Month: August 2021

by Patricia Cecil Hass

Found this one at random in a thrift store. It was an entertaining read for one afternoon- I’m sure kids would enjoy this adventure story from a different era, when kids ran about exploring freely, but for me as an adult reading, there were just a few too many plot holes. It’s about two kids who visit a relative that has a peanut farm on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. They’ve made friends with a local boy, from a poor family that lives more or less off the land nearby. Eager to learn about the swamp from him, they plan to go camping. Just before setting out, hear from other locals about a ghost in the swamp. The children scoff at the idea of a ghost and are determined to find what it is- certain it must be an unknown animal. They find a stray horse, and also the game warden tracking something with dogs. So of course their focus switches from just camping out, to catching the horse, evading the dogs, and then fighting off and escaping a fire in the swamp, when one kid gets injured and nearly trapped. The horse saves the day (not of his own accord).

Actually, I liked how realistic the horse was, when so many other things were dubious. At the start of the kids’ outing, I was reminded of Two Little Savages, but this book has far less detail on survival skills- they do make a fire, catch and cook fish, gather berries to eat, etc- but I was baffled at how they strung hammocks to sleep up high in a tree, somehow it skipped the specifics of that. They also have wildlife encounters- a bobcat, a snake, then later a black bear- it was astonishing how easily these kids fought off the bear with sharpened sticks. And the confrontation with the fire was something else, too- even though the horse was kind of used to them at that point, I doubt it would have really trusted them enough to get so close to the flames. Willing to overlook that for the sake of an exciting kid’s story, though. What puzzled me more, was the secrecy- the kids were so convinced they had to hide the horse from the game warden- what did they think would happen when they got it to the farm? Of course they want to avoid finding the horse’s real owner (it’s obviously a valuable animal) but then very conveniently for a happy ending, it turns out the owner is tired of her horse running away, and perfectly happy to let them keep it at the peanut farm. Yay.

I have to mention a good part of this story is the kids’ interactions- mild squabbling between the brother and sister, the quiet local boy admiring their easy way of talking while they in turn admire his knowledge of the swamp and skills there. The brother is interested in bird-watching and thinks he sees an ivory-billed woodpecker (extinct). The local kid has two nearly-invalid parents he supports at home in the swamp, stubbornly refusing assistance. I kind of wondered if there’s a later book that continues some of those threads.

Rating: 2/5
187, 1973

by Amy Timberlake

Badger likes living alone. He likes the quiet in his study, surrounding himself with tools and specimens, immersed in the study of rocks. But then a skunk shows up on his doorstep- a chatty, energetic skunk who insists he’s Badger’s new roommate. Badger doesn’t want a roommate. He feels compelled to be polite, but also tries to make Skunk realize he’s not really welcome- at first subtly, then not so. (Though he does find he likes Skunk’s cooking, but not the cleaning up afterwards!) Things are just awkward at first: Skunk attempting to get along, be comfortable, and welcome his chicken friends to visit. Badger gets irritated at constant interruptions to his work, and he doesn’t really like chickens. Can’t even understand what they’re saying. And there’s far too many of them. Eventually Badger overreacts to something, Skunk gets his feelings hurt and leaves, and Badger is relieved at first- but then realizes he misses his companion. He has to find Skunk, which gets him out of the house exploring the little town (he’d kind of been a reclusive with his rock interest). And then figure out how to apologize, and if he can make amends.

Cute book, although some parts were- odd. I did not at all get the Quantum Leap stuff, and the ukulele seemed out of place, too. I kept waiting for some explanation or backstory, nope. Maybe it will be clear in the next book (Egg Marks the Spot). I did really like the funny little bookstore! Nice that the story gave me some surprises. Before I had this one in hand, I thought it was a picture book- no, it’s a short chapter book. Along the lines of The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell, or The Griffin and the Minor Canon by Frank Stockton.

