Tag: Animals Fiction

by Garth Stein

There was a lot of buzz about this book a long time ago, and now I’ve finally read it. Glad I did, but turns out it’s not a keeper for me. It’s the story of a family falling apart after the mother’s illness- from the viewpoint of the dog, named Enzo. Who is so intelligent he’s like a human trapped in a dog body, unable to speak, bemoaning his lack of opposable thumbs, trying to embody what he sees as admirable human traits because he hopes when he dies, to be reborn as human. So, some parts are good. The family story is heartbreaking, but at the very end things turn out better for everyone. The father is a race car driver, so a lot of the metaphors in the book wound around that- an activity I knew nothing about (and had little interest in) but it caught my interest just because of the novelty. Especially the ideas that focusing on being in the moment, or projecting yourself ahead to the next thing, that would actually give more control to what’s happening now. We’re talking about controlling the car speeding through turns or avoiding crashing on wet surfaces (hence the rain part of the title- as the guy excelled at racing in dangerously wet weather) – but it also applies to the dramatic arc of what happens to the family. Navigating their way through some devastating circumstances to come out alright in the end. I’ve read books before written from the viewpoint of an animal who can understand speech, but this one felt a bit off to me in that regard. There were parts where Enzo very much showed his canine nature, and other parts felt incongruous to that, where he waxed philosophical (heavy on the racecar metaphors) or went on and on about what he learned from watching television- and his detailed knowledge of cars, film actors and legal proceedings just made me roll my eyes. I can’t imagine any dog, no matter how gifted with human-level intelligence, being so interested in such things, or able to glean that amount of understanding from television viewing and conversation eavesdropping. I can see why people compared this to Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Life of Pi, but for me it doesn’t quite measure up. Not as easy here, to suspend the disbelief.

Rating: 3/5
321 pages, 2018

by Rodman Philbrick

I liked this book, and I didn’t. Probably if I was a kid reading it for the first time, it would be one unable to shake from memory. I saw it compared to Of Mice and Men, and I was reminded of The Red Pony also. It’s about a kid named Roy who’s been in foster care until his older brother takes him out (without going through the proper channels) and they head out on the road. The older brother Joe has a history of getting into trouble- especially when he’s been drinking- and there’s hints that he plays dangerously with fire. That’s literal. So they approach a ranch where Joe gets work- he’s got a natural way with horses and is excellent at shoeing them. In fact, for me this was the most interesting part of the story, ha- reading how Joe taught his kid brother the importance of keeping a horse’s feet sound and how much their gait could indicate problems, etc. Roy is given an unbroken pony to train and ride (amazing how fast he does so, having nil experience!) All is well for a time and the boys are feeling settled and comfortable at the ranch, but then a local truant officer comes asking questions- why isn’t Roy in school? Then a mountain lion attacks Roy’s pony and it almost dies from the resulting infection. Later there’s a horse race at a rodeo show, and in the end a spectacular tragedy involving a barn fire. Which felt over the top to me, a really horrific scene how could kids read this and not be permanently affected? Well, I was fairly riveted to the page that’s for sure but the ending upset me.

Rating: 3/5
175 pages, 1996

by C.S. Adler

     I read this book in a hot bath, just under two hours. It\’s a horse story where the whole narrative arc is about how to procure treatment for an injured horse. It has a lot of difficult things going on: Jan\’s father has recently died in an accident, she and her mother are still grieving. They had to give up their large ranch house to live in the small \”casita\” that used to be for hired hands. Her mother still makes a living boarding and caring for other\’s horses, and taking guests on trail rides, while their original house has been converted into an assisted living home for the elderly. When Jan\’s horse goes lame it turns out to be more serious than just a bruise or sprain- he needs an operation. Jan\’s mother takes a second job but it still isn\’t enough for the cost. The girl is desperate to find a way to save her horse but can\’t think of anything. She\’s more distracted than usual from school, and can\’t relate to the other kids who don\’t seem to have any of the same worries (though one girl is nice to her and that might turn into a friendship). One day she\’s outside with her horse and meets two old ladies from the assisted living home, out for a walk. Mattie commiserates with Jan over the horse\’s condition, says she used to have a horse when she was young, and invites Jan to the house to see photos. Reluctantly Jan complies and to her surprise finds she rather likes the older woman. She visits her now and then, while still trying to figure out what to do: can she get a job herself? could she lease a \”share\” of her horse to someone who wants to ride and doesn\’t own one? It turns out that Mattie might have an answer to her problem, but then she worries about the morality of accepting the offer. This story surprised me with its depth, for such a short book it sure hits some serious issues. And I didn\’t even mention all of them! Have to leave the reader something to find out. There was only one conversation near the end of the book that struck me as awkward, the rest felt very real and easy to read.

