Tag: 2/5- Just Okay

by Peter Dare

Yes, I’ve really been reading this one book for the past ten days. Slow going because I’ve been fairly busy so only had time to sit down and read briefly each day, and also because it was rather boring. Reading it reminded me of the Schaller book about lions. Like that one, this account is very factual- all kinds of data and charts. Numbers. The main focus is population fluctuations, how they are tied to prey numbers, specifically when rabbits had a huge dieoff due to myxomatosis. The studies took place in Great Britian. Which threw me off for a great while- I’ve seen this book on the shelf at my library over the past few visits, and was curious because I thought it was about turkey buzzards, which are a common vulture here where I live. I thought wouldn’t it be interesting to learn something about these rather despised birds, that you often see feeding on roadkill. But no, it’s about a kind of open-country generalist hawk that lives in Britian, comparable to the red-tailed hawk here. So I learned about a different kind of bird.

A few things did surprise me- I didn’t know that buzzards will eat worms, beetles and frogs. In fact, when other prey are scarce they spend hours ‘grubbing’ in fields for invertebrates, sometimes in large groups (up to thirty birds together!) That when you see them soaring in circles way up high, they’re not usually hunting for prey (like a vulture would do) but making a territorial display so other hawks know the area is taken (hunting is done from lookout perches closer to the ground). One buzzard eats about 157 rabbits per year, or 1,960 voles! Here’s a most curious tidbit: this stuff called ‘star jelly‘ which I’d never heard of, but apparently people find around the woods and fields in that part of the world, is according to this author, the oviducts of frogs that buzzards removed and discarded before eating.

At the end, I was just going to scan the appendices, which include even more charts of data, but found myself reading the few pages of actual logs, notes of real-time observations in the field. Those four pages were the most engaging of the entire book, for me. It seems this one was just not my style.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
292 pages, 2015

How We Are Changing Life, Gene by Gene

by Emily Monosson

This book was unsatisfying. Just too short for what it tackled. It is very clear and concise, and I feel like I have a better understanding of the issues addressed. But it seemed incomplete, didn’t really offer any conclusion or solution to the problems. Discusses how human impacts via chemical and toxic pollution, use of pesticides and herbicides, genetic manipulation of plants and war waged on germs via vaccinations and drugs, is pushing evolution in all kinds of species. Including those targeted (bedbugs, weeds, cancer, mosquitoes, etc) and those that are just bystanders- frogs, salamanders and fish that live in water collecting runoff and chemical waste, for example. Also how humans are perhaps evolving, changing in response to environmental stressors and pollutants, though this part didn’t talk about quite what I expected, and didn’t answer my questions either. There’s explanations in here about genetics, inheritance of traits, how mutations arise that may or may not benefit organisms, and why they are prevalent enough to influence a population’s evolution or not. Which happens way faster that Darwin ever surmised. It felt odd to be reading a book old enough that it didn’t deal with the biggest things seen in my lifetime. In the chapters about vaccinations and disease, it raises alarms about flu strains and MRSA. Now you’d expect of course, such a book to be talking about Covid 19. The introduction, mentioning how changing traits in stressed populations are seen far quicker in rapidly-reproducing species like houseflies and gnats, says “We won’t see the evolution of tusk-free African elephants in heavily hunted populations  . . . in “contemporary” time, but we are certain to encounter plenty of chemically resistant pests and pathogens.” Wrong. This is happening right now, tuskless elephants are becoming more prevalent in the population. I remember I felt shocked when I first read about it in National Geographic several years ago- but then after a moment’s thought I wasn’t too surprised. So this book goes into details about how unsustainable our battle against insects, disease and competitive plants in our crops (weeds) can be- because they will always evolve quick enough to one-up our defenses, putting us in a worse situation, and now we are starting to suffer fallout of our own creation. (I thought for a moment the text was going to be supporting antivaxxers but it didn’t quite go that far). On the other hand, it didn’t offer any answers as to what we should do, either. That’s the part that frustrated me. Raising alarms and pointing out problems, but no suggested way forward.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
187 pages, 2015

