Monthly Archives: July 2011

Claudine at School by Colette

Originally published 1900. This edition: 2001.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 206 pages.

Translated by Antonia White.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: I think it was Eva of a Striped Armchair.

In a nutshell:

15-year-old Claudine is in her last year at the village school. Her father could have afforded to send her to a boarding school, but Claudine prefers the countryside of her youth. She also quite likes being the queen bee at her school. Claudine at School is a tale of Claudine’s mischief at school among her classmates and the teachers.


Claudine is a vain, willful brat that I would hope never to meet in person, but she is absolutely delightful as a character and narrator. She is full of life and observes her fellows and elders with sharpness and humor. She likes to come off as worldly-wise to men, but in Claudine at School, her affections are directed mostly at the sly and pretty Aimee, the assistant teacher. Aimee’s head gets turned by the headmistress, however, and Claudine must settle for being amused at the pair’s indiscretion and sometimes neglectful management of the school.

Claudine is admired by the younger set – particularly Aimee’s little sister, Luce – and has varying levels of companionship with her own class. She likes to insult the “lanky” Anais, but Anais is probably the classmate almost Claudine’s equal in cleverness and perception.

I think I really love stories set in small schools in the past. Last year, I loved all the scenes set at the Montana one-room schoolhouse in Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season. I like seeing the push and pull between the schoolchildren who are stuck together year after year. My favorite parts in Claudine at School were when the classmates were thrown even closer together due to shared experiences, such as the Certificate exams in Claudine at School or preparing for a French official’s visit to town. I think I liked these parts because I liked seeing Claudine get caught up with the communal effort. She’s usually looking to be the individual at all times, but then there are these times where she clearly enjoys the place she has made for herself in her small community.

I also enjoyed reading a book about a teenager where her schoolwork is actually something noted and discussed alongside the interpersonal shenanigans. Take this wonderful little passage:

Only a fortnight till the Certificate! June oppresses us. We bake, half asleep, in the classrooms; we’re silent from listlessness: I’m too languid to keep my diary. And in this furnace heat, we still have to criticize the conduct of Louis XV, explain the role of the gastric juices in the process of digestion, sketch acanthus leaves and divide the auditory apparatus into the inner ear, the middle ear and the outer ear. There’s no justice on the earth! Louis XV did what he wanted to do, it’s nothing to do with me!

p. 112

I had thought I might read the complete Claudine (which in this anthology also includes Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, and Claudine and Annie). However, after some pages into Claudine in Paris, I realized that I preferred her in the school setting.

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair – ” . . . reading this book was like drinking champagne-all light and bubbly, but at the same time quite memorable.”

The Friande – “Descriptions of everything around her are so French, and full of Claudine’s sheer love of life that I was quite sad to leave the late 1800′s town.”

The Zen Leaf – “Claudine at School is a very flippant, naive, childish sort of book where absolutely nothing happens . . . Claudine is an obnoxious character, ridiculous and silly in the worst kind of way, and all the girls seem to act like stereotypes.”


Filed under Uncategorized

BAND Discussion: Favorite Type of Non-Fiction

Recently, a few book bloggers have started the Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees (BAND) – “Advocates for Nonfiction as a Non- Chore.” BAND members will be hosting monthly discussions related to nonfiction.

Well, I’m on board with that! Nonfiction has been a part of my regular reading diet for a while; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm was one of the first books that demonstrated to me how engrossing nonfiction reads can be. And to echo what Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness says, nonfiction is not a monolithic category – there are so many types of nonfiction out there, and so many subjects.

The BAND discussion question for July addresses this aspect of nonfiction by asking: What is one of your favorite types of nonfiction to read? OR What is one of your favorite nonfiction topics to read about?

The answer to this question is probably not a surprise to most readers of this blog, for I have mentioned several times that I am fond of the travel writing subgenre. (Not sure what the official subgenre name is so I use travelogue / travel narrative / travel memoir interchangeably.)

But to be even more specific, my favorite travelogues seem to be those where things don’t go according to plan. I’m tempted to call this type of travelogue, the travel thriller, although sometimes the mishaps are more funny than scary.

