Month: September 2022

by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

Sonia is struggling to get through highschool. She wants to be the first person in her family to graduate. Her parents are first-generation immigrants to the United States. Her father is always busy with two or three low-paying labor jobs, and her mother never learned to speak English. Their house is always crowded and expectations on Sonia are high- to clean up, cook meals, help her mother decipher bills, care for her new siblings (who are born halfway through the story) and so on. Family demands often keep her home from school more often than not, but sometimes she doesn’t want to be there- seeing her brothers laze around and use drugs, her drunken uncle make messes and unwanted advances towards her, a religious aunt dropping by unannounced acting super judgemental. Sonia has a plan to get ahead by doing her best at school, but her attempts always seem thwarted. More than ever when her mother sends her to Mexico to visit her grandmother for the summer- cutting short her school year- and frustrating her with lack of amenities and differences in culture she experiences in the very rural setting. But things change during her visit with relatives. She learns more about where her family has come from, starts to see things differently. Not so much resentment and criticism, a bit more compassion and understanding. Maybe upon returning to the States after this vacation, she can start to make a real difference in her life.

Things get in the way again. In particular, her nasty uncle. And there’s a boy who is fixated on becoming her novio– but she’s determined to not let that distract her from her goals. Honestly I thought the boyfriend was a little weird. I was positively surprised to realize when I was done reading, this book was written by a male author- I thought he got a female voice down very well- but the romantic phrases that boy kept repeated were just a bit too much. Absurd, at times. (Who talks like that? Is this what the author thinks girls dream of hearing??) There was one typo in the book that threw me off- I actually read the sentence three times to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood the homophone. And then there was a scene where her grandmother was killing a chicken for the family dinner, she saw the head chopped off, and made a statment that chickens don’t have eyelids. What? Um, YES THEY DO. Also disappointing was how briefly the time in Mexico was treated. For how life-changing this seemed to be, there wasn’t enough said about it. The story skipped over that part relatively quickly, which disappointed me.

Other than that, I really enjoyed this book. Made me feel happy to be reading a good book again.

Borrowed from my teenager.

Rating: 3/5
312 pages, 2008

by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Middle-grade historical fiction. Main character is Esperanza- a girl who grew up on a wealthy ranch in Mexico, where she had the best of everything and lived in luxury. Then her father dies, her family is forced into an impossible situation by conniving relatives, and they have to flee the country in secret. They go north, to Southern California, where the family that were once their servants on the ranch, now help them obtain work harvesting crops in the fields. After the uncomfortable and frightening journey, Esperanza finds herself living in impoverished conditions, expected to work and learn skills she never had before (she doesn’t know how to hold a broom, wash clothes, cook meals, etc). Other kids in the workers’ camp make fun of her at first, but she does gain some friends as time goes on, and looses the edge of her pride. In their new place, the struggles are far from over- her mother falls sick, a boy she had befriended leaves for a different opportunity, and their jobs seem far from secure- strikers wanting better conditions threaten what little stability they have. Esperanza is surprised and humbled to learn that, as difficult as she thinks her new life is, there are other people even worse off.

I can readily see why this novel has won so many awards- it’s a story of growth amid hardship, a family sticking together to make a new beginning when they lost everything. There’s struggles for worker’s rights, outrage at racial injustice, and some beautiful, uplifting sayings. But it just- didn’t reach me. Maybe becaue I’m far beyond the target age group. Maybe because Esperanza’s character felt a bit flat to me. I saw what she did and said, but I never really got a sense of her as a person. Or maybe I just didn’t connect to her character, so failed to feel very deeply about what happened. The story did make me think of other immigrant stories I’ve read, and it also brought to mind The Grapes of Wrath.

Borrowed from my daughter.

Rating: 3/5
262 pages, 2000

More opinions: Book Haven
anyone else?

by Raina Telgemeier

By the same author as Sisters. Graphic novel memoir about the author’s fifth grade year, when she suffered from stomach troubles. First they just thought it was a virus, but then she started having panic attacks about possibly vomiting, worry over food choices, stomach upset and IBS symptoms when upsetting things happened- either at home or at school. There’s friend troubles, school stress, someone who might be bullying her, and the headaches of living in a very small cramped apartment. The story doesn’t go much beyond that- it’s kind of a slice-of-life look at how she deals with everyday issues, has some testing done (which frustratingly doesn’t show any reason for her stomach problems) and finally goes to therapy- addressing the anxiety, fears, stress etc. Very clear in addressing how emotional issues can make the body feel physically unwell, how all kinds of people have their problems (turns out the bully had a different kind of digestive issue, so at the end the main character could finally relate to her antagonist), and how helpful therapy can be- assauging the social stigma on that, too. I read this in one sitting. Another book my eleven-year-old really liked, she was very surprised I hadn’t read it yet!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
218 pages, 2019

