Book Review: Things That Are

Book Review: Things That Are by Amy Leach

“The secret to crypsis is placing yourself among things you look like, but in a scene where no one will expect you, like Willie Nelson with Lithuanian peasants.”

Essays are short pieces in which the author attempts to set down their thoughts.  They can be formal or informal, informative or fanciful.  This book is a set of prose essays by Amy Leach, collecting them from various previous publications.  The title is inspired by an epigraph from John Donne.  Inside, the essays are divided into “Things of Earth” (primarily plants and animals) and “Things of Heaven” (primarily space objects.)

Things That Are

Ms. Leach’s language is poetical and heavy on the similes.  I am happy to report that it works most of the time, and is pleasant to read.  The words flow smoothly as the ideas dance from one related topic to another.  My personal favorite of the essays is “Goats and Bygone Goats” as my family raised these creatures on our farm long enough ago that many of the memories are pleasant.  The essay “God” on the other hand came across as pretentious.  And “The Safari” just goes on and on with its extended animals as memories metaphor.

The edition I have is from Milkweed Editions, with rough-cut pages and illustrations by Nate Christopherson.  I like the illuminated beginning capitals.  There’s a short glossary at the end that sometimes makes certain words clearer in meaning.

These short, calm pieces make the book a good choice to read between heavier or more emotionally demanding material; this is a good book to read before bedtime, or sipping a cup of tea.  It also sounds good read aloud.

Recommended to…just about everyone, really.

Manga Review: Vampire Princess Miyu Volume Two: Encounters

Manga Review: Vampire Princess Miyu Volume Two: Encounters by Toshiki Hirano & Narumi Kakinouchi

The Shinma (“god-demons”) are supernatural creatures that come from a place known as the Darkness, which many of them have escaped from to the bright and warm Earth.  It is the fate of Miyu, born of the union of a vampiric Shinma and a mortal human, to be the Guardian who hunts down stray Shinma and returns them to the Darkness.  In this she is assisted by her bodyguard, the foreign Shinma called Larva.  Separated from her parents by her duties, Miyu yearns to go to the Darkness herself, but cannot do so before returning all the escaped Shinma.

Vampire Princess Miyu Volume 2: Encounters

Vampire Princess Miyu was a shoujo horror manga running from 1988-2002, which was turned into two anime adaptations, and had three spin-off manga series.  The manga was brought over by Studio Ironcat, but never fully translated, and is now out of print.

Miyu is something of a morally ambiguous character; while she primarily banishes Shinma who are preying on human souls or bodies, she also attacks those that aren’t doing any immediate harm or are even helping humans.   Sometimes she seems to enjoy playing with her prey, but can also be taciturn and business-like in her eliminations.  And Miyu requires the blood of humans every so often to function.  She only takes the blood of volunteers (usually people who’ve suffered great loss but are still aesthetically pleasing), to whom she promises “eternity”–a deathlike coma of endless comforting dreams.

This volume contains three stand-alone stories.  In “The Jewel Taken By the Sea”, a young man who loves aquariums sees a mermaid at the aquarium in the new village he’s moved to.  But at his school, he meets a girl who looks almost identical to the mermaid, except for clearly being human.  She’s obviously got a secret, but is it the one he thinks it is?

“Doll Forest” concerns a small shop that makes traditional Kyoto dolls, some of which look disturbingly like young women who have gone missing in the neighborhood.  Miyu investigates–is the monster the creepy old dollmaker, his uncannily handsome son…or something even scarier?  This story does include an overweight woman with self-image problems.

“When Birds Cry” is about a homeless man named Tori (“bird”) and his two wards, a bird and a little girl both named Ruri.  He’s taking care of the Ruris, but are his motives really benevolent?  And if Miyu banishes Tori, who will take care of the little girl?  This one has a teen boy who’s interested in Miyu, and not at all understanding the mystic weirdness going on.  His intentions are good, but people close to Miyu tend to die.

Interestingly, all three stories wind up being clean-ups from previous banishings that Miyu performed.

The art is light and airy, and can sometimes make it difficult to tell who’s speaking isolated speech bubbles.  The mood is less scary than sad, death or banishment is the inevitable outcome.  The writing is okay, but sounds many of the same notes repeatedly.

This volume and the other Vampire Princess manga may be difficult to find; the anime is somewhat more available.  Recommended to fans of YA vampire stories.

And here’s a music video with footage from the anime!

Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Book Review: The Elfstones of Shannara

Book Review: The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Elfstones of Shanarra

Long ago, before even the rise of the old humans, the good and evil faerie creatures had a great war.  At the end of it, the evil beings who would go down in legend as “demons” were sealed away in a dark dimension by the Forbidding, a barrier maintained by the tree known as the Ellcrys.  The elves have long protected the Ellcrys, through the rise of the humans, the Great Wars, the creation of the new human races, and even through the reign of the Warlock King.

But now the Ellcrys is dying, and the Forbidding with it.  Already a few demons have slipped out, and eons of imprisonment stewing in their own hatred have done nothing to improve their temperaments.  One of their first acts is to slay all the Chosen, those elves who could be used to replant the Ellcrys and restore the Forbidding.

The last Druid, Allanon, seeks out trainee healer Wil Ohmsford and renegade elf teacher Amberle to go on a perilous quest to find the mysterious Bloodfire while he and the elves fight a delaying action against the demon hordes.   Wil and Amberle gain and lose companions along the way, while Ander Elessedil, second son of the Elf King, must muster the armies of elves and their allies on the homefront.

This was the second of the Shannara books, and generally considered an improvement over the first as it moved away from the Tolkein-derivative plot and themes of the previous volume.  It’s worth noting that the Shannara books were the first fantasy doorstoppers to become big hits when first written–The Lord of the Rings took quite a while to find acceptance.  As such, they opened the floodgates for other weighty tomes of magic and monsters.

Wil and Amberle are reluctant heroes, to say the least.  They have careers they’re much more interested in than gallivanting off to save the world.  Wil suspects that Allanon isn’t being entirely truthful about the nature of the quest (which is correct) and Amberle has her own reasons for not wanting to return to her homeland, although we don’t find out the full details until nearly the end.

Allanon is fallible; he has lived too long by secrecy, and feels compelled not to reveal certain details, which means that those who’ve been burned by him before do not trust him.  He is overconfident in his ability to predict the enemy’s moves, and misses an important clue that hampers everything the good guys try to accomplish.  And he realizes very late in the story that all the secrets needed to fight future problems will die with him if he doesn’t find an apprentice soon.

Ander is a more traditional heroic figure, who steps out of his brother’s shadow to become a competent and charismatic leader when his country needs him.

Female roles are a bit iffy; while the Roma-like Rovers have aspersions cast on them for treating their women as servants at best, there are no women in the councils of the elf kingdom  or any other place shown–no woman rises above the post of innkeeper in this story.   Other than Amberle, the only prominent woman is Eretria, a fiery Rover girl who takes a fancy to Wil, and is primarily characterized by her attempting to get him to reciprocate.  Wil has to be repeatedly reminded to consult Amberle on plans he makes for both of them.

This book is also the one that started the Shannara tradition of bittersweet endings; Mr. Brooks has no hesitation about killing off major characters.

Overall, a good epic fantasy novel slightly hindered by the author’s then blind spot about female characters.  Worth looking up if you somehow missed the Shannara series in the past.

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People by Jared Diamond, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

This is a young adult version of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, originally printed in 1992.  I have not read that book, so will not be making direct comparisons.  I have, however, read Guns, Germs & Steel, which has some overlap with this volume.

Mr. Diamond is a biogeographer and evolutionary biologist.  In this book, he discusses the information (current as of 1992) that scientists have about the evolution of humans, who share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees.  This segues into an examination of human behavior, how it is (and is not) unique among the world’s animals; and winds up with some thoughts about what this might mean for humanity’s future.

The language is clear and should be suitable for strong readers from 10-11 up; there’s also a helpful glossary at the back along with an index.  There is no bibliography, presumably because the sources would not be written for young adults.  There are several illustrations and sidebars to break up the text.

Parents of sensitive tweens should be aware that the book covers some “heavy” subjects, such as war and genocide.  There’s also some discussion of the probable evolution of human sexuality.

A couple of chapters recap the information from Guns, Germs & Steel about why some human societies developed technology more quickly than others.  Mr. Diamond frequently uses “narrative causality”; trying to find the most logical sequence of cause and effect without being able to fill in all the links in the chain.

The final chapters deal with the looming specter of environmental destruction and mass extinction of animal species.  (But not anthropogenic climate change.)  Mr. Diamond is pessimistic about the chances of alien contact.  He does believe, however that conservation and population control can mitigate the worst effects of human behavior.   After all, while evolutionary biology explains many things about human behavior, it is not the only explanation.  We have free will.

This would be a good general introduction to anthropology and biogeography for  middle schoolers and non-science majors.  Some of the information is out of date, due to it being more than two  decades since the original book was written–serious students should review the recent research as well.  As Mr. Diamond repeatedly reminds us, his opinions influence his interpretation of the available evidence.