I know that some of my best personal stories about traveling involve the unexpected, even the unwelcome, like this one time when the Glasgow hostel’s last-minute “holiday suite” accommodations turned out to be some guy’s flat.  I know that when things went wrong on my own trips to unfamiliar places, I learned so much about my own and my friends’ resourcefulness.

Most travel narratives involve the comparison of the traveler’s culture with the cultures encountered in the traveler’s journey. The misadventure travel narrative often is the result of amplified cultural differences or misunderstandings. In the scarier travelogues, the travel writer is suspected of being an enemy or threat by a specific group and treated with aggression, even hostility. The traveler gets out of his or her depth, fast.  Or the journey is in wilderness and things don’t go according to plan because nature laughs at the traveler’s plans.

Here are my three highly recommended misadventure travel narratives:
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is definitely a humorous misadventure, at least as Bryson tells it. Bryson and his even more ill-prepared friend Katz take on the Appalachian trail. It’s been a few years since I read this, but I clearly remember a scene where, in Maine, Katz goes flailing off-trail down a hill toward a distantly seen lake.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman is a nailbiting account of Susie’s post-college graduation trip to China in the late 1980’s, when the country was only newly open to backpackers. Susie travels with a college friend, Claire and both become sick at different times in the trip. Even worse, Claire starts behaving strangely, leading to a nightmarish situation for both of them.

The Cloud Garden by Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder is a joint account of the authors’ experiences in the Darien Gap (which is at the Colombian / Panamanian border). In 2000, the two British men decided to travel across the Darien Gap on foot despite repeated warnings about its danger. The two were kidnapped by FARC guerrillas and were held for nine months in various locations within the rainforested area.


Filed under Non-Fiction

Library Loot: July 27

  Library Loot is a weekly meme hosted by Claire of The Captive Reader and Marg of The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader.  Readers share what library books they have picked up recently.  Marg is hosting this week.

This library loot post is actually the accumulation of several library trips, adding up to quite a lot.

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch

– I’ve heard high praise for Gourevitch’s book about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It has a heck of a title.

Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan

– This was one of the ‘it’ books for a little while, five stories about children, set in various countries within Africa. Its cover has always drawn my eye. I’ve read the first two stories so far.

On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

This story covers about fifty years in the life of  Molly Petree, a young woman from North Carolina whose parents are killed in the Civil War.  This will be the third book I have read by Lee Smith – I love Smith’s storytelling style, and her knack for telling stories that take place over many years.

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

– I really love the sounds of this one. From the jacket: “Blending reminiscence with history; family photographs with portraits of poets and pashas; art criticism, metaphysical musing, and now and again, a fanciful tale, Orhan Pamuk invents an ingenious form to evoke his lifelong home, the city that forged his imagination.”

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

– This was one of my favorite summer reads a few years ago and I decided to treat myself to it again.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

– One of those books that is a well-known entity, but I haven’t got around to reading it myself. Soon I will.

On the Prowl by Patricia Briggs, Eileen Wilks, Karen Chance and Sunny

This is a collection of four urban fantasy stories. I’m checking it out mainly for Briggs’ story “Alpha and Omega” which is the story that started off her Alpha and Omega werewolf series, a sort of spinoff series for Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series.

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild

– This non-fiction book chronicles the anti-slavery movement as it occurred in Great Britain. I will probably rewatch the film Amazing Grace after reading this.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben

– I’ve read two of McKibben’s books, but I haven’t read this recent book of his.

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

– This is a short memoir about the author’s experience helping to raise his grandchildren after his daughter – their mother – dies unexpectedly.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

– A comic novel about the workplace.


Filed under Library Loot

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner

1984. Vintage. Paperback. 184 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: Thomas of My Porch has talked about Anita Brookner a lot on his blog, especially leading up to the recent book-blogger organized International Anita Brookner Day

In a nutshell:

The book opens as Edith Hope, a British romance writer in her late thirties, contemplates her room in the Hotel du Lac, a quiet establishment in Switzerland. She has gone there – one might say, she has been sent there – because of a recent scandal that she caused. During her stay, she meets the assortment of guests who are staying at the hotel at the end of the season. These guests are: stone-deaf, elderly Frenchwoman, Mme Bonneuil; well-dressed, acerbic Monica with her little lap-dog; Mrs. Pusey and her adult daughter Jennifer who seem inseparable, and the enigmatic Mr. Neville.