Illustrations by Jon Klassen. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
124 pages, 2020

A True Story of Love, War and Survival

by Amra Sabic- El-Rayess

Amra was a teenager living in Bihać when the Bosnian war began. She first noticed things were shifting when a close friend refused to speak to her- because Amra’s family was ethnically Muslim. Though they didn’t follow religious practices they were soon persecuted along with all the other Muslims in her city. It was under seige for years- bombs fell regularly, innocent people were shot in the street by snipers, and worse. Just a few pages in you get a sense of what reading this is going to be like- the author doesn’t hesitate to tell you the horrible things soldiers said to a young girl, her fears of being captured, of rape or torture. Her family lived in constant apprehension and suffering, as electricity was cut off, food in short supply, and soon little or no medical care available. She often thought they would simply not survive. Sometimes they had to do difficult things, to stay alive. Other times they stood their ground refusing to give in to inhumanity and maintain some integrity.

But her story is also one of hope, as they pulled together with neighbors and family members to find ways to keep going- growing vegetables in abandoned lots, bartering for goods, tutoring younger children who had no teachers, assisting in the war effort when they could. It was traumatic- there were days she couldn’t get out of bed, and not just from lack of energy because they were starving. She saw terrible things on the streets, and narrowly missed death more than once- attributing a lot of her lucky moments to the presence of a calico cat. It showed up as a stray one day and soon became part of the family (though her parents protested at first). Many times through the war, something happened involving the cat that saved their lives- coincidence or not. And its friendly calm presence definitely helped soothe their nerves and warm their hearts. Sadly, the cat also was a source of trouble later on, and Amra was heartbroken when they faced the possibility of loosing her. The cat proved her loyalty to them again and again, even under great duress.

You know that Amra makes it through all the horrors of war and privation, because this book is based on the author’s own experiences, but it’s harrowing to read of all the losses she witnessed and experienced. She fell in love for the first time during the war, too. There are tender moments, and funny ones, and plenty of teenagers just being regular teenagers, even in such circumstances. Eventually Amra got a remarkable opportunity to leave the country via a scholarship, and was able to start building a new life elsewhere. Her story is told in a plain, straightforward style- which might be dull in other cases, but here I appreciated it, as more detail would have been difficult to read. This line from the book has stuck with me: War does not leave anyone with good choices.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
370 pages, 2020

An African Journey Home

by Boyd Varty

Author tells of growing up in South Africa, on a wildlife reserve his family established. The land was originally bought from farmers that degraded it, and earlier generations had then used it for hunting. Boyd’s parents wanted to restore the land to bring back wildlife and run tourist safaris. At the time this was a new idea and they struggled to make it work. His heartfelt memoir tells what it was like growing up in such a place- surrounded by wildlife, baboons and warthogs on the lawn, going on drives with his crazy uncle to make wildlife films, learning tracking skills from local men and frequently running into lions, leopards, elephants, etc. Many narrow escapes (on rivers, in small aircraft, deadly snakes, crocodiles, you name it) and a healthy respect for the wild animals. Humorous stories about their visitors- lots of ordinary people and occasionally someone famous, once even member of royalty. He met Nelson Mandela as a young boy (and didn’t realize the significance of that until much later). Tells about his family, his stays at boarding school (frustrating as so completely different from life in the bush) and above all, how the lessons he learned from the land stood him well later on: to stay calm in a dangerous situation, to always have an escape route in mind, to study things carefully and make calculated decisions. Later he tells of grief and terror his family went through- especially an incident when they lived in Johannesburg, had their lives threatened and sense of security violated. It took him years to get over the trauma of that night, and he travelled widely across the world seeking out gurus in India, a shaman, various kinds of healers, and finally a Navajo sweat lodge in Arizona (often honestly skeptical about how these things would help). In the end, he returned home to his family’s reserve in Africa, finding his place where he had always belonged, settling the fear and stress out of his mind. The final chapters of the book explore spirituality quite a bit, but never veer far from the solace he felt rooted in nature.