Rating: 3/5

by Glenn Balch

I\’m in the middle of a longer book but needed an easy read for a hot bath, and this was it. Unfortunately I found out pretty quick that like Indian Paint, this book is an abridged version of the original (titled Wild Horse). Wasn\’t quite as \”dumbed down\” so I was able to enjoy it somewhat; however it still doesn\’t really sound like the author\’s voice to me and will only stay on my shelf until I find a copy of Wild Horse

It\’s about two kids who have been admiring a wild black stallion that lives near their father\’s cattle ranch. The father doesn\’t see much use in wild horses so he doesn\’t mind when men come to run the wild horses, intending to sell whatever they catch for rodeo broncos or to a factory that makes chicken feed. The kids are appalled that the wild stallion they call King might meet such a fate. The boy determines to go out and catch the wild horse himself, and his sister helps by bringing supplies and fresh horses. It is a long hard job which they mainly do by following the stallion in relays until he\’s worn out. Most of this story felt really flat and bland to me- the dialog and descriptions- but that is probably due to it being \”revised\”. The final chapters were more interesting, after the horse is caught. The ranch hand is from South America.  He uses a bola for the capture instead of a lariat and his methods for getting the wild horse to accept some basic tack were also interesting. I liked that the horse\’s behavior and responses were very realistic. Eventually they teach the horse that it can\’t get away from a rope and are riding it (although it\’s not really controllable). The kids are so excited to have the wild stallion, but also dismayed that it seems the horse will never really accept confinement or guidance from a rider- having lived so many years in the wild and being set in his ways. But if they let him go again, he\’s at risk of being caught by others and sold to rodeo or slaughterhouse. The way they solve this problem is neatly done and honestly I didn\’t expect it at all, even though it was hinted at in the opening scene, I missed it.
Definitely think I\’d like the original version of this story. Happily I found a website that lists Glenn Balch\’s books and notes which ones are revised reprints, so maybe I can avoid this mistake again.