a graphic memoir

by Karl Stevens

Not quite sure how this is a “memoir” unless it’s based on actual incidents with the author’s cat? Except- nothing much happens. There’s only a few standout events- Penny (the cat) gets rescued off the New York streets as a kitten, taken into an apartment where she’s well-cared for and fed. She spends all day lying around, or stalking her toys (talking to them and giving them names), napping, tripping out on catnip and contemplating the meaning of life big time. That’s it. Lots of deep thoughts, the cat staring around. There’s a few pages of interest- when the owners go on vacation (after two days Penny thinks she might starve), when they move to a new apartment, when the owners take care of someone’s canary (Penny stares into the cage both wanting to eat the bird, and commiserating with it for suffering captivity) and the one fleeting moment when Penny escapes out into the hall, and down onto the street (very brief). At the end there’s a very weird episode where the cat is under a couch cushion imagining she went through a portal into another dimension where butterflies lead her into a cave to face a troll in order to free a prince (??) Ninety percent of it though is just the cat being bored, and thinking philosophical, existential things. Someone compared this to Garfield except without lasagna and realistic drawings instead of cartoons and I laughed because well, I never cared for Garfield either. The illustrations here really are lovely in their detail, but lack expression, so kind of dull. That’s what I felt about the whole book, sorry. It’s just rather dull.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
152 pages, 2021

by Andrew Bloomfield

This guy lived in southern California, sharing a house with a friend and her sister. The backyard was thickly overgrown and soon they found it harbored a feral cat colony. Not being “cat people”, they ignored the felines for a long time but often heard screaming out there at night, and found dead kittens mauled by raccoons. Coyotes also prowled, preying on the cats. Eventually seeing one more dead kitten was too many, and they decided to act. First feeding the cats, and scaring off the predators. Sometimes bringing small kittens in the house to protect them. Then started to notice that as the females were now healthier from getting better nourishment and the kittens surviving, the population was growing quickly. They found out about a spay/neuter/release program and went through the ordeal of capturing over a dozen very wild cats, transporting them to the vet, and then returning them to their outdoor territory to finish living out their lives.

Throughout the book the author veers between telling about the different cats, their personalities, and how well he got to know them (or didn’t, some were completely unapproachable and he only got glimpses), something of their relationships with each other, what it was like trying to manage their vet care, and so on- these parts I liked. Other parts of the book tell about his struggles to find regular work, to get into the film industry (he wrote screenplays), and of his past travels to Asia where he embraced the culture and some religious aspects. I really started to get lost when he was talking about doing astrology readings for famous people, and looking for signs from the universe in all kinds of random, everyday incidents in his life. He goes into a lot of depth on this stuff sometimes. There’s also chapters that diverge into telling of the history of domestic cats, but I’ve already read enough about how cats were worshipped in Egypt, persecuted in the Middle Ages and colonial New England, valued by sailors and early agriculturalists, etc etc that it just wasn’t interesting. So I started skipping the history parts, and the parts that got too ‘woo-woo’ for my taste. And sometimes the overblown writing made me uncomfortable. For example, I know he was exaggerating when he described a raccoon so large it easily stepped over a seven foot high fence. But then how do I know he wasn’t inflating the gruesome details when a mother cat birthed kittens suddenly on the concrete slab right outside their door, and then ran off with kittens still attached to her body, dragged by their umbilical cords? and other such events.

I do really admire how much he loved and cared for these cats. How diligently he completed the spay/neuter program, even though it was difficult. How assiduously he provided them with good food and toxic-free cat litter (I didn’t know that was a concern) even though short on funds. Cleaning up diligently too, to avoid attracting rats and other pests- although nothing seemed to keep the raccoons away from the kittens they saw as prey. I didn’t know raccoons would kill young kittens so readily, but it sounds like this was a regular thing, and pretty awful to witness. When, in the end, most of the cats were healthy, all of them fixed, no more kittens coming into the picture, quite a few of the cats adjusted to living in the house, things all seemed calm and good for a while. Until their landlord dropped a bombshell: a relative was coming to live in that house, they had to go. What about the cats? The final chapters are about their scramble to find a new place to live that would accept all their indoor cats (still half-wild), and debating what to do with the outdoor colony- leave them to fend for themselves again? find a rescue group that would re-home them as barn cats? It was bittersweet to read near the end when they finally met the neighbors who’d lived behind them for over twenty years, those ladies loved the cats too (other neighbors seemed to view them as “crazy cat people” if they knew what was going on) really too bad they hadn’t had that connection earlier.

Borrowed from the public library. Note to self: never hesitate to add a book title to my TBR even if it’s not in the library system. When I put this book on my TBR list three years ago, it wasn’t available to borrow. But a few days ago browsing the shelves, I instantly recognized and snatched up this copy. You never know when your library is going to acquire the very books you want to read!

