World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

If you love natural history, biology, poetry, or lyrical memoir, you’ll probably love World of Wonders. Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil and illustrator Fumi Nakamura have created an enrapturing book-cum-artwork which shows the breathtaking biodiversity of our world alongside the mosaic of memories that makes a human life remarkable.

Nezhukumatathil (nuh ZOO KOO mah tah till) skillfully interweaves her own story of growing up and living in many different places (Kansas, Arizona, and Ohio to name a few, not to mention visits to family in Kerala, India) with profiles of vital plants and wildlife which feature in that locale and her memories of it. One of my favorite examples is the chapter in which she describes the corpse flower, an enormous plant which blooms into a foul odor only once every few years. Not only does she describe the plant’s origins and lifecycles, but she also tells the reader how she used to use this flower as a story to test potential dates: her date’s reaction to hearing her enthusiasm for the corpse flower told her whether or not they should get a second date. Only one reacted with interest and curiosity and without judgement, and she married him. It makes for a fascinating, funny, and ultimately heartwarming chapter.

Other entries take the reader to more serious places: the enigmatic smile of the endangered axolotl is woven into Nezhukumatathil’s memories of the casually racist comments she endured growing up and well into adulthood. The fabulous flair of the peacock is part of a painful memory of a prejudiced teacher who assigned the class to draw their favorite animal — so long as it was an “American” animal. Even the first chapter about the catalpa tree is a bittersweet memory of going with her sister after school to meet their mother at her workplace – a Kansas mental institution – and facing the ridicule of classmates. In any circumstance, Nezhukumatathil found comfort and advice in the myriad strategies and adaptations of nature.

A book full of wonder, hope, gratitude, and ecological appreciation, peppered with lovely sketch-like illustrations, World of Wonders is not something you’ll want to miss.

Better Than People by Roan Parrish

I’ve reviewed one of Roan Parrish’s earlier works before and while I loved it, it had some issues. I’m happy to report that in her more recent Garnet Run series many of my complaints have been fixed! The first in a duology, Better Than People is a sweet romance for animal lovers and mental health advocates alike.

Jack is a prickly artist who has surrounded himself with a menagerie of animals, finding their company more enjoyable and trustworthy after a recent betrayal. Unfortunately, he can’t find his usual joy in taking care of them after breaking his leg in an accident. He’s going to need help – his least favorite situation to be in. Enter Simon, a man burdened with crippling shyness soothed only by the company of animals and his recently-widowed grandmother. But that’s his problem: his grandmother is terribly allergic to animals, keeping him from having a pet of his own. Having Simon walk Jack’s dogs (and cat) solves both their immediate problems AND their underlying loneliness, as a business arrangement blooms into love. But there’s a reason they both prefer animals to people; can their love triumph?

Being a shy animal lover myself, I really sympathized with the characters in this case, and I appreciated that Parrish’s take on anxiety and shyness is NOT “they need to get out more”, but rather a compassionate observation that some people are just built differently and have different social needs. To have Jack respond empathetically to Simon and listen to what he needs was exactly what I, as an anxious mess myself, needed to read.

If you take comfort and company from animal friends, if you find other people difficult to navigate sometimes, and if you like stories of supportive, affirming love (with spicy scenes mixed in), this may be the book for you.

Excellent Eco-Thrillers (Part 1)

I first discovered the eco-thriller genre – action-packed books focusing on environmental threats – through The Swarm by Frank Schatzing. It’s a somewhat intimidating book because of its length, but extremely well done in action, characterization, and scientific explanation. Ocean creatures begin unexpectedly attacking humans, and it’s up to a diverse set of scientists and environmentalists to figure out what’s causing it and how to stop it. The answer to the puzzle is both bone-chillingly deadly and incredibly beautiful. If you’ve ever felt worried about just how deep the oceans are and how little we know about them, this book will fascinate (and maybe terrify) you.

Inspired by how much I enjoyed The Swarm, I started a quest to read more eco thrillers and see how they compare. Here are my first two contenders and how they measure up.

