Month: February 2023

by Elspeth Huxley

Memoir that continues the story started in The Flame Trees of Thika. After the war, the author’s family did return to their farm in Kenya. It continues much the same- with the difficulties of raising crops- one attempt after another that failed to make the profit they hoped for (maize, almonds, coffee and so on- one neighbor was growing geraniums to distill essential oils) and the struggles to keep peace among their employees from different, warring tribes. The descriptions of the landscape, plants and wildlife are just beautiful, and the details about the various tribal cultures very interesting. Unlike the prior book where the author often seemed a nonentity in the background eavesdropping on adult conversations (and not really comprehending them), in this book she’s very much a personality and involved in all kinds of events on and around the farm. Efforts to make new enterprises work. Observing disputes among the natives (and how her family handles them). Raising orphaned wildlife- a civet cat, a cheetah cub. Going on hunts and near the end of the book, a longer proper safari after lion. Her unspoken but very evident crush on a young man from a neighbor’s farm. Her early attempts at writing seriously, publishing stories about their hunts and local polo matches in a magazine (which the family doesn’t take any interest in). Her attempts to learn and perform magic tricks, from correspondence kits. There are some very lively descriptions of people, some really colorful characters among her parents’ acquaintances. There’s a few chapters describing a visit from her mother’s cousin, an educated wealthy man, very kind and talks so poetically, but also something of a hypochondriac! which made him a difficult guest in their rough accomadations. The beauty of the land and freedom of the wide open space seems to make up for all the hardships and suffering they see around them- the awfulness of diseases for which there is little treatment available, livestock stricken by drought, insects and fire destroying things. Lots of incidents that end badly- and a few that come out surprisingly well. In the end, the book closes very similar manner to the first- the author now eighteen, has to leave for schooling in Europe, but vows she’ll return once again.

I appreciated seeing how her outlook on the use of the land and its wildlife gradually changed. When she was younger she admired the hunters and their trophies, and was eager to participate. But near the end she’s starting to see how uncontrolled hunting has changed the behavior of game animals- and in some areas depleted their numbers entirely. She thrills to see the animals in their native habitat, and doesn’t see the value in killing them just to display horns on a wall or show off a skin. People around her don’t understand her sentiment of preferring to see the land unspoiled as opposed to developed and civilized. She even noted how things the Europeans introduced had changed the native peoples. Insightful.

Rating: 4/5
335 pages, 1962

I had a minor disaster with this 2,000 piece puzzle I’ve been working on for over a week. Placing it back on the table from it’s out-of-the-way spot I tilted the board too fast, and too steeply- all the pieces slid off to the floor in an instant. I yelled so loud my husband came running upstairs to see what happened. He said “Oh well, at least some of the pieces are still together.” But it’s the kind of puzzle that has a very loose fit- so it wasn’t a matter of just casually picking up those still-connected pieces. I had to do it very carefully, sliding sections onto a recipe card, to maintain some of the progress I’d had before. All the time available for puzzling this day, was spent just getting the pieces back on the table! Sigh.

Things got better later in the week, puzzle-wise. I went to my public library’s puzzle swap, which is becoming a regular event. I found this one and picked it up thinking: that’s a nice picture. I’m fond of nasturtiums. I thought it caught my eye because several days earlier, I’d seen someone post this same puzzle on an online group I belong to- and agreed with the comments that admired it, but thought nothing more of it.

Now when I was putting the info into my puzzle catalog, which included taking a photo, I looked at it more closely and suddenly had a flash of recognition- I used to own this puzzle! I distinctly recall putting together the purple flowers on the fence, the blue face of broken pottery, the pale pots in one corner and the nasturtium leaves- largest first. It must have been thirty years ago or more- I have clear memories of assembling it on the floor in my bedroom when I was a teenager. Wow. Now I’m delighted to have it again, and just hope that X on the box means someone culled it from a collection, not that it’s missing pieces!

While I was at that puzzle swap, I had another happy moment. The woman who organizes it reminded me of a puzzle I gave last time, that had replacement pieces I’d made. I had asked her if it was okay to bring puzzles with handmade pieces to the swap, because it’s against the rules to bring ones with missing pieces. She said – a bit dubiously- well, let’s see what they look like. So I dumped the puzzle out on a table and picked out the two pieces. Not too hard to find because I knew what pattern they had, and the backs were a different color. She seemed a bit impressed with how well they’d come out.