Rating: 2/5            118 pages, 1960

Animorphs #54 

by K.A. Applegate

     Wow, hard to believe it\’s actually over. I finally finished this sixty-two book middle-grade sci-fi series (counting in the four Meagamorphs and four Chronicles. I didn\’t read the offshoots called Alternamorphs, which it sounds like are in Choose Your Own Adventure style). Warning for some SPOILERS.
Jumps right into the action showing how the battle ended- and yes Rachel ends up in a fight with Tom/Yeerk and his followers. They both die. The rest of the team manages to end the war against the alien Yeerks, the Visser is taken captive, Jake cleverly talks the Andalites into doing things their way (don\’t want the Andalites running Earth or taking credit for the victory) without much loss of face (amusingly, Earth becomes a tourist destination for Andalites who want to taste food). The Animorphs kinda go their separate ways and we see what happens to each of them- and I found all their paths fitting (although Tobias made me feel sad- he\’s distraught at loosing Rachel and basically leaves to just live as a hawk). After a year the Visser is brought to trial for war crimes. Jake has been suffering ever since it ended- most of the others found a purpose to their life, but Jake is depressed and directionless. The trial brings back all his memories as he has to testify and feels the mountain of guilt again for his role in killing innocents. The other Animorphs force him into morphing dolphin in the ocean so he can physically release some tension and feel a bit of joy again- and they all have a long serious talk about the war, its effect on them, where the guilt lies, etc. Very good stuff!
Then the story takes a sudden turn- I knew before that a lot of fans hate the ending of the series, but it really took me by surprise what it was. Jake receives a report that Ax had been scouting around in outer space (he\’s a Prince and captain of his own ship now) and encountered a suspicious, seeming-empty huge ship. He went aboard with part of his crew, something went wrong, there\’s only one survivor. Of course Jake gets together the few remaining Animorphs (addition of two new people who have been studying under Jake and minus  Cassie who stays behind) and they secretly take what used to be a Yeerk ship, out there to investigate. They find that Ax and his crew were subsumed by a huge new alien thing- and they get ready to face off to it, even though they have no chance. And that\’s it.
The book abruptly ends. You can only assume that they were all taken by this new alien. I nearly yelled aloud in frustration because- I wanted to know what happened! But after some thinking I kinda get what the author was aiming at. A lot of this book was showing what happened to the main characters in the aftermath of war, how they were able to adjust and go on with their lives, or not. (Strange that the families were hardly mentioned). But then this new threat comes up and they go face it- so the message I take from that is: there\’s always another battle. You think it\’s all over and you have peace but something else will eventually rear up and make you fight again. And sometimes- you just can\’t win.
It sure would be nice if someone wrote another series continuing where this one dropped off- do the Animorphs still retain a thread of consciousness or individuality in that alien thing? Could they be rescued? what happens if that alien finds Earth- where Cassie still is, with all the other humans, Hork-Bajir and visiting Andalites. Hm, maybe there\’s some fanfic out there on this one . . .
The book is on my e-reader.

Rating: 4/5               176 pages, 2001

 More opinions: 

Animorphs #53 

by K.A. Applegate

     Man, this one was intense. Events moved quickly, but I wasn\’t glossing through them like the last book. Unavoidable SPOILERS: It\’s down to all or nothing for the Animorphs. The aliens have destroyed their home town. A new Yeerk pool is being built, and when they go there to try and sabotage the construction, they get trapped. Totally surprised to find allies among the Taxxons who having seen what the morphing power can do, foresee a way to escape their relentless hunger. (Did Cassie really guess this might happen? or only thought of in retrospect. It nullifies her betrayal but only a little). Jake finally has a determined, multilayered and dangerous plan- and this time he doesn\’t back down when it involves putting his friends and allies in danger. He even blackmails the pacifist Chee into assisting them- right on the battlefield as it were. Early on in reading this you get a sense someone is going to die- and they sure did. Secondary characters but still, that was hard to stomach, how coldly Jake had to go through with his plan even as he watched them dying for the cause. They pull some insanely successful bluffs, and infiltrate the Pool ship, sneak right in to where the Visser is, who knows of their capabilities but still fails to detect their presence until it is too late. Blustering and bragging as always. When the last chapter abruptly ends (because I gather this is really an ending told in two parts which concludes in The Beginning) Jake in the Pool ship in a tense situation next to the Visser is facing his brother Tom/Yeerk who is attacking them from a Blade ship- because Tom\’s Yeerk has his own idea about snatching power and escaping offworld with the morphing cube. 

In spite of all the fighting and subterfuge and quickly escalating scenes, there were also elements in here which brought back what I like about the Animorph books- the senses of being in animal forms. Jake with the wild flight and altered sense of being a fly. The lithe power and heat-sensing acuity of an anaconda. A new one was dragonfly.
This one\’s also on my e-reader.

Rating: 4/5                   176 pages, 2001
More opinions: 

Animorphs #52 

by K.A. Applegate

     It\’s been so long. Maybe that\’s why this book didn\’t really impact or impress me much, even though a lot of significant things happen. I feel like I was reading it too quickly, being so eager to finally finish the series. 