An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World's Most Magnificent Bird

by Sean Flynn

This was a good, quick read though honestly a bit boring in some parts. It’s part memoir- about how this guy who owned just enough land to keep a miniature pony and two chickens, spontaneously got three peacocks (which later became six, and then started laying eggs . . . ). He jumped into peafowl ownership without knowing much about them except that they are extremely beautiful, and sometimes noisy- so the reader learns with him along the way. From struggling to build them a proper enclosure (disappointed to find they can’t really roam free) to puzzling over what to feed them (no one makes “peacock chow”) to dealing with sudden emergency vet bills (when his bird ate bits of toxic metal). There’s a lot more to this book than just the personable, hands-on ownership learning curve, though (which were my favorite parts). There’s family life, with his two young sons, wife who starts to loose her patience with the peacock nonsense, and a bad-tempered cat. There’s other pets- quite a few who meet untimely ends: two pet chickens, a pug dog, a snake that doesn’t live long after arriving as a Christmas present for one of the boys. There’s diversions and asides into the history of peacocks in art, how they were first introduced into different parts of the world, and so on. I really was not keen on reading the life history of wealthy people who once owned peacocks, so I skimmed many of those pages. And there’s stories about the author’s own work in reporting on troubling incidents all over the world. Mass shootings, refugee crises, etc. Even a disturbing story about a neighborhood in California where somebody started killing peacocks (not everybody likes them- because of the mess they leave, destruction of ornamental plants, and incessant loud calls during the breeding season).

So: it was interesting for the bits I learned about peacocks and the personal story on keeping them- but all the history stuff and forays into other topics made it feel scattered. I did like the part where the author attends a small convention of peacock owners and enthusiasts. I had no idea there were so many peacock color varieties. Some of them are very striking but personally I think the pied and white-eyed (the eye-spots in the train) peacocks look weird.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
263 pages, 2021

More opinions: Dear Author
anyone else?

A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World's Most Coveted Fish

by Emily Voigt

The arowana is a large, predatory fish popular in the aquarium trade (especially in Asia) as a status symbol. (Large for an aquarium fish, that is). The author, a science reporter, travelled to fish expos, visited breeders, collectors and dealers across Asia to hunt it down. First she was just trying to learn more about it- why were people so obsessed with this fish? what drove the prices so high? why is it considered endangered in the wild, protected and forbidden in trade, when so many thousands are being bred in ponds. This awful conundrum exists, where the scarcity of the fish drove up the demand, so more people wanted to catch the wild fish. When Voigt went searching for the fish, first just to see one swimming in a tank in someone’s collection, but then determined to find one in its natural habitat- she found a maze of conflicting information, deceptions and half-truths. A bit frustrating that she never did encounter the super red arowana, in spite of reaching the very swamps where it once existed in large numbers, and also never found the batik arowana (a beautiful fish, which I’d never heard of before) in the wild, though she did see two specimens caught and displayed in a tank. Switching focus at the very last, she finally succeeds in locating silver arowana in a tributary of the Amazon. This book is a whirlwind of travel, adventure, crazy circumstances, maddening beauacracy, and quirky characters.

And yet, it’s another book on a subject I thought I’d find enthralling, but ended up struggling to finish. The pages just dragged, and I ended up skimming so many of them. Is it just me? Something about the writing style perhaps, or the focus more on people and places than the fish itself (the author admits several times that she really fails to see why people find arowana attractive)- so many names scattered about, bits of history, on everything relevant from political turmoil in Indonesia to how goldfish were first domesticated and became the costly koi. There’s stuff in here about specimen collecting, nomenclature, and competition between scientists to be the first to name and describe species. Details about the aquarium trade that make me smile in familiarity, and others that make me shake my head in disblief! I just wish I’d liked it all better.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
320 pages, 2016

The Curious Science of Humans at War

by Mary Roach

I made it through three out of the seven discs, and then started to wonder why I was spending my time on this. I did want to give Mary Roach another try- the minutiae of the obscure facts do interest me, but the delivery is so very off-putting. For a while I could stomach this better as it was about people, not animals– but finally I got to a nope point. The book is about all the ingenious ways scientists have devised to keep soldiers alive in spite of environmental extremes, deprivation, injury, shock, you name it. And how that research sometimes ties into the ordinary. But it is a headache to listen to. Not only the voice of this audiobook version I had- which imbues the snarky asides and humorous remarks (which usually rubbed me the wrong way) with an odd tone of smugness. And the facts are all crammed in there so tight it bounces you from one idea to the next without much pause or chance to settle what you’re thinking about. I just couldn’t do it. I might make one more attempt- but with a real paper version this time, my own voice inside my own head- and if that’s also a nope for this reader, I’m just going to cross all the Mary Roach books off my TBR. Surely the facts she digs up are available to readers in other places, if I really want to take them in.

I do realize this was probably a poor choice for my second attempt. I ought to have gone with a subject matter a bit closer to home, perhaps- but found this one browsing the shelves, so I picked it up since it was immediately available.