I liked this book; Brookner has a precise and aware way of writing. It makes me think of laying out silverware and place settings somehow.

The female guests at Hotel du Lac are well-off women but are on the margins of society for various reasons. Mrs. Pusey is a widow, who clings to her unmarried daughter.  Monica, who has an eating disorder, has been sent by her husband to the Hotel in hopes that she might be restored “to working order” and be able to produce an heir. Mme de Bonneuil is shuttled from summer to winter quarters by the son whom she loves but who rarely visits her.

Edith has never been married. In her reflections on past events and in her interactions at the Hotel du Lac, the reader sees that her unmarried status is something her friends and even new acquaintances regard as something to be fixed if possible. It’s not a new theme, but I like that Brookner doesn’t make Edith a stock unmarried character with broadly painted desperation or defiance. Edith is well-drawn, a complex person who sees the appeal of marriage, who has known love, but finds herself without the romantic ending she gives to the characters of her books.

I like Hotel du Lac especially for its ending. So much can hang on an ending. Edith is a sad, quiet figure but it’s not because she is weak or pathetic. Her decisiveness in the end was a triumphant moment for her character, but it’s not a triumph that anyone else in her life would notice. And that resonates with me: there’s so much that happens in one’s head – resolutions, a struggle overcome – that are hard to convey to other people.

Other reviews (culled from the International Anita Brookner Day blog):

The Boston Bibliophile – ” . . . a novel that resembles Jane Austen written in a contemporary style, but with an emphasis on the pathos. [Brookner] uses the very Austenian theme of women’s economic vulnerability but instead of marriage solving life’s problems, she asks if the material rewards of dependence engender a kind of complacency or even rot.”

Pages of Julia – “The book might be read as a statement on love or marriage, but I feel like this subject matter is incidental; to me, it’s more of a book of tone, of language, and of character sketches. (How fascinating is Mrs. Pusey as a creature?)”

Stuck in a Book – ” . . . nothing felt vital or vivid to me. Edith is quite a boring person, but that wouldn’t matter if she had not also been a boring character.”



Filed under Book Review

Counter Culture by Candacy A. Taylor

2009. Cornell University Press. 142 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: Nan of Letters from a Hill Farm

In a nutshell:

From Taylor’s introduction to her book: “This book is not a scholarly study, a memoir, or a historical account of waitressing. And even though there are photographs throughout the book, it’s more than a coffee-table book of a pop culture icon. It combines interview excerpts, cultural criticism, photography, and oral history to recognize an overlooked group of working women who have brought meaning and culture to the American roadside dining experience.” (p. 4)


I have never been a waitress, choosing retail work for my summer jobs instead. I got to know a number of waitresses though, as I spent three summers living in a women’s hostel in a New England tourist town. Although retail yielded its own tales of customers-gone-bad and cranky management, waitresses generally seemed to have it worse. I admired waitresses mostly for what they had to put up with.

Candacy A. Taylor’s book, Counter Culture, focuses more on the incredible skill and sense of service of career waitresses. Almost of all the women she quotes or profiles in the book have been working for decades as diner waitresses, some for forty to sixty years. They have plenty of anecdotes to share and an obvious pride in their work.

One chapter of the book is called “The Waitressing Stigma,” where Taylor explores the historical and current stereotypes of waitresses. Some waitresses didn’t tell their family where they worked; one waitress’ mother thought that waitresses were “trashy people and alcoholics.” People assume waitresses use their sexuality to get tips. Customers also assume waitresses are stupid as demonstrated in this anecdote:

At the Seville Diner, a customer told Sammi DeAngelis, “You’re just doing this because you are not smart enough to do anything else.” Sammi said, “Excuse me? I have a degree, I could be teaching. I’ve done public relations and business management . . . . I tell you what, if you can do my job for an hour, this money is yours.” After an hour, the customer said, “I’ve been watching you and you know that last table was really a handful. Maybe I couldn’t do your job.” Sammi said, ‘Really? What part of it didn’t you get: the public relations, the psychology, the physical?’ I wasn’t nasty, but she respected my honesty. Now she’s one of my regular customers, she likes to sit with me so she can watch me work.”

p. 81

The photographs in the book are great, because there is so much character and life apparent in the faces of the career waitresses and their ‘regulars.’