First: Zoo by James Patterson. This book was made into a TV series a few years ago, though the series only loosely follows the plot of the book. In the book, we follow almost-scientist full-time conspiracy theorist Jackson Oz as he struggles to understand and raise awareness of the rash of animal attacks spreading across the world. He’s aided by beautiful French scientist Chloe along with a host of military and government figures. The picture of humanity’s future that this book paints is chillingly real, to say the least, though honestly the characters are such standard action-movie stock as to be disappointing. In my opinion, it doesn’t measure up to the complex mosiac of The Swarm.

Second: Eden by Tim Lebbon. In this book, Dylan, his daughter Jenn, and their team are escaping the polluted, climate-change-wracked world by an adventurous race across one of ‘The Virgin Zones’: protected swaths of land where no humans are allowed to live or visit. They’re attempting to be the first to cross Eden, the oldest Virgin Zone which has swallowed up many would-be adventurers. Once inside, their adventure turns frightening as the jungle turns against them, a malicious force which might be responsible for the disappearance of Jenn’s mother… This book is very good at building suspense and a sense of horror, getting more gory toward the end as the climax is reached. I wasn’t as convinced by the Nature Personified element or the resolution, but the characters and action are well-drawn. It almost measures up to the Swarm, but not quite.

The one thing all three had in common is a sobering message of warning for humanity: if we abuse our planet and its resources past a certain point, there will be consequences that we’re most likely not prepared for. The realism of that message makes these books heavy material to consider, but moving, important, and thought-provoking. This is a fascinating genre to explore, so stay tuned for a possible part 2!

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

I recently came across this 2019 middle grade fiction book, Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It covers heavy subjects (content warning: including miscarriage) and doesn’t shy away from hard feelings and uncomfortable situations, but it does these things with incredible gentleness, authenticity, and hope. If you’re looking for a warm and wholesome read about family, friendship, and personal growth, you may like Hazel’s Theory of Evolution.

The main character of this book is Hazel, a thirteen-year-old going into 8th grade at a new school, thanks to local redistricting. She refuses to be open or optimistic about this development, determined to keep her head down and “hibernate” her way through one last year before being reunited with her best friend in high school. Unfortunately for her, her best friend grows increasingly distant and mysterious, befriending Hazel’s longtime bully and trying out for cheerleading (which Hazel has always deplored as a ridiculous and sexist activity). Meanwhile, in her new school, a green-mohawked classmate starts pushing his way into her self-isolation, and she makes an unexpected connection with Carina, a fellow transfer looking for a fresh start. At the same time as her social life grows increasingly confusing, her moms announce that one of them, Mimi, is pregnant again…after suffering two miscarriages. Unable to face the agony of hope and loss again, Hazel tries to live in denial: the baby isn’t real until its born safe and healthy. But painful or not, some things can’t be denied or ignored, and Hazel will have to find her way through her new realities.

There are many good things about this book, as mentioned above, including positive representation of multiple identities (ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual identities), and positive parenting: Hazel’s moms do a good job talking to her about her feelings as well as their own, while giving her space to process what she’s going through. I also appreciated reading a modern and well-formed school Health class, complete with discussions of family relationships and positive and comprehensive sex ed. The book is also peppered with Hazel’s articles for the Encyclopedia of Misunderstood Creatures she’s writing, which make delightful educational asides. I recommend this book for a wide range of ages (though be prepared to cry); Hazel has something to resonate with anyone who’s struggled with change and feeling misunderstood or alone in the world.

The Wild Robot

An uncharacteristic thing has happened to this librarian lately: I haven’t felt much like reading. Of all the strange happenings in our world right now during this COVID-19 pandemic, this was yet another unexpected experience. I have no shortage of reading material. I have a reliable device I can use to download a variety of digital books. This seems like the perfect time to work my way through that looming stack of print books on my table waiting to be read.

And yet, my heart is just not in it. I sit down for about five minutes and then I am distracted and put it down and go do something else.

There has been one exception, however. I happened to be in the middle of reading The Wild Robot by Peter Brown with one of my children before bedtime each night before all this began. The chapters are short, and at one chapter a night, it was taking us a while to work our way through this 279-page book about a robot stranded on an island. But each night I read it aloud, the Wild Robot and its island populated by many animals and no humans endeared itself to me more and more.