I enjoyed this book so much. Incredible stories, amazing surroundings, riveting wild animals, a quirky family. Above all one young man’s search for meaning and sense of self, when tragedy and violence strain his equilibrium. It was at turns exciting, funny, and very thoughtful. He mentions meeting Peter Beard! and of differences of opinion with a nearby reserve that held elephants (I felt sure I’d read a book about Kruger National Park but couldn’t place it). Near the end he also tells of meeting Martha Beck, which took me completely by surprise. I was reminded of many other books I’ve read about Africa, or wildlife conservation: The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, Born Wild by Tony Fitzjohn, Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

I do have to note, one part made me feel put off- when he mentions going to Australia and how he’d been reading this book with his teacher and his sister. And how they absorbed the message of “the Aboriginal Australians’ plea to save the planet.” Well, I admired that book’s idea of harmony with nature too, but was upset to discover it was actually fiction. Dismayed to see it praised here. I assume he didn’t know.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
281 pages, 2014

good chance I can read ’em someday- these found at my library:

Fox 8 by George Saunders- Bookfoolery
Fuzz by Mary Roach- A Bookish Type
The Wartime Sisters by  Lynda C Loigman- Bookfoolery
Displacement by Lucy Knisley
They Called Us Emeny by George Takei- It’s All About Books
Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Four Years in the Mountains of Kurdistan by Aram Haykaz
The Writer’s Library by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager- Book Chase
The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun – Indextrious Reader
Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm

not at my local library:

A Dog’s World by Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff
The Origins of Iris by Beth Lewis- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
The Past is Red by Catherynne Valente- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Beyond the Rain Forest by Vanne Morris Goodall
White African by Louis Leakey
Radiator Days by Lucy Knisley
Chasing the Dream by Alyson Sheldrake- Read Warbler
Behind the Dolphin Smile by Richard O’Barry
Walking with the Great Apes by Sy Montgomery
Woman in the Mists by Farley Mowat
Orangutan Odyssey by Birute Galdikas
Great Ape Odyssey by Birute Galdikas
How to Examine a Wolverine by Philipp Schott- A Bookish Type
Solo: the Story of an African Wild Dog by Hugo van Lawick
Made in China by Anna Qu- Opinions of a Wolf
Variations on the Body by María Ospina- Indextrious Reader
Music in the Listening Place by Gloria Rawlinson- Neglected Books
The King of Infinite Space by Lindsay Faye- A Bookish Type

by Abigail Ulman

Short stories, about young women- teenagers, or early twenties. All of them, far as I could tell, immigrants or students here in the US from abroad. I picked this one at random because the catalog said it was set in San Francisco, though some are in other places- Philadelphia, New York- in one story we’re never told where the girls are, because they don’t know themselves. I don’t quite know how to describe these. They felt very real and present- texting and smart phones, gender issues, human trafficking- and yet reminded me acutely of what it was like to be young, to be a university student, even though my experience in San Francisco was not like this (I didn’t go to clubs and bars, was never part of the dating scene, ha). I’m trying to figure out why these stories affected me so- sticking in my mind even though I found some of them distasteful (when described sex in too much detail). They depict girls and young women who are shallow, thoughtless, and make bad decisions- and yet they’re also victims of a system, of society and expectations and boredom. They can show streaks of kindness, or sudden insightful moments that seem beyond their years. In brief:

“Jewish History”- In history class students are asked to share experiences from Holocaust survivors in their families. Anya (from Russia) doesn’t have a story to tell. Then at home her parents remark on how she should appreciate what she’s got, as they went without and suffered for so many years, before they could emigrate. So next day Anya tells about the hard time her family went through (including her mother’s miscarriage), but is shut down in class- her story of suffering doesn’t count, it’s from the wrong era.

“Chagall’s Wife”- Sascha unexpectedly runs into her middle-aged teacher outside of school- sees him in a cafe and approaches to say hello. They end up spending the entire afternoon together- viewing art in a museum, going to a movie theater- and in the end, the reader suspects something else might happen, as he invites her to “go somewhere else”.