I was disappointed in the career waitresses’ nearly uniform dismissal of the younger generation of waitresses. The older waitresses complain about the younger generation’s lack of heart for the work, lack of discipline and care. They tell anecdotes about they went into work with a broken toe, a foot cut by a weed-whacker, and other ailments, and how they rarely if ever take sick days. It’s a little too much of the “when I went to school, I walked 10 miles in the snow . . .” type rhetoric for me. I am at the very beginning of the Millennial Generation, depending on how its defined, and I know there are hard-workers and entitled, lazy persons of every generation. Taylor does note that truth, but it still didn’t stop me from feeling some annoyance at the career waitresses’ categorical dismissal of the younger set.

That annoyance aside, this was a thoughtful and interesting book and made me wish I was a ‘regular’ at a place with one of these career waitresses.

Others’ reviews:

Citizen Reader – “Although I’m just glad it was published by someone (in this case, the Cornell University Press), this is the sort of book that should be published by a mainstream trade publisher, and which should become a bestseller. If there were any justice in the world, anyway, that’s the way it would be.”

Letters from a Hill Farm – “It is informative, fascinating, warm-hearted, and entertaining. I’ve never read anything like it.”


Filed under Non-Fiction

One Day by David Nicholls

2009. Vintage Contemporaries. Paperback. 435 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from:

I first noticed this book when I read Jess’ review of it on her blog, Park Benches & Bookends.

In a nutshell:

The story begins after the main characters, Emma and Dexter, spend the night together after their college graduation. The day is July 15th. Nicholls then captures the next twenty years of their lives by ‘dropping in’ on the two characters on July 15th of each subsequent year. Sometimes Emma and Dexter are in touch and sometimes they are not. It is a love story of a kind.


Just because I could, I symbolically started this book on July 15th. I finished it a few days later. What I like about the book is how Nicholls conveys how hard it is to connect to other people: how we blunder, misunderstand, and awkwardly speak and act to each other. It can be uncomfortable to read at times, but also I’m glad of its honesty. I can get annoyed with books where the characters intuitively understand one another all of the time. Also, by showing how fraught human communication is, Nicholls shows the wonderful value of those moments of real connection.

The characters, especially Emma, can be very funny and self-deprecating, and the book has some good humor throughout. That said, there are some sections that are rougher than others. Dexter’s alcoholic bouts are painful and hard to read for example. The sense of regret is a recurring emotion, as the reader sees how the characters’ life paths get diverted and stalled out, even wasted at times.

The novel is hopeful, really, even with its tragedies. There may be a couple, or really one, plot point that felt jarring and unnecessary to me, but I’m better at accepting it now than I was when I finished the book yesterday.

I wouldn’t necessarily consider One Day to be a must-read, but it’s a very good book and if it intrigues you, I don’t think you will be disappointed in it.

Others’ reviews:

The Captive Reader – “The banter between Emma and Dexter is terribly amusing and had me giggling aloud several times.  All too often, such back-and-forth feels forced, more onerous than humourous . . .”

Life . . . With Books  – “When reading, I found myself utterly absorbed, and I was always wondering where the next July 15 would find Dex and Em and what they would be doing. The only real quibble I had with the book is that I wish Nicholls hadn’t chosen to give Dex and Em such “glamorous” careers at various points. I didn’t think the book needed it to “goose” up the drama/comedy, but it is a minor complaint.”  (My note: I totally agree with this minor complaint!)

Park Benches & Bookends – “The two main characters are not perfect in fact sometimes I just wanted slap them but ultimately I really wanted them to find happiness with each other.”


Filed under Uncategorized

This Life Is In Your Hands by Melissa Coleman (DNF)

Well, this is too bad. I was looking forward to This Life Is In Your Hands. It’s a memoir set in Maine (where I grew up), and about a family that seeks to live off the land on an organic farm in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, after giving the book the ol’ 50-page try and I found I just could not continue further.

As I often do when I’m about to abandon a book, I scanned down the Goodreads reviews, seeking affirmation for my decision.  And this phrase by a reviewer named Miri hit on one of my major problems with the book: “It’s all too much, tries too hard to be epic and ethereal and philosophical.”

