Havenfall (Havenfall, #1)

HavenfallHavenfall
by Sara Holland
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781526621962
Series: Havenfall #1
Publication Date: March 3, 2020
Pages: 304
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Proof that I can’t resist a free book?

One of the schools I work at is near a small independent bookstore they try to do business with whenever possible.  Last week I went into the staffroom – something I try to generally avoid at all costs – and there were boxes of books on all the tables that said “free”.  Seems the local bookshop was cleaning house and these were all the advanced reader copies that had been accumulating in their back room.  I grabbed one on Elizabeth von Arnim, and because it’s been sooo long since I’ve gotten any new books, I lingered and pawed through them all and finally thought ‘what the hell?’ and grabbed this one.  YA Fantasy is usually more miss than hit with me, but did I mention how long it’s been since I’ve had a new book?

I have to say, it wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t amazing but it held my attention nicely after a rather weak and tedious start.  The second half of the book really morphed into something worth reading and I give points to Holland for sneakily weaving an Important Societal Lesson into the story about the power of perceptions and propaganda to alter history.

It wasn’t so good that I’m curious about what comes next, but it was good enough that should I stumble across the second book I’d probably pick it up.

The Gazebo (Miss Silver Mystery #27)

The GazeboThe Gazebo
by Patricia Wentworth
Rating: ★★★★½
Series: Miss Silver Mystery #27
Publication Date: January 1, 1958
Pages: 255
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Hodder And Stoughton

For Althea Graham, suffering the whims of her malevolent invalid of a mother, the old family home is a prison. So when two strangely competitive offers for the Graham's house are made to her it suggests that house may hold some dark rewarding secret.

Then old Mrs Graham is found murdered in the gazebo . . .


Best Miss Silver I’ve read yet!  Though, to be fair, I’ve only read 2-3 others, so I’m not in a position to judge too objectively thus far.  Still, a great mystery with rational characters (unlike her earliest books) and while there’s still a romance at the hinge of the story, it’s not a soppy one.  Mostly.

There were obvious references to previous books, but no spoilers; tangential characters in earlier mysteries are now the focus of this one.  The murder could not have happened to a more deserving victim, and generally, the plotting was rather weak, not that I think about it.  The murderer becomes rather obvious so that there’s no real reveal, just a crises averted and justice served.  There’s also a connection to the Gordon Riots which lends an air of fun to the story, though when I write it like that it doesn’t make sense.  Nothing fun about the Gordon Riots, except the link to the present day story is, but I can’t be more specific than that without spoiling.

A fun, traditional mystery.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants

The Body: A Guide for OccupantsThe Body: A Guide for Occupants
by Bill Bryson
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780857522405
Publication Date: October 3, 2019
Pages: 455
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Penguin Books

Bill Bryson sets off to explore the human body, how it functions and its remarkable ability to heal itself. Full of extraordinary facts and astonishing stories The Body: A Guide for Occupants is a brilliant, often very funny attempt to understand the miracle of our physical and neurological make up.


Another book I own but borrowed in audio from the library.  Also another read by the author, though Bryson does almost all of his own books and I’ve always enjoyed his readings.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants is an overview of the human body, taking it system by system.  I enjoyed it thoroughly, but looking through my hard copy, I can see it includes photos, making me think this is yet another book destined to be re-visited as a read, rather than a listen.  No hardship, as Bryson is an excellent writer, and The Body is no exception.  He covers the basics, plus just that little bit more, offering what might perhaps be new information, or a different perspective, or a fresh historical anecdote.  He also doesn’t pull any punches about humanity’s propensity to overeat and under exercise, something that in (what is for me) these post-lockdown days had a more pronounced effect than they might otherwise have had pre-covid.

I don’t think fans of Bryson will be disappointed.

Caesar’s Last Breath (Audio)

Caesar's Last BreathCaesar's Last Breath
by Sam Kean
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780316381642
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 375
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Little Brown Book Group

A round-the-globe journey through the periodic table explains how the air people breathe reflects the world's history, tracing the origins and ingredients of the atmosphere to explain air's role in reshaping continents, steering human progress, and powering revolutions.


I listened to this back in December-February, and forgot all about posting a review; this happens frequently with my audiobooks since I borrow them from the library and they’re not physical objects, sitting around mutely mocking me for my slack ways.

I like Sam Kean’s books, and I always have.  They’re popular science books and I enjoy his way of attaching science to everyday anecdotes; for me it’s a nice reinforce how science is at the very core of life.

