Month: January 2022

by Laura Zigman

This book is about a middle aged woman whose writing career has taken a nosedive. She and her husband are estranged but still living in the same house (they can’t afford to divorce yet), her teenage son barely talks to her anymore, her finances are in trouble, she’s still recovering from the loss of her parents while her best friend is battling cancer. It’s a lot. Fraught with a sense of loss and unease, she starts carrying around the family dog in a baby sling, finding comfort and reassurance in its constant presence. People comment on this- when they find out the dog isn’t injured or suffering itself from anxiety, they turn judgmental (one group at a dog park even accuses her of animal abuse). It’s all written in a very lighthearted, wry style. I read the first few chapters with interest and amusement, but then found I didn’t care much to pick it up again. Skipped and skimmed through several more chapters before giving up. I just didn’t find the characters relatable, although their circumstances certainly could happen to anyone. The strangeness of the Montessori school (surely it’s exaggerated?) and the weird houseguests who dress up as large puppets all the time, baffled me. I also puzzled over conversations constantly: do people actually talk like this to each other? Am I the one struggling to make a connection here? Feels like it, but I have to shrug and move on. This one’s obviously not for me. Not sure why, as it certainly resonated with plenty other readers.

Rating: Abandoned
288 pages, 2020

More opinions: Sam Still Reading
anyone else?

made by Wentworth ~ artist unknown ~ 210 pieces

This is my favorite puzzle of the year. It was a gift from my sister, a beautiful delight. I’ve never had a shaped puzzle before, nor one that’s wooden and has shaped pieces! It was so much fun to put together, and the tactile experience so different from a regular cardboard puzzle. Felt luxurious, in a way. It’s just over 200 pieces, but that doesn’t mean it was easy! I was so thrilled with it I took lots of photos during the process:

Lots of random and odd shapes among the normal ones.

Fun shaped pieces: there were leaves, trees, two owls, four foxes in various poses, a rabbit, butterfly,

and some that were just oddly triangular. One that looked like a dagger.

The shaped pieces had very thin lines cut out of them, detailing the reverse side:

Hedgehog fit into the center of the tail tip. And that’s where I started.

Assembly – use arrows to navigate as usual, and more pics below!

I just loved the visual texture as well- the fox’s face looks like it’s made of mosaic, which becomes fur texture, which merges into leaves in some areas, and looks like feathers in others.

In the body area there’s a little forest scene- with a creek, three foxes, and an owl in the tree.

There’s also a bunch of tiny houses and an owl flying over a field. Look closely you can see the shaped owl piece just below the pictured owl’s wing.

I liked this puzzle so much I slid it onto another surface, to continue admiring it for days.

Then I took it apart and reassembled a second time, just for the fun of it! Surprised it wasn’t that much easier- I had one piece under the ear in the wrong spot, which made everything not fit for a while. Took me some time to find out why.

You can bet this is one I’ll do over many times, and thoroughly enjoy it each one.

a Gift from my sister

by Thornton W. Burgess

This little book is about a family of quail, or bobwhites. The pair move to live near Peter Rabbit, are quite friendly but refuse to tell him where their nest is hidden. Of course Peter is nosy and keeps trying to find it- so do Reddy Fox, a hawk and the skunk. Peter means no harm, but the others would eat the eggs or chicks, so Bob White stoutly refuses to give up his secret. His wife cleverly hides the nest right next to a path the predators frequently travel on, betting they will never look in a place so close to danger. Mr. Bob White makes himself visible far from the nest, so the others are always looking in that area instead. (Funnily enough, this reminded me acutely of the two women who escaped in the last book I read, how they hid in the last place anyone would think to look). Pretty soon the quail eggs hatch, and the mother leads her chicks to places where they can find seed and insects to eat. Peter admires their thoroughness in cleaning the briar patch of creeping things. Later, the bobwhite family moves into fields and the nearby garden, where Farmer Brown’s boy observes them. He finds out quickly enough that his garden is flourishing this year (while the neighbors’ gardens are overrun with pests) because the quail family eats so many insects. He even does math and comes up with some impressive numbers. So happy to have the birds helping, that he tries to protect them against hunters. One hunter laughs at the boy, thinking he’s just being tender-hearted at rescuing an injured bird, but the farmer’s boy indignantly points out that the birds are a main reason his garden is so productive, and he’d be a fool to kill and eat them after that. I wasn’t expecting this slim little book to include details on the life habits of quail and how beneficial they are in the ecosystem, eating numerous small insects (beneficial if you’re growing a garden that is). As I’m just starting to plan out this year’s garden, it brought to mind all the birds I’ve seen visit my own garden, and I remembered many fond quiet moments watching them methodically search the beds for insects (my personal favorite is the grey catbird).