Rating: 2/5
238 pages, 2016

A Fairy Tale with Benefits

by Jane Buehler

This is the second book I’ve gotten from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. It was really outside of my usual comfort zone, but I sometimes like to try something new! I think I’d classify this as a fantasy chick-lit romance, though I don’t know if that’s really a thing. It’s very light-hearted in tone, though the subject matter turns a bit more serious.

The story is about a young mermaid who is on a mission to find the missing merking, but gets tangled in a fisherman’s net and looses her magic shell (it lets her communicate with a friend back in the mermaid kingdom). Determined to get it back, she goes to the island village where the fisherman must live, and starts to find out that everything she’d been told about humans was a lie. At first she’s afraid to be among them, confused by their customs and baffled by their need for clothing. She’s even more frightened to find that there are fairies among them, who recognize her for what she is (the mermaids’ tails turn to legs when they dry, so they can appear human for a while). Within just a day she’s begun to loose her fear and made a few friends. Then she falls in love with a handsome fisherman (who doesn’t know she’s a mermaid), finds the merking- who isn’t at all the fearsome proud ruler she expected to encounter- and starts to realize that the society she grew up in is full of oppression and brutality. She only recognizes this when she starts to see how kind and understanding the humans can be, and how they work together.

Of course a huge part of this story is the romance- so even though I was surprised that on her first day of knowing somebody (one of the fairies), the mermaid was discussing “human courtship rituals” and not long after she was having her first kiss with the hunky fisherman, and that led to more. But in between the steamy scenes (which thankfully didn’t have too much profuse flowery language or ridiculous euphemisms for things) there’s a strong storyline about the mermaid learning to stand up for herself, confronting the desposed merking, finding out some secrets, and returning to her kingdom to see if she can instigate some changes. Which comes with a hefty dose of danger she has to face alongside her new lover. And there’s also a serious bump in their relationship when he finds out her true identity- the shock, fear (humans have misconceptions about merfolk too) and sense of betrayal. However it all turns out well in the end. It was kind of sweet, although the constant refrain of mermaids getting manhandled by the mermen, and her having to learn to fight, and what would happen with the friction over the sea kingdom throne, and how would they set up the new merfolk society, got a bit tiresome. I did really like how some botany and understanding of weather patterns (which the fisherman figured out for himself) were woven into the story. But the writing style is not really to my taste- it was just a bit too much told, not shown. It was a nice story, and I’m a little curious about one of the precursors in the series which looks like a beauty and the beast retelling, but not quite curious enough to go seeking it out. That all said, for someone who enjoys this kind of genre already, I’m sure this book is a good read. It’s very much a romance, and very much about women finding equality.

Rating: 2/5
294 pages, 2023

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

by Dana Simpson

Eh, I don’t know why, but this one didn’t quite work for me. Unlike all the prior Phoebe and Her Unicorn books, this one has an actual plot. A storm rolls into town, knocking out the power and affecting the unicorn’s magic. Together they investigate, along with Phoebe’s “frenemy” Dakota. The find the cause of the storm- another magical beast who is draining the town’s electricity- and have to enlist help from Max who can chat up science stuff with the dragon to get its sympathy. There’s a bunch of elements I feel I’d usually appreciate- Phoebe and Dakota having to figure out how to work together, Max’s very nerdy interests being appreciated, the unicorn dealing with everyone suddenly noticing her in town (her magic shield doesn’t work), even how the misunderstanding between the dragon and the goblins came about, and emotional reasons behind the dragon’s over-consumption of electricity. But it all fell kind of flat for this reader. The jokes weren’t very funny. Some of the dialog felt awkward, and the resolution in the end a bit too easily reached. I read it one sitting, and feel like all I got out of it was an explanation of why Phoebe, Dakota and Max are now a team, and how Max comes to have a magical animal companion too. I didn’t feel encouraged to continue in the series after this, but I read a few pages into the next volume just to see, and it was better. So I’ll at least read volume seven, too. I think something about the storyline aspect just didn’t suit me for this one. Kids I’m sure, will feel differently (it’s written for them, after all).