“The Withdrawl Method”- Claire finds out she’s pregnant, even though she thought she and her boyfriend were being careful. She bounces around between different casual friends- sharing her plan to get an abortion- and their responses are so varied. Flippant, cautionary, dismissive, angsty. She temporarily latches onto a different guy- met totally at random- he’s very levelheaded and kind about it, but seems a little confused by her. (I didn’t really get the point of this one).

“Warm-Ups”- four young Russian gymnasts are chosen to go with their coach to a conference in America, where they will perform to show off the skills he’s promoting. It seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, and Vera begs her parents to let her go- expenses are covered! But when they finally get there- barely able to speak or read English- she and the other pre-teen girls end up locked in a room that they suspect isn’t a hotel, and their coach has disappeared in a different taxi.

“Same Old Same As”- Ramona’s in therapy after suffering a bad injury from a space heater that caught fire and burned her leg. She tells the therapist about a moment when her step-father helped her out of the bath during her recovery care, and how uncomfortable it made her feel, and then starts describing the incident to others as sexual abuse. The story gets spread around school, she’s shocked at the amount of attention she gets, and other girls start sharing their stories with her- of men touching them inappropriately, or flashers, boys who casually convinced them to do things they didn’t really want to (sometimes in front of others), a cousin of a friend who was date raped, etc. She realizes that her experience was not unique- but also that hers wasn’t as serious? and then things escalate when a friend’s parent reports Ramona’s incident to the school- she finds herself at a meeting to determine if they should call child protection services.

“The Pretty One”- This girl is suddenly captivated by a guy she sees in a club. She finds out his name, his friends, where he works, and convinces him to date her. Even though they have nothing in common, she forces herself into his group of friends, his interests, etc- trying so hard to make it work when it’s obvious it never will.

“Head to Toe”- Two friends start to feel uninterested in all the usual parties, girl drama and shopping sprees. They ask their parents to take them back to a horse camp they’d been to as kids together. They’re put in a cabin with three younger girls- nine and ten-year-olds (which is a huge age difference when you’re fourteen). They enjoy riding the horses, and snub the younger girls until find them fighting and in tears after a game of “telling secrets.” The older girls smooth things over in what I thought was a very thoughtful manner, but later when they’re relating it to their own friends back home, they are completely dismissive and then fall right back into the party scene. I liked this one, until the end of it.

“Plus One”- I didn’t get this. At all. Girl has been writing a blog forever, gets an offer on a book deal. Has trouble writing and starts to feel terrified of the deadline. So she decides to get pregnant so she’ll have an excuse not to work. She convinces a friend- who is gay of all things- to be the father- and then has the baby, against everyone’s advice to stop this awful plan. And then her whole life changes when the baby arrives. The ending relieved me (I was worried it would take a different turn) but also left me wondering: why?

“Your Charm Won’t Help You Here”- Foreign student from London who’s been living in San Francisco, is travelling back there after a vacation somewhere else, and gets detained at the airport by homeland security. They don’t tell her much but it becomes apparent she’s overstayed her time as a student and is suspected of trying to actually immigrate. She spends hours being questioned (in a maddeningly circular conversation) and then is detained overnight in jail with a Russian woman who is even more confused than she is. Returned to the airport the following morning, not sure where she’s going to end up, the whole thing baffling, stressful, frightening and surreal.

I’m leaving out so many details- these were like little snippets of life, and they interlaced in a loose manner- a character from one story would refer to someone in another- as if they knew each other outside these pages. I kind of want to read some of them over again, even though there were parts that made me uncomfortable. I did feel like some of the stories dropped off suddenly- did Sascha go with her teacher home to his apartment? was the ending of “Warm-Ups” really heading where I thought it was?- but I suspect the author did that to maintain a sense of tension, which I surely felt.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
354 pages, 2015

More opinions: Books Are My Favorite and Best
anyone else?

Translated from the Greek by Stephanos Zotos

by Nikos Athanassiades

What a strange, curious, sensual book. I’ve had it on my shelf a long time. Tried reading it years ago and stopped because it made me uncomfortable, but kept it around for some reason. This time I found it- interesting, let’s say. I won’t hesitate to give SPOILERS because well, I doubt many of you will find this book (copies out there are few) and maybe you won’t want to read it after what I say here. Strong points? it has very vivid imagery about the sea, the weather, the gulls and fishes, shrimps and little crabs. It has some very interesting characters but also disturbing stuff and warning: bestiality (not explicit but very strongly hinted at) that is kinda glorified.

