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Book Review: Hot Season by Susan DeFreitas

Hot SeasonUndergrads navigating a desert year during the Bush Administration frame this debut novel from Susan DeFreitas.

Deep Canyon College is an environmentally-focused mecca in the historic Wild West town of Crest Top, Arizona where three roommates try to find their path. Jenna, the freshman soil science major, doesn’t know how to leave a stagnant high school relationship. Katie, eager to escape the shadow of her pseudo-liberal politician mother, finds herself drawn to activism. The graduating senior of the house, Rell, tries to decide where her life will lead as she finishes her senior thesis on pyrophitic plants. Pyrophytes are native Southwest species that thrive in the intense heat of the desert. They produce inflammable oils to encourage the spread of wildfires and must burn in order to germinate. It’s an apt metaphor for the women as they struggle through these formative college years, but the environment is much more than a useful mirror for DeFreitas’s characters.

The central conflict of the book charts the battle over the Greene River. Developers want to drain it in order to build another hundred thousand houses in Crest Top, causing concerned citizens to protest by every means available. One of the major strengths of HOT SEASON is the range of character reactions to the threat to Greene River. In the consciousness of this college town, where residents raise goats, live in tree houses, and climb mountains to sit at the invisible shore of a long-extinct ocean, environmentalist is a word that quickly loses any power to distinguish. We meet a spectrum of people concerned about the desert they call home, and each of them wrestles with their individual responsibility. Should they protest, sign petitions, rally at a court hearing? Do they turn their back in frustration or become the aggressor, sliding into the illegal realm of “eco-terrorism?” These questions resonate with readers, we who also struggle with the nuance of our beliefs and finding the balance between doing what’s right and the exhaustion of making those choices in a society designed against them.

DeFreitas superbly brings the college world to life for Jenna, Katie, and Rell, complete with the details we all remember: the brief encounter with the guy wanted by the FBI, the spontaneous night out at the club, relationship turmoil, and the looming question always in the background of every undergrad’s mind—What will I do next? The next thing for us as readers is simple; enjoy the gorgeous prose and thought-provoking narrative in HOT SEASON, and wait for the next novel from this talented writer.

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Book Review: Rescued

RescuedRescued, Eliot Schrefer’s third entry in his anticipated quartet of ape novels published by Scholastic, represents a departure in many ways from the first two books in the series. Endangered and Threatened both took place in Africa and featured early teen narrators fighting to survive alongside bonobos and chimpanzees. In Rescued, Schrefer brings his series to the United States and introduces us to John, a sixteen-year-old football player who is the product of a broken home, and Raja, the orangutan his father smuggled into the country to become the family’s pet.

We first meet these two as they are separated, Raja banished to the backyard and a younger John bedridden with a pneumonia that may have been contracted from Raja. They communicate by a homemade sign language through John’s bedroom window and eventually Raja becomes desperate to reunite, breaking the window frame and ultimately wounding John. Fast forward four years and John is living across the country with his mother while Raja has stayed behind with John’s unemployed father. Unable to keep Raja or his foreclosed house, John’s father contacts a place called Friendly Land—a tourist attraction with rides and exotic animals—that John begins to suspect will not provide a good home for Raja. He flies across the country to say goodbye to his childhood best friend, but as the reality of what’s happening sinks in, John makes the impulsive decision to rescue Raja and try to deliver him to a better life.

The first two books in this series felt like twins. Their adolescent narrators were thrown into extraordinary, life threatening situations where humans were the enemy and the animal world was their only chance for survival. This book feels like the older sibling to the first two, still family, but navigating on an entirely different plane of existence. We are in the U.S. now, where no apes live free, and our late-teen narrator must deal with the less exciting adult world of animal rights issues like property laws, court cases, and political bureaucracy. It probably reflects poorly on my worldview that I was more skeptical about a senator amending an animal transfer order than I was about a boy living alone in the jungle with a troop of chimpanzees.

Schrefer embraces the adult tone in Rescued by spotlighting many animal rights issues throughout the narrative and he’s not shy about making his point. He dives into the ethics and politics of the palm oil plantations that are destroying orangutan habitat. Through John’s father, he shows how orangutans are orphaned or killed and as Raja ages, we understand all too clearly what happens to exotic pets when they’ve outgrown their cute infant phase. Schrefer even takes time to call out Air France as the only commercial airline still willing to transport kidnapped animals used in research facilities in the United States.