This time she tells me, Remember that puzzle you brought with the lady in the green dress? one of her friends had taken it home. She didn’t tell her friend about the replacement pieces. Later she saw the puzzle assembled at her friend’s house, and said it looked great all put together! “You couldn’t even tell.” She told me her friend had no idea there were two handmade pieces in that puzzle, hadn’t even noticed. I was tickled pink. “I’m going to keep doing this, then!”

made by Eeboo ~ artist Jennifer Orkin Lewis ~ 1,000 pieces

This was a very cute and quirky puzzle. Harder than I anticipated! All that dark blue background. The individual elements are all small, random and a bit undefined (I kept looking at a piece thinking: is this blob a flower petal or an animal’s ear? is that one a bit of cloud or something else?) so it all came together very haphazardly. While it was fun, I remembered why I don’t care much for Eeboo puzzles. The super shiny surface is annoying. I know I’m at least the second person to do this puzzle, and plan to hand it on to someone else- but it’s already coming apart. Lots of corners and knob ends had a layer peeling off, I glued quite a few down again. Piece fit is loose, so no chance of lifting sections to move around. This one didn’t irritate my skin, but I think (if my guess as to reasons is correct) that’s just because the film rubbed off on someone else’s hands first. Very standard ribbon cut, average variety of piece shapes.

Swarming with rough detail. There’s a peacock, a tiger, monkey, various fishes

a goat with rather greenish hair

an owl and other birds, several butterflies, many different flowers and leaf types. Some creepy crawlies (snail, beetle, etc) a squirrel, starfish, turtle, jellyfish, several snakes and what I think is a wombat.


from online swap - Puzzle Exchange Group

books at my public library:

An Immense World by Ed Young
Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino
Sentient by Jackie Higgins
Return by Niki Bañados
Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Rebecca Wait
Swan Dive by Georgina Pazcoguin from Lark Writes
Sensational: A New Story of our Senses by Ashley Ward
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
The Perfect Predator by Steffanie Strathdee from Lark Writes
The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall
The Book of Eels by Patrick Svensson
A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan- from Read Warbler
The Foundling by Ann Leary from Opinions of a Wolf
Stormrise by Jillian Boehme from Thistle Chaser
Endpapers by Jennifer Savran Kelly from A Bookish Type
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler from Curiosity Killed the Bookworm

not at my local library:

A Thousand Days of Wonder by Charles Fernyhough
My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor
Once Upon a Tome by Oliver Darkshire from A Bookish Type
The Willows in Winter by William Horwood from Read Warbler
Secret of the Dragon Egg by N.A. Davenport from Thistle Chaser
Father by Elizabeth von Arnim from Indextrious Reader
Farming on the Wild Side by Nancy and John Hayden from Sustainable Market Farming
Dragon’s Bait by Vivian Vande Velde from Thistle Chaser
Pied Piper by Nevil Shute from Bookfoolery
Fear the Wolf by Andrew Butcher from Thistle Chaser

Memories of an African Childhood

by Elspeth Huxley

I wanted to read this book after seeing a film version, which my husband and I both enjoyed. It’s based on the author’s childhood in Kenya just before WWI, where her father was attempting to start a coffee plantation. Literally out in the middle of the bush- nobody else for miles around, a long rough journey by oxcart to reach the place. The story is about how they lived rough at first, then built a house and put in the coffee seedlings. Their difficulties in getting labor to help- most of the people from tribes nearby didn’t understand what they were trying to do, couldn’t comprehend the instructions (language barrier), had varying priorities and expectations about getting paid for their work (cultural differences), etc. Theft and intertribal conflicts were a constant problem. Differences between the Kikuyu and Masai, and a few other tribes they encountered. Eventually some other Europeans came out to develop land on other plots nearby, so they had neighbors of sorts.

