effort appears to be- even though of course we can\’t bear to let go and stop trying. In this regard, it shared a lot of sentiment with Inheritors of the Earththe world is going to keep changing, we have now moved beyond the point of being able to halt our impacts on wildlife and the land.

It starts with the author deciding to visit three areas where he can see in person animal species that are struggling, on the brink of extinction as it were. For some of the trips he takes his young daughter along- so part of this is also looking at what children understand of wildlife issues (most young kids don\’t care and are very human-centric and selfish, he concludes, while older children express concern for the welfare of wild animals) and how his own three-year-old responds to seeing them. He goes to Churchill to view the polar bears- which every year face a longer stretch of fasting waiting for sea ice to form, while more cubs starve and never make it to adulthood. He goes to Antioch Dunes, a place where the endangered Lange\’s metalmark butterfly lives on one host plant species that thrives on shifting dunes- but by the time it was made into a wildlife refuge so much sand had been mined and trucked away the ecosystem changed drastically, and now it\’s only through the constant efforts of humans to eradicate \’weeds\’ and plant the butterfly\’s naked stem buckwheat that keeps the species going. Finally, he travels to Michigan to join the team of Operation Migration and see how whooping crane chicks, raised in captivity by men masked in crane costumes, are led by ultralight planes on their first migration. In each case, the author talks with scientists, conservationists, and bystanders alike. He interviews the camera crews and the host who puts out birdseed (whooping cranes unexpectedly visited her yard). He talks about shifting baselines, how the public\’s perception of wildlife issues is influenced and changes over the years, how charismatic species get all the attention while lesser-known and smaller ones quietly disappear. There\’s discussion on how bison were nearly wiped out and since recovered and how canada geese went from being seen as rare harbringers of changing seasons to outright pests. There\’s the true story about a humpback whale that swam up a river and stranded itself- and so many people came to view this one animal in trouble, they trampled all over the butterfly refuge which was even worse for that species and its host plant. The parts about the legal tangle of how individual species get protection, are listed or de-listed as endangered, and suffer from lack of funding, was a bit tedious to read through. 
But it becomes very clear that for many species, people are obviously propping them up, and if we withdrew our support, they would simply disappear- in some cases, very quickly. How long do we continue that effort? (For example, the whooping cranes led by aircraft on their flight paths have successfully migrated on their own afterwards- considered a success because now they can live free of human assistance. But when this book was written, none of them had raised their own chicks. So that population could only continue if people kept hatching, raising and releasing cranes to supplement it. Never was self-sustaining). I don\’t know what to think of the message this book gives me. On the one hand, it\’s encouraging to see how many people do care about wildlife and are going to great efforts to help our fellow creatures survive- even if some of them don\’t act as wild as they used to (whooping cranes visiting bird feeders, whitetail deer in backyards). On the other hand, the glum none-of-this-matters-in-the-end attitude makes me feel very depressed. What we have done to our Earth is dismal. As long as humans keep taking up so much space and increasing our numbers and use of resources, I don\’t see how things can change or even be sustainable. Much less remain habitable for the diversity of species it once supported, in the long run.
Note: I shortened the subtitle in my heading. In entirety it is: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.
Rating: 4/5                339 pages, 2013


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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