Well- in this book it turns out that Ax has secretly been communicating with the other Andalites who are circling off-world. The Andalite commanders want to basically let the Yeerks have their way, and then they will destroy Earth, getting rid of the problem (and wiping out mankind in the bargain). Ax is appalled by this. However later on he starts to feel very bitter towards the humans himself. He finds out how Cassie had betrayed their entire mission, he witnesses more friction and division within the group, and their basic inability to make decisions based on logic and tactics instead of emotional pull. With the newer recruits and adults along (who strangely still don\’t have much say or leadership at all in things), they bust security to steal some trucks loaded with tons of explosives (laughably easy), acquire some backup from the National Guard, and plan to load a train full of bombs, then run it straight into the main Yeerk pool- possible because the Yeerks have built subway lines going straight to their source of nourishment. They\’re able to morph into indestructible forms (cockroaches) and escape right as the bomb blasts, getting out just in time (had to be on the train to trigger the bomb at just the right moment, and prevent Yeerks from stopping them of course). Thousands of innocents don\’t- humans who were trapped while their Yeerks were in the pool, Yeerks themselves who were actually part of the underground resistance. Even though exploding the pool was a huge success for the Animorphs team, they feel heavily the loss of innocent life they caused. 
This feels like things are very rapidly moving towards the end (they are!) but still, I was annoyed that a good twenty percent of the book seemed taken up by Ax (the narrator) explaining things to the reader. Gah, how unnecessary. It all felt like an action film with hasty argumentative planning under pressure, poorly carried out ideas (that worked in spite of what these kids did), adults coerced or easily convinced into helping them, and some very sobering moments that were glossed over too quickly. Like scenes where they witnessed train cars packed with people who had been taken from their homes and forced aboard by the Yeerks, headed to their alien enslavement in the pool- which was very reminiscent of things from WWII, some of the characters even mentioned that in an aside. As always I missed the sense of what-it\’s-like-to-be-an-animal, barely present in this book- they switch forms to get somewhere, or to fight and survive, none of the wonder is there. Early on in the book Ax morphs a raccoon (hence the cover) and comments on how nimble and useful its hands are, that\’s about it.
I did really like one idea presented in here that could annul the main conflict, if it were used properly. That is: if the Yeerks have the morphing capability, they could morph human forms (or other animal bodies) and no longer have the need to actually take over human brains. This isn\’t explored very much, which is rather disappointing. Seems like it would solve a lot of problems!
This copy was on my e-reader.
Rating: 3/5                   176 pages, 2001
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by Betty Levin

Matt has always dreamed of owning a horse. His great-uncle, a filmmaker who travels the world to find rare animals, promises to send him one, although Matt\’s parents think this is a misunderstanding. Matt works hard to get a space ready in the old carriage house on their property in the suburbs; his family assumes he\’s just playing out there. When he announces the horse has arrived (early in the morning when everyone else was sleeping) they think it\’s still a game and nobody goes out to see the horse for nearly a week! Then they\’re all stunned. Matt is crushed when his family says he can\’t keep the horse- but since it\’s an unusual breed- a Norwegian Fjord- they contact the horse farm it came from to try and find a buyer. Meanwhile Matt works hard to take care of his horse, alleviate its boredom (stuck in the stall or taking walks around the streets most of the time) and figure out how to scrape enough money for its food and other necessities. His friend next door helps out, he cajoles his older siblings to contribute, and before long all the neighborhood kids want to come see his horse, pet it, lead it around, maybe take a ride. They find someone to give some basic riding lessons, and then get a bright idea to enter the horse in a local pet show. Maybe the prize will help them keep it. It doesn\’t turn out perfectly, but there is a satisfactory solution in the end.

This book has a lot of amusingly ridiculous scenes, some honestly portrayed sibling and parent/child dynamics, and an unexpected ending that was nice. I liked the mention of other exotic animals- there\’s a small local zoo/museum that features rare animals and teaches the public about endangered species, a neighbor science teacher who wants to raise emus and keeps hibernating bats in his fridge, and the great-uncle is on a trip to Australia searching for the presumed extinct thylacine. When the kids use finger paint to make the Fjord horse look like a zebra, they run out of paint and instead turn him into a quagga for the \”costume\” contest in the pet show. Except nobody knows what a quagga is, they think the kids made it up. (I looked online because I\’ve heard about the quagga breeding project, and there\’s actually zebras been bred now to have a very similar appearance). 
Good horse kid book, though the writing is simple enough I don\’t think I\’ll find it appealing as a re-read. I\’ll see if my fifth-grader might like it. Incidentally, this one reminded me a lot of Zoe\’s Zodiac by Mary Jo Stephens.