Rating: 3/5
117 pages, 1919

or, Life Among the Lowly

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Another hefty classic, and one I honestly might have never opened except that I found a copy at a thrift store for a dollar. So I figured I’d better read it. Mostly because it was such an important book, helping to prompt the Civil War and end of slavery. Also I was interested to see how it compared to Gone With the Wind. I’m certainly glad I read it, but I doubt I will ever repeat the experience.         – – – warning for SPOILERS below – – –

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is based on a lot of true-life characters and incidents the author was acquainted with. She wove them all into a story that focuses on one enslaved black man named Tom, but also incorporates a multitude of side stories. So much so that sometimes I forgot completely about previous characters until they resurfaced and I had to remember who they were! (Also confusing is that there are two men named Tom, and two named George in the story- and in each case one was a slave and the other a white man.) As the book opens, a wealthy man who owns many slaves- and treats them decently- falls into debt and has to sell some of them. He determines to sell Tom and a young boy named Harry. Tom accepts his fate, partly because his master promises to try and buy him back someday. The boy’s mother, Eliza, is distraught at being separated from her child, so she runs away with him. There’s lots of chasing and fuss (other slaves on the farm are ordered to help track her down but they do everything they can to hinder the chase and give her a head start, which was somewhat amusing). She makes a desperate and very dramatic scramble across a river choked with ice floes, is taken in by some Quakers, and eventually makes her way to Canada via the Underground Railroad. The odd part is that right after a very intense scene where Eliza, her child and a few others are cornered across a ravine near a cliff by some tracking men with dogs- with firearms employed and shots exchanged- the narrative suddenly switches to following what happened to Tom, and doesn’t return to Eliza’s story until nearly the end of the book. I almost forgot where she was.

Tom ends up in a well-to-do family with some very interesting characters. Most prominent were an angelic blond child  who never did any wrong, talked religion nonstop and was fawned on by everybody. I’m sure she was admired by the public back when this book was published, but she just rubbed me the wrong way. Surely no child could be so perfect. I can imagine a teenager or young adult swept up in religious fervor maybe speaking the way this girl did, but a six-year-old? It really strained my credulity. In contrast to her, there was a black girl of the same age enslaved in that household who was an utterly beguiling, mischievous kid deep in the habit of lying and stealing without any remorse. (When asked why she did things she knew were wrong he reply was often: ” dunno, ‘speck it’s ’cause I’s so wicked!”) I found her character much more interesting to be honest. I wish there’d been more Topsy in the book.

Of course I’m leaving so much out. There are many events and other characters brought into the book. Tom is close to the angelic blond girl (daughter of his master) because she’s so sweet and good, and reads the Bible to him while they encourage each other in religious devotion. But this tolerable, somewhat benevolent situation ends and Tom is sold again- further South to a dilapidated plantation on the edge of swamp. Here all the slaves are beaten regularly and treated very badly, basically worked to death. Tom does his best, uncomplaining, and supports those around him- helping his fellow men, encouraging them to have hope (mostly in the afterlife) and obeying his terrible master, except when he’s order to whip one of his fellow slaves. In the end, two of the younger black women orchestrate a clever escape, and Tom dies because he is treated so brutally when refusing to disclose information on their whereabouts.

It’s powerful storytelling. I did enjoy some parts of it, but others were very hard to read. Not only because of how inhumanely people were treated (even the well-meaning “kind” masters still owned people and bought into the system) but also the phonetically written dialect of the black people was cringeworthy, the moralizing and religious sentiments were very thickly laid over everything, and even though you know the author wrote this to show how wrong slavery was, and that black people are just as intelligent as anyone else- her descriptions of them were still to some degree insulting and derogatory. Many of the characters felt like mocking caricatures of types, not real people.

Yet I can well imagine how galvanizing this book was to public opinion, when it was first published a hundred and seventy years ago. Apparently it instantly outsold the Bible, and is considered to have been the first bestseller. However, I’m very ready to move on to other reading now.

Rating: 3/5
695 pages, 1852

made by Buffalo Games ~ photographer Joel Sartore ~ 500 pieces

I’ve been spending just as much time doing puzzles as reading books, lately. Here’s a new one! (this puzzle only made my fingers ache slightly, also had much less odor so I think I can judge by that now). Image is from the Photo Ark, which is why I absolutely had to get this. It’s stunning, and the colors are so vivid.