The landscape is described beautifully, the encounters with wildlife (especially hunts for leopard and buffalo, a pet dik-dik, a giant python that supposedly swallowed a child) are interesting. The attitudes not so much- there were frequent remarks about how the natives had not improved themselves or their land in thousands of years, and praising the Europeans for turning the country into something productive- discomfiting. Sad to read about how the tribesmen would bring their injured and sick in once they heard one of the neighbors was a nurse- but the ailments were often beyond her skill level or limited supplies. Most intriguing and also what makes this book a bit difficult, is that it’s written from the child’s viewpoint- apparently she was only five or six at the time, so you have to wonder how much is embellished as I can’t believe she recalled all those conversations so precisely. But then there is so much you have to gather by reading between the lines. Notably the love affair between two of the neighboring adults- one whose husband was usually absent, away on hunting trips. I think I picked up on what was going on with that much better in the film than reading the book! where you only get the half-understood comments the little girl heard from the sidelines.

The illustration on my book’s cover is amusing- because while the narrator did often go out riding in the bush with one of her father’s employees accompanying, she had a short fat white pony, not a dark horse. Later in the book she has to live with friends of the family (her father enlists and her mother goes to help with the war effort at a hopsital) and rides a different horse- but this one is also white! And just like another reviewer has noted, this reader was also left wondering what was behind the boomklops– was it really a bird the man wanted to show her, or something sinister?

At the end of this book, I’m really interested to not only read the sequel, but also Out of Africa again. I recall that Karen Blixen wrote a lot about the differences between the Kikuyu who worked on her farm, and the Masai she often interacted with. I’m curious now how that description compares to Elspeth Huxley’s of the same.

Rating: 3/5
281 pages, 1959

Another Pohebe and Her Unicorn Adventure

by Dana Simpson

This book was a DNF for me, years ago. This time I read the whole thing, but for the first half I felt pretty much same as before. Just so-so. Then it got better and one page near the end made me laugh out loud, which redeemed it all. There’s small storylines about holidays- deciding on Halloween costumes and throwing a party (which falls flat), and mundane everyday moments like wanting to stay in bed just because it’s warm and cozy, or running to get under shelter from the rain. I like the page where Phoebe and her dad are reading e-books, and the mom defends her preference for good old paper books, but then the unicorn tops that by proclaiming she prefers the dry crinkliness of unrolling a scroll. Marigold Heavenly Nostrils goes away to visit her sister at a unicorn spa, and Phoebe misses her. On her return, they delight in snow days together. Phoebe tells fibs about having finished her homework, and comes to regret it. She struggles dealing with test days at school again. There’s jokes about video games and smart phone functions. Summer comes and they go camping and visit the beach, where the unicorn points out how impractical Phoebe’s sand castle is, for defenses. Phoebe is jealous when her mother paints a portrait of the unicorn. Marigold tries to tell scary stories- at Halloween and later around the campfire- but the uincorn’s idea of what is frightening is just ridiculous. I love how the characters talk about the magic of reading and that this book, even though aimed at middle-grade readers, has plenty of long and somewhat sophisticated words (with a nice handy glossary in the back).

Rating: 2/5
160 pages, 2017

Another Phoebe and Her Unicorn Adventure

by Dana Simpson

Now six years later, I’ve just read this book again. Not so long ago I was at a library book sale, and saw three Phoebe and Her Unicorn books on the table. I remembered loosing interest in the series before, so didn’t pick them up. But then when I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about them. So I went back to get them. Volumes four (this one), six and seven. In the mood for a light read after finishing the last page of a hefty book, this one was my bedtime read last night.

Interesting how different things stand out to me this time. I’ve wondered sometimes if I give too much away in my reviews here, that other readers will get spoilers I didn’t intend? Well, I read my past review of Razzle Dazzle Unicorn before deciding to pick it up again, and still found lots of material in here that I’d forgotten, so it was easy to enjoy all over again.

My favorite parts this time around: Phoebe and her unicorn participating in a role-playing game with Max and doing it wrong. The unicorn being jealous of a Christmas tree- too many sparkles. Overthinking the tradition of New Year’s resolutions. Phoebe “categorizing” her friends. Starting a journal because she worries about forgetting things, but then becomes too wrapped up in recording every little mundane detail. Her mom being an artist. Reading the same book as your friend and trying not to give each other spoilers. Max telling her what really happens to balloons that float away. Her room getting so clean (by magic) she feels like everything has disappeared. The unicorn making up ridiculous-sounding fancy words, and blithely using them. So fun.