Ironically, on Miri’s own blog through the looking-glass (which I found just now while looking up her GR review) she quotes someone else’s GR review, a review that also had affirmed me in my decision to stop reading This Life is in Your Hands.

But yes, let’s get direct now, what are my thoughts on the book. Well, the word “overwritten” popped into my head as soon as I finished reading the prologue. An excerpt from the prologue:

As Mama whooshed out the screen door with hair flowing and child-on-back, the kitchen breathed chopped parsley and vegetable soup simmering on the stove, and the light glowed through the kitchen windows onto the crooked pine floors of the old farmhouse where I stood waiting.

It was a charmed summer, that summer of 1975, even more so because we didn’t know how peaceful it was in comparison to the one that would follow . . .

As the bell chimed, Helen took my small hand and turned it upward in hers. The kitchen was warm, but her skin cool and leathery. Mama returned with Heidi as I stood long-hair-braided and six-years-brave, holding my breath.

p. 1-2

I totally get that there’s some beautiful language there, but the writing is so heavy with the strain of earnestness and portent. It’s hard to convey with just a short excerpt, and I probably sound unduly harsh as a result, but I couldn’t get past how labored the writing came across to me in all the pages that I read. Obviously, the writing style will suit some readers more than others. But for those readers who often find that too-beautiful writing is also inert, I’m writing this DNF review for you.

But it’s more than the writing style that made me throw in the towel at 50 pages. Coleman writes about her parents’ lives from before she was born and when she was an infant, as if it was something she remembered, as if she knew what was going on in their heads at the time. It’s a risky writing gambit, and one can see the appeal of not having to couch each strictly parental moment with attributions and citing sources. Still, it was weird to read passages like the following about events that occurred when the author was just a baby:

“What?” Mama asked, propping on one elbow to reveal her sleep-weary face and matted hair. Papa’s blue eyes met her brown ones with a twinkle, the touch of premature gray in his hair a foil to the youthfulness of his mood.

“Get up, come see,” he said, disappearing down the ladder. A thrill lit up her spine.

p. 42

It is obvious that Coleman is proud of her parents despite all that eventually happened (the events of which I know from the book jacket). But that vestigial reverence combined with the writing style and the oddly omniscient viewpoint combine to make her parents not seem like real people – in fact, to be strangely uninteresting to me as a reader, despite the interesting things they did.

Sorry for going on so long on a did-not-finish book, but I’m not always able to articulate why I stop reading a book, so I find it gratifying when I can articulate it.

Others’ reviews:

5 minutes for books – “The writing is absolutely riveting and it makes for a great read for anyone who likes memoir, especially those who might be interested in organic farming and natural foods.”

my books. my life – “It’s a book that will make you evaluate the important things in life as you reflect on the Coleman’s attempt at homesteading.”

Sophisticated Dorkiness (the review that made me pick up the book) – “Coleman’s writing is elegant. I loved the way she captured herself and her family at different moments in time — contrasting the idealism and and uncertainty of different ages and times with ease.”


Filed under Uncategorized

Teaser Tuesday: Claudine at School

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme,  hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.


My teaser is from my current read, Claudine at School, by Colette. The context for the following quote is that Claudine is at home with a bad cold and only her beloved cat Fanchette for company. This quote is part of a general ode to Fanchette.

You amused me from the moment you came into the world; you’d only got one eye open when you were already attempting warlike steps in your basket, though you were still incapable of standing up on your four matchsticks. Ever since, you’ve lived joyously, making me laugh with your bellydances in honour of cockchafers and butterflies, your clumsy calls to the birds you’re stalking, your way of quarrelling with me and giving me sharp taps that re-echo on my hands.

p. 105

(A cockchafer is a type of beetle – I had to look it up as I’d never seen the word before.)



Filed under Teaser Tuesday

Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon

  1984. Vintage Books. Paperback. 183 pages.


Bought this at Books Inc, an independent bookseller, at their location on Chestnut St. in San Francisco.

In a nutshell:

Naturalist O’Hanlon and his fellow scholar-adventurer, James Fenton embark on a river journey deep into the forests of Borneo. They are guided by three Iban men: authoritative Headman Dana, small and quiet Inghai, and their main translator, the lively lothario, Leon.