I only wish I knew the species names. I recognize the luna moth, Eastern tiger swallowtail and monarch butterfly, the rest I don’t know. But they’re beautiful!

bought new in store

by Andy Weir

Amaze, amaze. That’s what I felt about this book. It was hard to put down, much better than my previous read by this author. I’m finding it hard to write about though because I don’t want to give too much away- part of the tension and delight in reading this was discovering what was going on right along with the main character in the story. He wakes up on a space ship as the sole survivor. Doesn’t know where he is, why he’s there, can’t even remember his own name. Has to scramble to figure everything out, and soon it becomes apparent that his mission is incredible crucial. There’s lots of problem solving and things going wrong, especially (of course) at critical moments. Practically up to the very last page, there’s a tense question to be answered: did it work? was all his effort in vain?

The best part: there is an alien encounter. And it’s the best written idea of aliens I’ve ever come across. From how uniquely strange the entity is, to how they manage to build a basis for communication, felt very probable to me. The plot is gripping, the story remains engaging throughout, the characters become more likable as you learn more about them. I didn’t at all get bogged down in math or science terms this time- it was kept simple enough for me to follow (but, does that mean an actual scientist or astronaut would find this novel boring or eye-rollingly absurd? someone will have to tell me). Really interesting that the crisis this book presents is exactly the opposite of what we’re facing now. Instead of building on the looming catastrophe of global warming, the story flips that scenario around (without ignoring it entirely). Very clever and thought-provoking. And man, the ending. I sat up late in bed to finish it. Really good. If somebody makes a movie out of this novel, I’ll be very eager to see it.

Borrowed from my teenager, who borrowed it from a teacher.

Note: the last two reviews linked to below have some spoilers.

Rating: 4/5
476 pages, 2021

Keeper of the Lost Cities

by Shannon Messenger

Sorry (to my ten-year-old) I really tried, but this series is just not for me. My daughter said the sequel was even better than the first book, so I agreed to read it, even though I wasn’t terrible keen. All the things that make this more exciting for her- the continual uncovering of new secrets, cryptic messages, threats from kidnappers, mysteries to solve that lead to more mysteries- just bore me. I don’t know how to explain it, but mysteries and exciting action-packed crime films usually bore me in the same way. In this book, Sophie finds out more about her past, but it’s also disturbing. She’s discovered (spoilers if you haven’t read the first book) that she has so many special talents and exceptional abilities because basically she was genetically engineered by some secret entity, for an unknown purpose, but they’re obviously manipulating her life. She’s starting to resent this, and also has reactions to things that don’t bother others- bright lights, intense headaches (not related to her telepathic abilities), passes out a lot- starts to think there’s something flawed in her makeup because she thinks ought to be able to solve all these problems and heal people from mental breakdowns caused by a kind of telepathic interrogation- urgh, it gets so complicated and I don’t even care.

What got to me was the inane way people talk to each other in these books. The kids act like kids- though full of self-importance and Sophie in particular keeps leaping into dangerous situations to save the day even when adults repeatedly warn her not to- which is fine, but the adults all talk in this immature, snarky way too. There’s so much eye-rolling and biting remarks and then buckets of tears over things nobody can even bear to say out loud I just got tired of it. Around page three hundred I started seriously skimming. Was able to glean enough of the storyline to have a brief conversation with my kid (who was thrilled to repeat jokes from the book to me) about it, without letting her know I hadn’t actually finished. I did force myself to read the last two chapters in their entirely.

One original idea that stood out to me, was the special trees planted on the elf graves- that each manifest a unique characteristic of the deceased. Really liked that. Except creepy that Sophie and one of her friends have their own trees already planted, because after the kidnapping in previous book everyone actually thought they were dead and had a funeral. I keep wondering if something will happen with her special tree later on in the series. A lot of the other ideas in these books seem repetitive from other fantasy worlds already out there, but this was different.

I really wanted to like the winged unicorn (excuse me, alicorn) better. Nice that the alicorn, in spite of being beautiful and majestic, didn’t smell like roses and speak wisdom to Sophie’s mind (they have a telepathic connection). Instead, the alicorn can only use a few words and mostly puts images or feelings into Sophie’s head. And she’s stubborn, has bad breath and splatters sparkly manure on people. Which made me laugh. But Sophie was supposed to be training the alicorn (to accept captivity, mostly) and there was really very little of that. So even that aspect of the story was boring.