It’s about a young man in Greece who has just been scorned by the girl he loves (there’s a chapter that feels like it’s out of Jane Austen, with them at a social function talking a whole lot of circles around each other) and doesn’t want to face his parents’ insistence that he choose and work for a career. He goes to a remote spot to live in a hut on the beach and experience solitude. But doesn’t get that. Nearby lives an fisherman with his kids- a young woman named Angela and several much younger children. There’s also a friendly drunk with a leaky boat who tells crazy tales. The drunk insists that the fisherman’s daughter is a mermaid, and all the people in the nearby village call her “the wild one”.

Our protagonist Dimitri humors the drunk, goes out on the boat hunting octopus with the fisherman, and feels strangely drawn to the wild girl, Angela. In fact he goes on and on about her- it became irritating to this modern reader how much Angela is objectified. Dimitri is constantly repeating how beautiful her body is, obviously lusting for her. Her father the fisherman though, talks about how women are only good for keeping house, must be beaten into obedience by their husbands, and constantly mentions that he has to marry her off for her own good. No wonder Angela is constantly full of anger- in the story it’s anger for how the ocean is treated (although she herself displays viciousness, once biting the eye out of a living octopus). She spends hours in the ocean, swimming far out beyond areas people consider safe. She often says strange things, evades questions, and insists she knows all about the sea, and thinks that shooting stars fall into the sea to become starfish. There’s two other strange things in this story: petrified trees and dolphins. Up a steep hillside from the village is a standing petrified forest, and deep in the ocean is a huge sunken petrified tree. The villagers say it’s haunted and avoid the spot, the wild girl says it hosts a spirit and she’s not afraid of it . . .

Eventually Dimitri realizes there’s a large dolphin hanging around. The fishermen hate dolphins for chasing fish away or stealing their catch, in fact there’s a bounty on them. The girl Angela loves to swim with this one particular dolphin, and when Dimitri witnesses her doing so, he perceives their behavior as amorous and is wildly jealous. He determines to hunt down and kill the dolphin, though denying his plans to Angela when she gets suspicious of his intentions and commands him not to do it. In the end, there is a chaotic bloody struggle out at open sea in a small boat, the dolphin is killed, and Angela in distress and anger swims out into the ocean, never seen again. Although years later Dimitri sees a wild dolphin swimming alongside a boat, which has a scar just like one Angela had on her body, and it gives him a hateful look. He feels sure that she turned into a dolphin and is living in the sea.

Of all things, this book reminded me of Castaway, because of how often Dimitri or Angela casually strolled around naked. Sometimes they attempted modesty, and other times they didn’t care. There’s a interesting interaction between Angela and the high-society girl Dimitri had admired, when she comes looking for him. There’s a few other minor characters, but most of the narrative is about Dimitri going around in the boat, finding the girl swimming in the ocean, and planning to hunt the dolphin. It’s very passionate and rather surreal too. I rolled my eyes plenty of times.

Rating: 3/5
217 pages, 1964

My book blog turned fourteen today. I’m doing a little giveaway- four pairs of bookmarks (laminated from magazine scrap). If you like any, just leave a comment and let me know which ones!

Two Lynx
Ocean Fish and Dolphin
Clown Fish and Mudskipper
Moa and the Earth

If more than one person wants the same pair, I’ll pick a winner at random, in a week. (If you don’t have a blog I can contact you on, leave a way to reach you in the comments.) Cheers!

by Elizabeth Hall and Scott O'Dell

Note: there are probably some SPOILERS below.