You might think that reading a book with no humans in it during a pandemic is a lonely choice in an already lonely situation. Or perhaps on the contrary, you think it is a logical and fitting choice to read about being stranded on an island when it often feels exactly like that as we are isolated in our homes. I think there was something reflective about this mechanical protagonist who gradually (though paradoxically) becomes more humane through time and experience that captured my interest and my heart. Human interaction right now -when it does happen- is less warm and personal, more technological. Somehow the mirror image of a technological being becoming more warm and personal through challenging life experiences was a sort of balm to my woes.

Brown’s writing made reading effortless for me once again. His animal characters have unique personalities. The events that happen on his remote island, both tragic and joyful, are magically relatable. I have always been a fan of anthropomorphism. I am even more so now.

I wish I could point you to a digital version of this title that you can download immediately for free through the library, but our library currently only owns this in print. If you would like to request it for purchase in digital format, you can log into your library account using either the Libby or Overdrive apps and request this title. Be aware that it ends on a cliffhanger and you will probably want to read its sequel, The Wild Robot Escapes.

In the meantime, here are some similar books with anthropomorphic characters available digitally when you log into Overdrive with your Davenport Public Library account that you may enjoy:

Online Reading Challenge – October

Hello Fellow Challenge Readers!

It’s time for a new topic in our Online Reading Challenge! This month our focus is on: Nature! There are lots of great choices and a couple of different ways you can approach this topic – here are a few ideas.

Books from an animal’s point-of-view. These would include classics like Watership Down by Richard Adams or the more recently published The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (a book I recommend very highly).

Books about animals. From wild creatures (such as H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Life of Pi by Yann Martel) to domestic (like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski or Marley and Me by John Grogan) there are a lot of titles to choose from. I love the country vet stories by James Herriot, set in the Yorkshire Dales of 1930s England.

Books about the environment. Another classic, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, is as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1962. One of the best books I’ve ever read is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (although we still have a waiting list – I recommend that you read it whenever you can get a copy), which evokes the wilderness of the low country of North Carolina beautifully. For more evocative landscapes, reach for Tony Hillerman’s southwestern mysteries or Dana Stabenow’s Alaska mysteries.

Books about Man and Nature. Lots to choose from here, when man (or woman) venture out into the wilderness. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild takes you along the Pacific Crest Trail, while Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder travels to the Amazon. If you’ve never read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, do yourself a favor and do so immediately (It’s very funny but will also put the fear of bears into you for good!) Jon Krakauer has two great titles that fit into this category – Into the Wild about a young man attempting to live off the land in Alaska and Into Thin Air about a doomed excursion to Mt Everest. Both are gripping and thought provoking.

I’m planning on reading Open Season by C.J. Box, the first of his Joe Pickett mysteries. They are set in the Bighorn Mountain area of Wyoming where Joe is a Game Warden. Box’s mysteries get consistently good reviews so I’m looking forward to reading this!

Now it’s your turn? What will you be reading in October?

 

 

Escape by Barbara Delinsky

What would you do if one day you woke up and realized that the life you were living was not the life that you wanted for yourself? Walking into work and having that one bad day, that one interaction, that pushes you over the edge? How would you handle it? Would you try to work through it? Talk to your significant other? Would you take a much needed vacation? Quit your job? Start all over in another city with another job and another family? All of these are questions that Barbara Delinsky tackles in her novel, Escape.

Escape tells the story of Manhattan lawyer Emily Aulenbach. She is 32 years old and has been married to another lawyer, James, for the last seven years. Emily has become increasingly frustrated with her life, both professionally and personally. In law school, she dreamed of representing victims of corporate abuse and campaigning for the little guy. Always the idealist, she hoped to brighten the world. Now she sits in a cubicle alongside hundreds of other lawyers in their tiny cubicles, a headset plastered to her ear, talking to victims of tainted bottled water. You’d think that this would partly be Emily’s dream, except for the major fact that she is on the bottler’s side, NOT the victims.