Don’t get me started on the disturbing trends in the elves’ society that nobody comments on, or how many secrets everybody is hiding, or how the teachers in the school torture their students (as part of a lesson?) and nobody cares, or how many times Sophie nearly dies but then bounces right back ready to fight the next bad guy who might actually be on her side after all, or how annoyingly Sophie’s three friends who are boys glare daggers at each other and vie for her attention all the time- sigh. My ten-year-old found the “romance” (feeling heart-throbs and holding hands) in the story thrilling. It’s just the right kind of book for her- and I’m glad she’s enjoying them- but I’m just too old and this isn’t my type of adventure fantasy anyway.

Borrowed from my kid.

Rating: Abandoned
568 pages, 2013

More opinions: Pages Unbound
anyone else?

made by Buffalo Games ~ Earthpix ~ 500 pieces

Nice little photograph puzzle. Landscapes aren’t my favorites but this one was striking. I like all the blues, especially where the island trees reflect in the water. (This one only made my fingers ache slightly- probably from the “imported materials” noted on the box but not defined).

a thrift store find

by James Fenimore Cooper

Once again a classic that utterly failed me. Or I failed it? I thought that after making my way through the archaic doorstopper that was Tom Jones, I’d have an easier time reading this one. Not so. It’s high adventure, with romance and battles in a trek through the wilderness- the party includes two young English women, several Native American guides and a frontiersman. The area is rife with conflict between the British and the French, which have varied allies among the native tribes. There’s lots of danger to navigate. I just could not navigate the writing style. It is so flowery and obtuse I would make my way through dense descriptions only to reach the end of a page and have no idea what was going on. The conversations were no better. Did people actually talk like this, or was it written so expressively to be impressive? It’s really a case of getting lost in the forest for the trees. I tried several times to stick with it, reading a chapter now and then between other books for the past week and a half, but I just could not follow. Made such an effort because the 1992 film version is my husband’s absolute favorite move. Gave up after eighty pages. Well, another one to clear off my shelf!

Rating: Abandoned
372 pages, 1826

by Shannon Messenger

I read this one at my ten-year-old’s urging. Yes it’s over four hundred pages, but the pace moves incredibly quick so it didn’t feel all that hefty. It’s perfectly tailored for middle-grade readers. My kid is so excited about this series and has been pestering everyone in the house to read it- including my husband who mostly reads philosophy and history. I wasn’t really in the mood for fantasy but went ahead and you know, I can see why she likes it so much. The story is exciting and fast-paced, the main character is really appealing to preteens, and it has enough unique ideas to feel like something new (though some of them are decidedly odd, like the kids having to lick a small panel on their lockers to open them – it reads their DNA).

Sophie is twelve when she finds out she has special powers (beyond her super smarts- she’s a high school senior at twelve). The headaches she’s always suffered from are because she’s telepathic and can’t block out the thoughts of all those around her. Then she meets a slightly older boy who’s also telepathic- and finds out she’s not human after all. She’s an elf, and someone has been searching for her. Sophie is quickly taken to the hidden cities of the elves, where she’s relieved to find she can’t hear everyone’s thoughts (elves are good at blocking, and have lots of strict rules about using magic abilities on others) then struggles to fit in all over again. Here, she doesn’t know the strange customs, hasn’t had the magical training, but still stands out for having unusual talents and special powers. Some resent her for this, so she has to deal with jealous girls at school (very much a Harry Potter-like setting) and an instructor who is nasty to her. But she also has a personal mentor, makes some new friends pretty easily, and soon has the attention of several boys. There’s some confusion over where she will live, one elf family wants to adopt her but they are still struggling with overcoming a loss of their own many years ago (elves live practically forever so death is rare and no one seems to know how to act towards the grieving couple).

So. Most of the story is Sophie navigating her new school, learning how to handle some of her powers, and struggling to master new skills that the other kids kinda take for granted. The people she lives with keep magical and rare creatures (including brilliantly feathered dinosaurs!) which felt more like background decoration than anything else. I guess I expected too much of that part. There’s school competitions and sports that use telekinesis, and a very nice-sounding tradition where kids give each other gifts at the end of finals. A lot of fun and quirky details. But! There’s also all this angst over hidden information. Sophie apparently has memories and knowledge locked in her brain by some unknown entity, and a rebel elf group is apparently trying to manipulate her and/or extract the info from her head. There’s a big mystery about her past, spies and intrigue, and a kidnapping. It quickly became the kind of story I’m not really keen on, but I finished it so that I could discuss with my kid, who is well into book three of the series and eager to have me read along with her! Let’s see how far I get.

Borrowed from my daughter (she bought the entire eight-book set).

Rating: 3/5
488 pages, 2012

More opinions: Pages Unbound
anyone else?

DISCLAIMER:

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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