Rating: 3/5                  168 pages, 1996

by Henry Williamson

This is a book I put on my TBR over a decade ago- probably before I even started blogging. Now I also want to read the author\’s book Salar the Salmon, though it\’s also out of print so that will be happenchance. And whatever else of his I might come across.

It\’s the life of a river otter, though the animal does spend some time on the edge of the sea as well. It\’s mostly the otter\’s rovings, endlessly going up and down waterways, chasing fish with delight and wondrous dexterity, fiercely driving others off his food one moment, playing with them the next. It depicts the otters as very gregarious and friendly to their own kind, while driven off and hunted with dogs by men (the fishermen view them as competition and vermin). Very specific to a place- around the Taw river in North Devon. Detailed descriptions of the animal life, plants, weather, lay of the land etc- and specific local dialect when the otter encounters man. I liked this as it gives a real sense of place, but had to refer to the glossary a few times, which oddly isn\’t in alphabetical order but it\’s not long so easy enough to find a word. I didn\’t know before how avidly otters were once hunted with dogs and guns. From the wild animal\’s perspective it sounds terrifying, to be harassed by the hounds even to death- which is how this otter finally meets his end. Not without pulling a dog down with him. I think what stands out most vividly to me through this reading was how fluidly the otter moves through the water, using the course of rivers and streams to his advantage.
My edition has an introduction by Fortescue (who was a friend of the author), and an afterward by Williamson which is a very personal account of the circumstances surrounding his writing of the book- including how ill his wife and baby son were at the time. It\’s also got a curious feature I only noticed halfway through- each page has a word at the top not a chapter title but naming a place the otter was on that particular page. It\’s distinctive on every page, never saw that before. Also I really liked the illustrations by Barry Driscoll, and the heavy inky smell of the pages- as if my copy, in spite of being so old, had never been opened and read before. I fanned and smelt the pages way more often than I usually do in reading (which is probably at least once per book haha).
One to treasure. It\’s very like String Lug the Fox or Argen the Gull in tone.


 Rating: 4/5              265 pages, 1927

by Sandy Duval 

     Cute story about Jamie, a boy on a ranch who gets a pony for his birthday. Rather like in Summer Pony, he brings home a thin, scruffy pony with overgrown hooves, even though his father urges him to pick out one of the many well-groomed and healthier horses. This is because he feels sure he heard the pony talking to him at the auction ring, urging him to buy it. It\’s long hard work to get his pony in shape so meanwhile another kid at the neighboring ranch teases him about having acquired a useless pony. Jamie is further frustrated when he can\’t coax the pony to talk again, until he\’s almost certain he dreamed it. He didn\’t- it just doesn\’t want to talk unless there\’s a real need. Well, eventually the pony\’s feet are in better condition and he can ride- so they go on secret night-time adventures. They find a herd of wild horses that the pony originally came from (with a lame explanation for why the pony can talk). The wild horses are finding it difficult to live because ranches surrounding them are fencing off the best pastures and watering places. So Jamie and his pony lead the herd to a safer place- with the help of the kid next door, who gets in on the secret, and Jamie\’s parents (who don\’t). Spoiler! I kind of liked that in the end, things aren\’t perfect for Jamie- the pony goes back to live with the wild horses. But the closing page has Jamie at the auction with his dad again to buy another pony, one that winks at him, suggesting he\’ll soon have a new equine friend.

This little book was a fun read on a rather dull day, but it\’s not a keeper for me. While the story has a lot of nice elements (including some realistic equine behavior and details on their care), the whole thing feels rather awkward and unpolished- the pacing, the dialog, even the illustrations. I\’m sorry to sound harsh, but it feels like a book written by a high school student, or by a parent for their kid\’s amusement, rather than one that went through publishing avenues. Although considering the age group (early middle grade) it\’s aimed at, I doubt young readers would notice anything about the quality. 

Rating: 2/5                100 pages, 1980

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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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