Borrowed from the library as an audiobook- 8 hours of listening time read aloud by Abby Elvidge.

Rating: Abandoned
288 pages, 2016

made by Cardinal ~ artist Helena Lam ~ 1,000 pieces

This puzzle kinda annoyed me. I admit the patterns in the background were fun. And it was nice that there were absolutely no false fits. But the pieces went together so loosely, they fell apart at the slightest nudge. No way to move sections, except a piece at a time and reassemble. Glad I didn’t have to do that often. Other annoyance: this one irritated my skin. Still haven’t figured out why some puzzles do that. And it’s missing two pieces (not really surprised: this was a freebie thrown in with a swap). The weird thing is that I can’t pinpoint the manufacturer. The box has logos from Cardinal (of Spinmaster Games), Hasboro, Big Ben and MB on it. Is this like what happens with books that are co-authored: quality goes downhill? Fine print informs me that Hasboro owns the other companies, but really- which one actually manufactured it? Made in China, too (which I suspect is the reason for my skin irritation). Well, it filled some time but this is one I’ll be passing on to another puzzler.

The best part of it was the quick, easy disassembly! No pieces left stuck together at all.

from CList - free

made by Master Pieces ~ artist Jenny Newland ~ 1,000 pieces

I’ve been spending more of my spare time puzzling than reading lately, so might as well show them here. This was a very nice puzzle! I like this brand a lot. No irritation to my skin, good variety in the piece shapes, sturdy thickness too. A bit of glare, but not bad. Most of this puzzle was very fun, the cat’s fur at the end more difficult.

from CList - bought used

My 10,201 Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration

by Sara Dykman

Exactly what the subtitle says. This woman went to Mexico where the monarch butterflies overwinter, got on a plain old bicycle (nothing fancy), and cycled all the way up to Canada, then back again. Along the way she counted monarchs, stopped roadside constantly to examine plants, move frogs or lizards or turtles etc. off the roadway and talk to people about the butterflies. She stayed with strangers or camped in her tent (usually in places she wasn’t supposed to) and gave presentations at many many schools along the way. It’s a travelouge about a bike tour, with all the details of that- dealing with traffic that doesn’t watch out for cyclists, finding her way in unfamiliar cities, fixing breakdowns on the way- and also her personal rant about climate change and human destruction of the planet, and of course a lot about love for nature and small living things- creepy crawlies and amphibians but also and especially, the monarch butterfly. I learned a lot of interesting details about the monarchs and their life cycle (I didn’t know that there are plenty of monarchs living in other parts of the world that simply don’t migrate, for example), about people who are helping them- whether by planting milkweed, making changes to protect habitat, raising monarch caterpillars, or simply teaching others about their plight. I thought I would really like this book, but it really dragged for me. Though I agree with the author on many points, something about the delivery and tone was wearying. The descriptive phrases are a bit overdone, the humor a tad old, the opinions fill in too much space. I hugely admire the effort she made, cycling solo all the way along the migration path and back, advocating for the butterflies everywhere she stopped, but I just didn’t love this book.

I appreciated finding photos from her trip on the author’s website, plus there’s lots more information about monarchs in general, and her “butterbike” project in particular.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
280 pages, 2021

50 Dispatches from the New Farmer's Movement

by Zoë Ida Bradbury, Severine von Tscharner Fleming and Paula Manalo (editors)

Just the kind of book to get me hopeful and interested in gardening again, after a difficult summer. (I’m mostly ripping out diseased and bug-ridden plants now, hoping for better next spring). This book is a collection of thoughtful essays – just a few pages each- by small farmers new to the endeavor. From young couples to those starting out in their forties and fifties. People who inherited a small family farm or scraped together whatever they had to buy a piece of land or worked on leased soil not their own. Every kind of organization from tight-knit groups of volunteers and employees, to cooperative community workings, to a partnership that refuses to do anything requiring them to go beyond the power of their two pairs of hands. What they have in common is the effort put into growing good food. And what an effort it is. Economics, capricious weather, equipment troubles, financing woes, you name it. Then there’s the backbreaking work itself. The aggravating realities that most small farmers face, needing an off-the-farm job to make things work. The ideals they hold, the reasons they’re committed to keeping their operations small, to growing organic, to selling local. Mishaps, neighbor troubles, pest issues, struggles to deal with livestock as a first-timer- it’s all in here. Such a myriad of voices, but all on a subject I’ve been deeply interested in for a long time. The more I read about it the more I doubt I’d make it as an actual farmer, even though I love putting my hands in the soil and doing the hard work- so much of it is a balance of running a business and staying ahead of trends, there’s skills way beyond me and it’s all I can do to find time and solve the problems my little garden has! But I’m full of admiration for what these people have picked up, in the hardest time ever it seems. I’m inspired now to go to my local farmer’s market again – haven’t been there in a long time.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
256 pages, 2012


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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