As one can buy most books anywhere in the country, books aren’t my usual souvenirs. However, the Chestnut St. location of Books Inc. was near the motel where my friends and I were staying in San Francisco. I wandered in one night while my friends trekked further on a fervent quest for dessert. The bookshelves were dotted with recommendation notes from the staff. Into the Heart of Borneo had a few particularly convincing words of praise and I’d never heard of it before. When I brought it up to the cash register, it turned out that the guy behind the counter was the one who wrote the recommendation. So, very cool.

Travel narratives set in remote places like Borneo are intrinsically interesting to me, because I’m bound to learn something new about other people and cultures. This is certainly true of O’Hanlon’s book. Before reading Into the Heart of Borneo, I couldn’t name any of the peoples that call that island home or much about their way of life. And while this small book is by no means a primer on those subjects, new historical and cultural information is easily set side by side with the events of O’Hanlon’s trip.

O’Hanlon’s storytelling style is witty, self-deprecating and observant. The two British guys are definitely out of their element and entrust themselves to the skillful, good-humored guidance of Dana, Leon and Inghai. O’Hanlon has a number of things which cause him trepidation both before and during the trip. There are the tales of cannibalism and headhunters and death-by-blowpipe that officials and old books regale to him. The extraordinary diversity of fauna in Borneo includes poisonous snakes and a number of parasites, including threadlike worms that are barely perceptible when one goes to drink freshwater. O’Hanlon is also vicariously horrified and intrigued by the use of the palang by some of the men in Borneo. A palang is a tube that is inserted in a pierced hole of a man’s, um, instrument, apparently for the enhancement of pleasure.

I liked how O’Hanlon and Fenton both insisted on bringing a number of books with them on the journey. O’Hanlon’s illustrated natural history books provide some wonderful moments of cross-cultural connection when people from the Iban, Kenyah and Ukit tribes recognize the pictured animals and birds of their homeland. He also quotes liberally from these books in his narrative, but is judicious in his choice of quotes. Fenton hauls along Les Miserables.

I have observed in other travelogues and even in my own trips that there will be at least one or two recurring themes or motifs. It may be something explicitly sought out, like O’Hanlon’s desire to see evidence of a Borneo rhinocerous or find someone who has seen one. Or it may be a combination of the observer and the place: as O’Hanlon is a naturalist, the trip is punctuated by bird sightings. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a bird enthusiast to appreciate the avian-themed events, as O’Hanlon does  a good job of explaining his enthusiasm. He doesn’t assume that the reader will automatically feel as excited as he did in seeing such birds as a pair of hornbills or a Crested serpent eagle.

There are a number of times where O’Hanlon and Fenton are made uneasy by cultural differences. For example, O’Hanlon experiences some consternation when Leon sets his amorous sights on a very young teenage Kenyah girl. Also, when a Malay woman is injured during a party near the end of the book, O’Hanlon and Fenton clash with one of their hosts who is indifferent to the woman’s plight.

I’d been disappointed by some of the travel books that I’ve read this year, so I’m really glad to have picked up Into the Heart of Borneo which captures some of my favorite elements of the genre: fascinating locale, a gift for storytelling, memorable travel companions, and stuff actually happens. (I get impatient when the main purpose of the travelogue is the author ‘finding him or herself’.)

A couple of excerpts in conclusion to give a taste:

I looked at my legs. And then I looked again. They were undulating with leeches . . . They were all over my boots, too, and three particularly brave individuals were trying to make their way in via the air-holes. There were more on the way – in fact they were moving towards us across the jungle floor from every angle, their damp brown bodies half-camouflaged against the rotting leaves.

“Oh God,” said James, “they are really pleased to see us.

p. 117

. . . I sat down by the central tallow lamp as night came down, and began to look again with delighted disbelief at all the montane and submontane species which Smythies illustrates in The Birds of Borneo. The resident old woman, stopping her weaving of small pieces of fishing net, came and squatted down beside me on her haunches. I turned over the plates, very slowly. She bent forward, intrigued, and her distended, looped earlobes, weighted with some twenty brass rings apiece, cast two ellipses of shadow across the rough planks of the floor. It seemed to take her some time to realise that the pictures were images of birds, birds that she knew; and then she uncurled a thin arm from around herself and pointed with a creaky finger on which all the joints were swollen. It was Plate III, the Borneo raptors, and she pointed at the Brahminy kite, Haliastur indus intermedius. Tentatively, she stroked its red-brown back; and then she turned, her old eyes alight, and she smiled at me with one set of lips and one set of gums.

p. 85

Other reviews:

Are you sitting comfortably . . . ? – “This book will make you laugh, and in some parts wince, but mostly laugh.  It will also make you want to go to Borneo.  The way he incorporates the wildlife and nature into the books makes you realise just how fascinating nature really is . . .”