Rating: 2/5
158 pages, 2017

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

the Conversation That Could Save Your Life

by Pamela A. Popper and Glen Merzer

Yeah, I don’t know about this book. Kind of like the other one I pulled at random off a shelf browsing in the library, I thought it would be in general about healthy eating, but it seems to go to extremes. It is obvious not too far in that this book is written by two staunch vegans. They not only eschew eating any animal products, but no oils or nuts either. It’s promoting a strict no-dairy, no meat, very low-fat plant-only diet. And it goes on and on about how this will make your body so healthy you never get or miraculously recover from, a wide variety of diseases. One of the authors stated she hadn’t see a doctor in seventeen years. They are very negative about the medical establishment. Saying that tests for almost everything from mammograms to bone density scans are more harmful or useless than good. Saying that doctors don’t know anything about nutrition. Sharing a lot of sounds-to-good-to-be-true anecdotal stories about people with serious conditions who got better after going on this diet. Weird thing is that this book is one long transcribed conversation between the two authors. Personally I found that very easy to read, but it didn’t give enough detail or context with most things to satisfy me that I was reading facts. Funny thing is that when I was browsing before starting the book, the one page I flipped it open to at random, they were talking about people who have to avoid gluten. But that’s the only part of the book that talks about that at all. There’s some recipes. I copied a few down, just to try. Nothing wrong with adding more dishes featuring vegetables into my repertoire. I might come back and comment on here after I’ve attempted them.

Part of the book that was really off-putting were two final chapters, one all about how food industries are corrupt and FDA advice is bad and pharmecutical companies are bad, etc. Another that gets into politics. The authors just kind of lost me on all those points.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
240 pages, 2013

by David Pratt

Based on the author’s real life experiences, this book is about a young man who returns to Africa after thirteen years away, to do conservation and volunteer work in wildlife parks. He travels down the Zulu river by canoe, assists at a wildlife rehabilitation center, and visits a game reserve in Kruger National Park. There are lots of encounters with wildlife- the larger and more dangerous ones like crocodiles, lions, hippos, rhinoceros, elephant, etc are particularly mentioned. Camraderie with his fellow volunteers is highlighted, while the narrator muses on how his first stay in Africa (those thirteen years ago) was soured by disagreements and teasing from his prior companions. Due to the awkwardness of his interactions and his near-encyclopaedic knowledge of animals, I did wonder if he was on the autism spectrum. The writing isn’t great. It feels flat, there’s lots of info dumping (though thankfully in short bursts) that feels like it’s supposed to be a part of conversations people naturally had, but is just a bit too forced. The dialog feels stiff and unnatural, it could easily be a record of what people actually said in real life, but it just doesn’t read well in a book. Too much is told, not shown- things I would love to see described in detail are simply mentioned in a single sentence and then the narrative quickly moves on.

I really struggled to finish this one. I wanted so much to like the content, but the execution was dull. There’s a slow love story in here, but I felt nothing about it at all. There are several chapters about a dangerous close encounter with man-eating lions, but it didn’t feel dramatic, tense or emotional to me, even though people were in fear for their lives. Doesn’t help to find a few typos, which always leap out at me. I did appreciate that as the book is very recent, some of the animal facts were new to me, all felt relevant especially the warnings on how many species are threatened or endangered, and the very real struggles of local and native people in South Africa to make a living and better their lives, while the wildlife eats their livestock or ruins their crops.

I received my copy from the Early Reviewers program on LibraryThing, as an e-book.

Rating: 2/5
182 pages, 2022

How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World's Favorite Insect

by Wendy Williams

Picked this one up at the library browsing my favorite section: such a pretty cover and intriguing subtitle. It has lot of really interesting facts about butterflies. I learned all about detailed butterfly fossils and how rare they are, about Darwin’s early observations on insect evolution, and how a butterfly actually uses its proboscis (more like a sponge than a straw), about an early woman scientist who was the first to specifically study butterfly life cycles and connect caterpillars with their adult forms, that butterflies retain knowledge the caterpillar obtained through experience (nobody knows how), more about monarch migrations and physiology, and so on. But the delivery kind of failed me. It’s told in a very friendly style, easy to read, unfortunately I kept mentally stumbling over the odd inclusions of pop culture reference- made to help the common reader relate? or to be funny? I’m not sure, but it always annoys me when these feel out of place or forced. Which they did here. It got in the way of me feeling really immersed in the book, or simply carried away by fascination with what I was learning. I often found myself setting the book aside, not really inclined to pick it back up for a while. It got better when I started just skipping over all the asides, and skimming the personal bits. Usually I like it when science writers tell about their personal experiences travelling to collect data and interview people, but in this case those parts did nothing for me.

Rating: 2/5
224 pages, 2020

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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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