Rating: 3/5
184 pages, 2016

by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

With most used books I acquire on a whim, my attention to them at the time is so fleeting I barely remember picking them up, or even where I got them. This one I remember it distinctly. I was at the nicer thrift store in town and took this one off the shelf in curiosity. The title had caught my eye, the back cover copy made it sound interesting. I stood so long thumbing through pages reading a passage here and there, an employee approached me and made some comment about if I wanted to read it I should buy, this isn’t a library. My reply: “I need to see if this is a book I’ll actually want to read.” But really I was a tad embarrassed to be seen holding a book with a naked woman on the cover, and didn’t want to take it home and feel more awkward at my kids seeing me with it. The employee’s response was another remark that made it obvious he thought if you’re a reader, any book off the shelf will do. That comment rankled but I had no ready response although now I can think of quite a few. If you are a foodie, will any cuisine do? are you just as happy to eat fast food hamburgers and fries sitting on plastic chairs, as four artfully plated courses in an upscale restaurant off a linen tablecloth? If you like sports, does it matter what’s at play on the field? surely you have more interest in soccer or golf or marathon races- they’re so different. Books are so very personable, just because I like to read doesn’t mean I’ll like any book you put in my hands.

Rant over.

But I almost didn’t read it, for all that. Proof again that sometimes the moment and mindset has to be right, to appreciate a work. I tried this one once and didn’t get far. My eyes just slid over the words without much sinking in, I found it dull and couldn’t find any connection to the characters and even went online to read a bunch of one and two-star reviews to see if others felt the same. I almost ditched it but held on for another attempt later. (Now I find those one-star reviews hilarious. One reader said this book nearly gave her a “pseudo-intellectual concussion” ha ha)

This time I sank into the story without much effort. It’s set in fuedal Japan. It’s a meandering, contemplative yet sparsely-told story about a beautiful woman loved by two men, a noble lord and his closest trusted samurai. Half of the story is about the lives of women in the palace- secluded, pampered, and constantly vying with each other, petty cruelties that sometimes turn deadly. Further on the novel suddenly switches narrators, relating rumors and fables that you’re not sure at first have anything to do with this story, then turning to the samurai’s viewpoint. So there are councils of war, strategy planning, battles, villages of poor peasants burned to the ground with no remorse. Men wondering if anyone will recall their exploits when they are long gone, knowing their deeds become legends barely resembling the truth after just a few re-tellings. In the end, this beautiful woman has taken herself to live in seclusion up in the mountains, embittered by what she’s done in the past. The samurai finally encounters her again after what seems like a lifetime of campaigning (and a very long period spent just wandering around in the vast untamed forests with his horse and a fox he tames, when he gets tired of being a soldier). What happens next is idyllic and peaceful- for a while. But it doesn’t end happily.

I just don’t know how to tell about this book. It’s so strange and dreamy and upsetting at the same time. The people speak to each other obliquely and frequently quote poetry. They are enthralled by the beauties of nature- having special rooms just to view the moon at certain phases, going on excursions to see the first snowfall over a lake at night, or to look at fallen autumn leaves on a river (not to mention the spring glory of fruit tree blossoms). And on the other hand, they cause terribly brutal things to happen all the time. There’s the ravages of disease and other misfortunes- one long segment of the book is about a plague that strikes in summer, with dead bodies being thrown over the walls and corpses stacked up. Unsettling. The characters for all their high education and artistic poise, are full of superstition and totally inept at dealing with illness or complications of childbirth. It doesn’t take much to bring them down. On page 258, the wandering samurai wonders at a snowfall and thinks of how everyone back in the palace would scramble about figuring out what omen it meant and then he is struck with a realization:

: the world had nothing to do with humans or even with animals. The world and the weather turned on their own wheels and what happened, happened. Nature was as irrational and precipitous and impossible to predict as any one man. 