Caesar’s Last Breath is about the air we all breathe and which parts of the periodic table we’re breathing at any given moment.  I own the book, but it was available from the library as audio and I needed something for the car.  It’s narrated by Kean himself, which can often not be a good thing, but I think he made a fair performance of it.  But this book also uses visuals, so while I enjoyed it, I think I’d have gotten more out of it had I read my hard copy.  Something I’ll probably do soon.

If you’ve read his other books and didn’t care for them, don’t bother with this one, but if you enjoy accessible science tied to historical events or everyday living, you might enjoy this one.

Feline State of the Union … and random book updates

There have been developments in negotiations between all parties.  A few border skirmishes:

… and a few (failed) cease-fires.  Easter-cat has been staked out on the bed for the duration – her hill to defend – while she’s battled a recurrence of cat flu, a direct result, she claims, of the horror of invading forces, and she’s petitioned the war tribunal for compensation, to be paid out in Greenies.  Catnip flavour.  So far, the court has been sympathetic and generous.

Carlito is the Russia of this Risk board; he flips sides whenever the mood strikes him.  He has been seen on numerous occasions to be fighting the valiant fight against the invader, but there is accumulating evidence of joint training exercises, and incontrovertible evidence of at least one instance of sleeping with the enemy:

Mostly though, Pikachu, or Bug, is settling in just fine.

In other, more book-relevant news, I’ve still been re-reading like a fiend. I’ve gone though the entire Anne Bishop Others series, and actually re-reading Lake Silence twice. My original reviews for those books all still stand, and I still love the series as much as ever.

I’ve also just finished listening to Bill Bryson’s The Body, with a review coming up, and likewise Patricia Wentworth’s The Gazebo – the best Miss Silver mystery I’ve read so far (fact: I’ve read very few).

MT and I continue to sneak out and cheat on the cats with wild nature every weekend. This weekend is the 4-day City Nature Challenge, an international bioblitz, where participating cities encourage everyone to go out and take pictures of every wild plant, animal, and fungus they find, and upload them to inaturalist.com. We’re looking forward to seeing how many different flora and fauna we can get photos of. It started at midnight and so far, I’ve gotten pics of three spiders and our resident possum, who has decided he likes our bird house just fine:

Midnight Blue-Light Special

Midnight Blue-light SpecialMidnight Blue-light Special
by Seanan McGuire
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780756407926
Series: InCryptid #2
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Pages: 353
Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: DAW Books

A re-read that not only held up well, but one that I enjoyed more the second time around.  My first readings of McGuire’s books always start off feeling tedious, but picking up so much that I end up really enjoying them (though Imaginary Numbers flipped this around).  This re-read didn’t feel tedious at all and except for the scene where Verity is captured, which felt way too long, I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it.

As an aside, MT saw the title and commented that it sounded like the stupidest book he’d ever seen me read.  Being not-American, I had to explain to him about the Kmart blue-light special days of yore.  (He conceded that the title made a smidgen more sense.)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Genres: Natural Science, Science
Format: Paperback

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
by Frans De Waal
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781783783069
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 340
Genre: Science
Publisher: Granta Books

Short answer:  no, of course we’re not.  For a lot of reasons, but mostly because of thousands of years of cultural confirmation bias.

For the long answer, you can’t go wrong reading this book.  De Waal writes a very readable treatise on the subject – where we started regarding our beliefs about animal intelligence, and how we got to where we are today, using a well balanced blend of anecdotes and scientific experiments.  While his area of study is primatology, he also delves into research conducted by colleagues on birds, elephants, dogs, a few fish wales, dolphins, and the octopus.  He systematically addresses each of the arguments that have been made as to what sets humans apart, and how these arguments have been torn down by research over time.

The book didn’t get the full 5 stars because, oddly enough, I felt De Waal was being too politic about at least one question: why are researchers, scientists and laypeople so historically stubborn about insisting that humans are above, and superior to, all other animals?  To me, that answer is obvious, though I can see why scientists equate objectivity with atheism.  The truth of the matter is that the Western world has been culturally inculcated by Judeo-Christian teachings, whether scientists like it or not, on such a fundamental level, that I doubt many are aware of it.  Specifically, Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.

Personally – and this is just me – I’ve always had doubts about the original translation of Gen. 1:28 – specifically the words “subdue” and “rule”; I have to wonder if the original language wasn’t closer to something akin to ‘guard’ or ‘protect’, given that Earth may be our home, but it isn’t our house, so to speak.  And while I’m going a bit off topic here, I’ll also just say that I do believe that God gave us something that separates us from the other animals: free will.  In all my readings and my meagre experiences, we’re the only animals that can choose to be evil for the sake of being evil; we’re the only animals that can choose to hurt ourselves; we’re the only animals that will push our own boundaries just for the sake of pushing them.