John Bokma – “The book is simply fantastic. It has a lot of humor, enough to make me laugh out loud plenty of times . . . The two things that bothered me about “Into the heart of Borneo” is that I would love to have seen some of the photos Redmond O’Hanlon took, and the book ends rather abruptly.”

Please click on photo for attribution.


Filed under Travel Writing

River Marked by Patricia Briggs

2011. Ace Books. Hardcover. 326 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell (slight spoilers if you’ve never read the series):

River Marked is #6 in Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Mercy Thompson is a shapeshifter who can turn into a coyote. This ability was presumably passed to her from her Native American father who died before she was born. In this book Adam (the Alpha werewolf of the local pack) and Mercy get married and go on a honeymoon on the banks of the Columbia River. While there, Mercy sees the ghost of her father. This vision is the harbinger for her reconnection to her Native American heritage, from which she has always felt estranged. In addition, Adam and Mercy must deal with an ancient murderous evil that has awakened in the river.


The Mercy Thompson series was my introduction to the urban fantasy genre, and while my interest in that genre has faded over the past year, my interest in the series remained firm. I love the character of Mercy for her abilities, her down-to-earth vibe, and her love for her friends and family.

The book just before this one – the fifth book of this series, Silver Borne – had been a minor disappointment for me. The plot was convoluted and featured too much of the werewolf-pack politics, at least for my tastes. River Marked really hit the spot for me because it focused on Mercy’s supernatural lineage.

One of the main fascinations for me with this series has been Mercy’s loner status. Partly because Mercy has kept her powers a secret, she has been able to surprise and elude many villains and other morally ambiguous types throughout the novels. It is so much fun to read when Mercy turns into a coyote and I miss it when a book skimps on Mercy’s shapeshifting scenes.

As explained in prior books, Mercy’s mother sent Mercy to be raised by werewolves, as their shapeshifting nature was the most similar to Mercy’s own power. However, werewolves are European in origin, just like the fae and the vampires. Mercy’s Native American supernatural forebears were presumably hunted down and scattered by these European brands of magical beings. Up until now, Mercy has never known another of her kind or even the history of shapeshifters like her. That all changes in River Marked.

I don’t want to give away too much about what Mercy discovers about her heritage, but I will say that this discovery goes hand-in-hand with meeting some of notable mythological figures from Native American folklore and it is pretty cool.

Alongside this personal journey for Mercy, she and Adam also face a continuous series of threats. It starts with the rescue of a badly injured man in a boat one night and reaches its climax in a desperate battle in the river. There is also an exciting and a bit funny hand-to-hand combat between Mercy and a surprise opponent in a Wal-Mart changing room.

The book starts a little slow and clunky, due to the massive amount of background exposition that Briggs has to try and work into the beginning. I definitely needed the exposition to review what had happened in the previous books, but it was still awkward in spots. However, once Mercy and Adam are on their way to the honeymoon, the writing smooths out.

So, fans of the series, there’s a lot to like in River Marked. And if you’ve never read the series before, the first one is called Moon Called. Ignore the trashy-looking cover and dive in!

Other reviews:

Janicu’s Book Blog – “I’d call this a solid, maybe a bit muted installment of the Mercy Thompson series. With 5 books of non-stop action, there had to be a bit of a breather where Mercy could pull back a little and have the focus on herself and this was it.”

Love Vampires – “Briggs adds Native American mythology into her already bulging bag of fantasy beasties and manages to seamlessly incorporate them into her fantasy world without getting caught up on the different mythological ideologies.”

Spaz Reviews – “The Mercy Thompson series is one beautiful example of how the heroine in a series can find love and yet the series continues to grow and remain as entertaining and interesting, if not more so.”

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