After a particularly devastating interaction with a victim, Emily has had enough. She packs up, leaves town, and just drives. Looking for a purpose in her life and an escape, she meanders aimlessly and eventually ends up in the place that gave her great joy ten years ago. This small New Hampshire town is rife with good and bad memories. Emily has to find a way to deal with both, interact with the people from her past, and convince her husband and family that she’s okay and not crazy. By putting her happiness first, Emily’s selfishness reverberates throughout all the lives of the people that she knows. She must work to find her center and to decide what she actually wants. Add in an animal refuge, a former lover, and someone in desperate need of legal advice and Emily’s escape brings up some dilemmas that she cannot run away from.

This book did not go the direction that I thought that it would, for which I am very grateful. I have read too many novels where the main character decides that she needs a complete do-over and throws her entire life into shambles trying to find herself. Delinsky goes another route of self-discovery that still hits all of the necessary emotional highs and lows, but thankfully misses all of the predictable actions. This was my first Delinsky read and I am quite ready to pick up another! There was nothing that didn’t delight me within this novel.


This book is also available in the following formats:

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler

For me, this was an ideal book-on-cd. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves  by Karen Fowler was an optimum balance between fascinating exposition – about animal behavior, the ethics of scientific theory and experiments – in and out of the lab, and novelistic appeal. Rosemary, the narrator, is an interesting mix of reliable (she addresses the reader and seems to be candid) but also unreliable (memories are faulty especially when critical parts of the story take place in early childhood).

I love to be lectured to, not in the you’ve-done-something-wrong sense, but in the academic sense, where you are given information in a logical and well-thought-out way. I learned a lot about psychology, and  primate and human behavior, as well as memory.

Sometimes this was difficult to listen to – Fowler does an amazing job of showing us our ability to minimize the pain of confusion of animals. The human and animal characters in this story are not abstractions; they are unique and complicated beings, and their pain is our pain. The humans behave in ways that are understandable but not always very likeable.

It’s also a mystery. Early in the book, Rosemary says that she’s lost two siblings. Little by little, she reveals who went missing and why. Even the title is a bit of a mystery, and there’s an a-ha! moment when you realize it’s significance. There’s so much to think about, and to talk about; I’m dying to discuss!

Zoo Tycoon

zoo tycoonWhen I was younger, the Tycoon series of games was really popular. Everyone seemed to be playing them and after several months of begging, I was finally able to convince my mother to purchase a copy of Rollercoaster Tycoon. As I was looking over the videogame section at the library, imagine my happiness when I found Zoo Tycoon, a build-your-own-zoo game put out by Microsoft Studios for the Xbox 360 in 2013.

Looking online and also talking to other gamers results in a wide variety of definitions for the term “tycoon games”. In tycoon games, instead of just controlling one character, you are acting instead like “the manager” who is in control of a wide variety of people or animals, as well as the place where all of the activity is happening. That is very true in Zoo Tycoon. Here the game offers you tutorials, so you aren’t flying blind into how to operate and run your zoo. As the over-seer of the whole zoo, you need to remember to play smart because the guests who visit your zoo, as well as the animals, will ultimately decide just how well you are doing as a zoo tycoon.

This interactive game lets you design your zoo, build, and then manage it to make sure more and more guests keep coming and visiting. Once you build your zoo, you then get to have face time with all of your animals. You are allowed to adopt and care for your animals with the ultimate decision for you to then release them into the wild.

This game was interactive for me and definitely brought back memories of the older tycoon games that I had played. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Pet Pals: Animal Doctor

pet pals animal doctorAll throughout college, my teachers told me that the best way to entice a child to learn was to make learning fun. You’d also get bonus points as a teacher if you could trick kids into learning without them even knowing it. One of the best ways that I have found to do this is to slip that learning to them in the form of a video game or even a classic novel that has been re-done as an illustrated graphic novel.

As I was searching for new titles to intrigue the kids I know, I stumbled upon Pet Pals: Animal Doctor, a game available for the Wii. It allows players to pretend they are a veterinarian and perform surgeries using the Wii remote. What I found most interesting about this game is that the level of learning is high. More than thirty medical cases, that are based on real events, are presented within this game with mini- and micro-games that allow players to play, feed, and clean the animals and to also perform some specialized procedures. Players will be able to operate and interact with a variety of animals that range from the familiar to the exotic. This game won the Editor’s Choice Award of Excellence from the Children’s Technology Review and also the Parents’ Choice Silver Award.