The feel of this story is very like Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth to me- in the sweeping breadth of its narrative and precise understatement. It also reminds me strongly of The Worm Ouroboros, one which I probably did not appreciate enough at the time. It feels very foreign in many ways, so I didn’t at all mind the mundane details about how people lived. At the same time it is deeply familiar, with all the concerns and dreams of humanity. One I’ll definitely have to revisit again, there’s a lot I didn’t quite follow and it feels like the kind of book that deserves a re-read.

Rating: 4/5
438 pages, 2004

made by Cobble Hill ~ artist unknown ~ 1,000 pieces

I picked this puzzle to do next because it’s on someone else’s wishlist in a puzzle swapping site I belong to. I thought hey, I’ll finish this one and maybe can do a trade! Except I enjoyed it so much that now I want to keep it. The non-glare linen texture is so lovely, the patterns are just enough of a challenge, the piece shapes wonderfully varied. I like that all the quilt patterns are named in the picture, but also the material patterns themselves are interesting. One has ducks, another has black cats and pumpkins, others are full of flowers or just plain abstract. It was a very fun, relaxing and meditative puzzle to work on.

One piece was missing, which I patched in. My color match is a tad too light, and there was no way I could duplicate the intricate detail of tiny flowers and vines, but I got a close enough approximation that you can’t tell from a glance.

I didn’t mind that the puzzle had one missing piece as I knew it beforehand, but something else bothered me. The puzzle was littered with animal hair and fine debris- tiny dark and white specks (crumbs?) I’ve seen other puzzlers complain online about receving used jigsaws with pet hair and crumbs how gross that is, and shrugged: hey, just brush it off, blow it away, no big deal. But now I know what they mean. It’s not a big deal to find just a few cat hairs and brush them away. This was something else! After dumping all the pieces out, there were still hairs clinging inside the empty box. After sorting the edges out from the rest of the pieces, I felt I had to wipe my table surface off. Through the entire assembly of the puzzle- down to the very last few pieces- I was continually blowing away or brushing off debris. It just got tiresome.

And I remember who I got this puzzle from. A lady who lives in a town near me, who buys her puzzles brand new and then resells them after one use, on CraigsList. It’s a bit of a drive but getting new-condition puzzles for a good price was worth it to me- at first. I’ve gone twice. I didn’t mind before, that a few of the puzzles had a piece missing- she’d told me they might. I didn’t even mind that one had a piece obviously chewed on by a small dog- I pressed the mangled piece flat again with my iron. But this was just a bit too much. Personally I think if you plan on reselling your puzzles you should take better care of them for the next person. I don’t think I’ll go back again.

All that said, this one was so pretty I kept it assembled on a spare board for several days while I worked the next one, because I liked looking at it so much!

from CList - bought used

A Catwings Tale

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Last book of the Catwings series– how I wish there were more! This one is more of your standard little adventure story, without the subtle psychological heartstrings of Wonderful Alexander. Here we see that Jane growing up, and pushing at boundaries. She’s full of spunk and wants something to happen, life on the farm is just too quiet and dull. So she flies off to find something exciting. She’s well aware of the warnings the older catwings have always given her: stay away from people, they’ll put you in a zoo or a cage- only the kids at our farm can be trusted. Jane reaches the city and when nothing bad happens at first, she becomes overconfident and foolishly flies in an open apartment window. The man there is shocked at first, to say the least. But he doesn’t hurt her, or put her behind bars, and he gives her food. She doesn’t notice at first that he shuts the window and never lets her out. She’s happy for a while. But then gradually things become oppressive- more and more people come to see her, cameras and flashing lights, and she’s coerced into doing tricks. She wants her freedom again- but how will she get it? and then where will she go? In the end, Jane manages to escape (I love the illustration on that page, you can barely see her sneaking out) and finds a place where she really belongs. The ending is quite satisfying.

I think I would shelve these Catwings books next to Beatrix Potter’s stories in my mind. They have a different tone, but the smallness of them, their compact perfectly-told stories with solid messages and observations on character, so deftly woven into the narrative you hardly notice it, are very alike. Not to mention the quality of the illustrations. Definitely ones that will stay in my collection forever.

Rating: 3/5
42 pages, 1999


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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