Anyway – back on topic – De Waal doesn’t address deeply embedded cultural bias, which struck me as odd.  But that’s really my only niggling objection.  Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found much in it that made me think hard about animal intelligence and what it means to be aware of self, others and our surroundings.  But then again, I’m his audience:  I have always believed animals are smart, aware, and cognisant and that humans have never been as special as we think we are.

Roommates

RoommatesRoommates
by Emily Chase
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0590328433
Series: The Girls of Canby Hall #1
Publication Date: March 28, 1983
Pages: 220
Genre: Young Adult
Publisher: Scholastic Books

I saw a mention of this title somewhere on the ‘net last year, and it was like a lightbulb going off in my memory.  This was the book that inspired by adolescent desire to go to boarding school (unfulfilled, which is probably just as well, as I doubt the reality would have equalled the fantasy).  I immediately tracked down a copy for nostalgia’s sake, and the forgot about it until it showed up in my mail several months later.

I really expected it not to hold up to time, but I have to say, I’m impressed and how well it did.  There were some incredibly frivolous moments, but there were some weightier ones as well, including racial stereotypes and running away.  Not up to today’s standards, but respectable for the early 80’s, I suppose.  Either way, I enjoyed it for the quick, easy read it was and still is.  I still want to go to boarding school.  And summer camp.

Extraordinary Insects

Format: Paperback

Extraordinary InsectsExtraordinary Insects
by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780008316372
Publication Date: April 2, 2020
Pages: 294
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Mudlark

A Sunday TimesNature Book of the Year 2019

A journey into the weird, wonderful and truly astonishing lives of the small but mighty creatures we can't live without.

Insects influence our ecosystem like a ripple effect on water. They arrived when life first moved to dry land, they preceded - and survived - the dinosaurs, they outnumber the grains of sand on all the world's beaches, and they will be here long after us.

Working quietly but tirelessly, they give us food, uphold our ecosystems, can heal our wounds and even digest plastic. They could also provide us with new solutions to the antibiotics crisis, assist in disaster zones and inspire airforce engineers with their flying techniques.

But their private lives are also full of fun, intrigue and wonder. Here, we will discover life and death, drama and dreams, all on a millimetric scale. Like it or not, Earth is the planet of insects, and this is their extraordinary story.


Either something was lost in translation, or this book is a much better fit for middle grade readers.  Given the excellent english of absolutely everybody I’ve ever met from Norway (and I worked for a Norwegian company for years), I’m going with this is a great Middle grade read.

Extraordinary Insects is a brief introduction to most of the broad families of Insects, written by an enthusiastic scientist who obviously loves her work.  It’s a fun book, engagingly written, but at a level that would appeal to strong readers in the, say, 10-13 year old range.  That’s not an insult to this book in the slightest, but those who are looking for a deeper overview of the insect world and their importance on Earth (life as we know it can’t exist without insects, but nothing but the rats and cockroaches would even notice our absence), might find this book a little frustrating for its lack of depth, and its very enthusiastic tone.  It’s a good book, but I kept thinking it would be a better fit for my niece (who just turned 11).

A great book for a budding young insect enthusiast or for anyone who has avoided ‘bugs’ but would like to dip a toe into learning more about them.

Wilding: The return of nature to a British Farm

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British FarmWilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
by Isabella Tree
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781509805105
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Pages: 362
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Picador

Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain - the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.

Extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells' degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life - all by itself.


This is one of those books where the content overcomes the writing.  The writing isn’t bad by any means, but it definitely lacks the spark of personality.  Either Isabella Tree lacks anything resembling charisma, or she was holding herself back.  I choose to believe the latter, because I believe anyone willing to embrace the project she and her husband embarked on has to be inherently likeable and not a little bit charismatic.

In spite of what was often bland writing, the book is a brilliant record of the amazing achievements Tree and her husband managed on what was poorly producing farmland that was losing money.  By allowing it to revert back to its natural state, with as little human interference as possible, they accomplished so much on so many fronts.  The wildlife recovery, the flood mitigation, the general health of the land itself – all of it happening at speeds that make me optimistic that humanity hasn’t completely destroyed our planet just yet.  Lest I got too optimistic though, Tree’s documentation of the uphill battle they had to fight with government agencies who nominally existed to protect the environment put me right back into my proper, cynical, place.

Wilding is a thoroughly well researched, excellently laid out recounting of one couple’s determined efforts to restore their patch of British soil to what it was meant to be, and all the excellent rewards that came with it.  The writing may be less than enthralling but the content more than makes up for any missing sparkle or wit.  If you’re interested in the natural state of things, this is definitely worth the time and effort.