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl: A Long Forgotten Fairytale

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl: A Long Forgotten Fairytale by Bob Lipski

Once upon a time, in a land far away (possibly Maine), there was a cursed village.  No one could leave the village, because it was ruled by the King of Birds.  The villagers did not know much about their king, save that he hated it when anyone asked questions about him, and could command birds.  Few visitors came, and none escaped.

A Long Forgotten Fairytale

Meanwhile in Minneapolis, ace reporter Uptown Girl goes on a fitness kick while her slacker friend Rocketman runs up his credit card bill.   This culminates in a trip to London that gets cut short–and they and artist Ruby Tuesday wind up in a certain cursed village.

This is a true graphic novel, a long-form story in one volume told in comics format.  It recycles a storyline from the out of print floppies, but adds a lot of new material and updates the modern day setting a bit.   The main plot should be easily understandable by new readers, but there are a couple of cameos and background references to other stories that may elude them.  (For example, Bandwagon Soda.)

The art style is fairly simple (almost all women have perfectly circular heads), which leads to a bit of mental confusion when the only difference in body shape between Uptown Girl and the advertising model that sparks UG’s fitness kick is that you can see more of the latter’s shape because she’s wearing less clothes.

The first part of the book is very humorous, with the story becoming somewhat more serious once the protagonists reach the cursed village.  Man-child Rocketman refuses to become less silly.  Some folks may find the motivations of the King of Birds less than satisfying, as he’s not forthcoming beyond a desire to rule, and no one else knows.

While the main characters are in their late twenties, there’s nothing here to make the book unsuitable for middle schoolers on up.  I’d recommend this to fans of small press comics, especially those that also like fairy tales.

 

Book Review: Deathless

Book Review: Deathless  by Catherynne M. Valente

Marya Morevna is not like the other girls in Saint Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad.   She sees the husbands of her sisters while they are still birds.   But times are changing in Russia, now the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics.   The People have no time for magic, and Marya does not see the bird that becomes her husband.   A pity, for this husband is named Koschei, and now she is snared in his story.

Deathless

Koschei the Deathless is a famous figure in Russian folktales, the sorcerer who has cut out his own heart, his death, and hidden it so that no man or thing can kill him.  In tale after tale, he falls in love with a beautiful woman, but she is in love with Ivan the Fool, and they find Koschei’s heart, no matter how well guarded.  There are variations to the tale, but they all end the same way.

This version is written by the author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Boat of Her Own Making, and is set against the background of Russian history in the first half of the Twentieth Century.    The fairy tale creatures of Russian folklore have taken on new forms to match modern times.  Even Baba Yaga makes an appearance.

Marya is a complicated character.  Despite the rather disturbing courtship style of Koschei, Tsar of Life, she genuinely comes to love him, and helps him in his war with the Tsar of Death.  And yet she finds herself irresistibly drawn to her Ivan when he appears.  Marya wants to avoid the fate the story has for her, but makes decisions that drive her farther down that road.

Given that the non-graphic sex scenes dance on the line between rough sex and spousal abuse, I do not recommend this book below senior high level.  There’s also some very dubious consent that may trigger some readers.

For those who might be interested in Russian folklore, and fans of tragic romance.

Book Review: The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

Book Review: The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Strycker

Disclaimer:  I received this book from the publisher as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  I received an Advance Reading Copy and there may be changes in the final edition.

The Thing with Feathers

As the title states, this is a book about the behavior of birds.  Mr. Strycker is a field researcher with a specialty in birds, so most of the chapters have stories of his personal experiences with the type of birds mentioned.  Each chapter covers a different type of bird and an interesting topic about it, from the ability of homing pigeons to find their way, through the pecking order of chickens to albatross monogamy.

Some of the topics will be familiar to anyone who paid attention in biology class, but others have up to the year research with new implications.   For example, the chapter on starlings explains how mathematics, physics and computer modeling have advanced our knowledge of flock behavior.  Many of the chapters do tie back into possible ties or comparisons to human behavior and biology.

It’s fascinating stuff, and is written in a casual, easy to read style.  The book should be suitable for bright junior high students on up to non-ornithologist adults who enjoy watching or reading about birds.  However,  the casual style carries over to the end notes, and there is no index.  Serious ornithology students will want to dig for more rigorously cited works to please their professors.  Each topic has a bird drawing by Janet Hansen.

Please be advised that this book does cover biological functions of birds and nature red in tooth and claw, so may not be suitable for sensitive children.

I recommend this book to bird lovers and science-minded readers.

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