A wild dolphin named Coral leaves her pod with her younger brother to seek their missing older brother and find a safe place for the dolphins to live away from threatening orcas. On the journey they encounter many natural dangers- orcas, sharks, bad weather- and also those from mankind: fishing nets and whaling boats. They befriend a whale who warns them about humans, and rescue another dolphin (different species) from a drift net, before running into serious trouble: getting caught by humans. Long before this point in the story I was dragging my way through the pages, but I was curious to see how it would depict the dolphins’ encounter with humans, so I kept going. It was frustrating.

Initially the dolphins are kept in a facility that trains them to perform for shows- first they don’t get it, then they go along, then some of them start to enjoy it and become complacent about their capitivity. One of them gets ill and is removed from the pool, causing that dolphin’s mate to become depressed and then resentful towards the humans. Then the dolphins are tested to see if they can use their sonar while blindfolded, and the one narrating the story, Coral, is moved to an ocean pen. She follows a small boat her trainer goes out to sea in, and is taught to use her retrieval skills for saving divers (or people lost at sea?) Even though she could easily run away while working in the open ocean, or jump out of the pen, she stays because feels attached to her human trainer and caretaker. The story even depicts her feeling jealous and aggressive towards a woman the trainer interacts with. There’s a very interesting scene where she starts carrying the human trainer further and further out into the ocean, turning what was a game into a frightening experience, as she wants him to stay in the water with her forever, and forgets he can’t breathe without his diving equipment. In the end, some of the other dolphins at the facility escape during a storm, and encourage her to leave the pen and join the wild pod back in the ocean- reminding her that her place is with them, not the humans.

Overall this book didn’t really work for me. What could be better than a look inside the lives of wild dolphins, brought to entertainment venues and scientific experiments? I am not sure if it’s that the older me gets bored with the dry, simplistic writing style typical of Scott O’Dell (which makes sense for an animal’s inner voice, and of course the book is aimed at younger readers too), or that because it’s is co-authored, it all comes across as slightly awkward. Part of this was how the dolphins communicated- sometimes in short but complete sentences, sometimes with single words and an explanation for how much else was conveyed via sonar pictures or dolphin noises. It just didn’t feel smooth. Also the amount the dolphins could understand about what the humans were doing, and even their gradual understanding of words, went far beyond what I think they’d be capable of, even in the realm of a talking animal story. Information they apparently picked up from listening to humans talk, made no sense compared to how much they comprehended in other scenes. I found the inconsistency distracting and my interest degraded quickly. I ended up skimming most of the book to see how it ended, without enjoying it a whole lot.

However, that all said, I still think this would be a good read for middle-grade kids who are interested in dolphins and won’t notice the things that bothered me. It shows very clearly how the dolphins live in close family groups, the threats they face in nature, the stresses they experience when living in captivity, training methods that have been used with them, discoveries made about their abilities, their playfulness, creativity and intelligence, and more. I admire that it tried to do so from the animal’s point of view, I just don’t think it worked very well.

Rating: 2/5
144 pages, 1995

by Raina Telgemeier

Very fun book- even though it also deals with some tough stuff about growing up. Based on the author’s childhood. Most of the story is about a long roadtrip she took with her family, how the sisters constantly annoyed each other. Then there’s bits of the past- showing how eager she was for a baby sister when she was little, and how differently that turned out (babies are no fun, toddlers are frustrating and annoying, they have different interests as they get older, etc). I was really amused by their various efforts to keep small pets- when I was a kid, we went through several goldfish that lived in a bowl, too (but no, they’re not ‘delicate’, it’s an very unsuitable habitat, ugh). I could really relate to all the ups and downs of getting along (or not, more often) with siblings- both from when I was young, and from seeing how my own kids interact. Long road trips trying to stave off boredom and irritating each other unintentionally- yeah, been there too. Even the places they visited on their trip were really familiar to me (Utah, Arizona, Colorado) and the little camping episodes too. In the end, the sisters find a reason to pull together and realize their family has bigger problems than their little squabbles. This is another one I will eagerly hand to my daughter (she recently read and really liked Be Prepared).

Borrowed from the public library. Can’t believe I never read any Raina Telgemeier before- I am immediately off to check what others my library has to offer.

Rating: 4/5
203 pages, 2014


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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