In all three of his ape novels Schrefer does an outstanding job creating vibrant, true-to-life animal characters and passing a wealth of knowledge about their species to his audience. The series is worth reading for the education alone, but the fast-paced plots and sympathetic human characters will keep you spellbound until the last page. A solid entry in Schrefer’s ape quartet as we wait for the final book and think about the gorillas to come.

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Book Review: We Are All Crew by Bill Landauer

I have to make a confession. In writing circles, there are certain types of books one is supposed to hold dearer than all others. Important books. Literary books. Books that bravely ponder the desperate squalor of the human condition.

I hate these books.

The truth is I’m a complete plot junkie. I want to read a book that will keep me up until three in the morning because I have to know what comes next. If the book happens to be Dostoyevsky—awesome; I’ll stay up all night pondering that desperate squalor, but Fyodor better keep the blood pumping. Enter We Are All Crew (2015, Akashic Books) by Bill Landauer. This eye-popping page turner hits on all levels and, I’m happy to say, will keep you up way past your bedtime.

We Are All CrewWe Are All Crew is the story of two fourteen-year-old boys, Winthrop and Arthur, who escape from summer camp and attempt to hitchhike across the country in pursuit of that ultimate teenage dream—to see their favorite band play live in concert. Naturally this proves far more difficult than they could’ve ever imagined. They catch a ride on the Tamzene, a mysterious, strangely built boat powered entirely by hemp, and are immediately recruited in a battle between environmental crusaders and a deadly, government agency. Winthrop, the narrator, is a teenager you might recognize. He’s a fast talking, pop-culture soaked video game addict whose innocence and ignorance go hand in hand, as seen in lines like, “The air doesn’t smell like the city either; it smells like the river always has—like dead fish and chemicals.” One minute he’s cowering and wishing for his mother and the next he’s looking at a crew mate’s tattoos and informing us, “His tats are badass, people.” Winthrop’s irresistible, Caulfield-esque voice is addictive; I hated to leave him when the book ended. What sets Winthrop apart from most teenagers though, is that he’s the son of a prominent politician and the war he stumbles into will make him question everything he’s been brought to believe.

This is already a fresh, exhilarating story with a conscience, but Landauer takes the narrative to an entirely new level by introducing a third party to this environmental battle: the environment. This is the voice that greets you in the opening line of the book: “The trees tried to murder the boys.” That’s right. The trees are talking. The trees, the frogs, the birds, and don’t get me started on the terrifying squirrels. Nature itself is given a point of view in We Are All Crew, and that point of view is royally pissed off about what “the two-legged pigs” have done to the world. I found myself eavesdropping alongside a murder of crows and cheering for kamikaze beavers. As the Tamzene tries to make its way across the country, we are given amazing perspectives most readers have never imagined. Landauer channels Emerson loud and clear when he said, “The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.” By using this mesmerizing point of view, Landauer broadens the reader’s perspective. He makes you reevaluate your opinion on who or what can own a story and by the time the book is over, all other human-only stories—you know, those important books—will seem foolishly one-sided. The desperate squalor of the human condition, in other words, becomes eclipsed by the wretched mess we’ve made of our planet.

Talking trees? Government agencies that hunt down environmentalists? This all sounds a little surreal, you say. Landauer seems to anticipate a hesitation in our suspension of disbelief and scatters real life quotes throughout the book that are guaranteed to turn your stomach. “The radio cackles: ‘We’re out to kill the fuckers. We’re simply trying to eliminate them. Our goal is to destroy environmentalism once and for all.’” This little ray of sunshine comes from Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. The Tamzene’s radio brings other similar doses of reality, but it’s the fantastic elements of this book that hit home for me, where the spot-on hyperboles grow legs and are let loose to run. A covert operative from the NSA has a child whose vocal cords are strangled. An entire town is under the control of a giant television. And somehow through every crazy twist and turn of their adventure, as Winthrop and Arthur navigate a country of lost icons and disintegrating societies, they retain all their energy, humor, and that irresistible childhood faith that things have to turn out all right in the end.

Bill Landauer
Bill Landauer

I should say this book is for anyone who’s looking for a coming of age thriller with imagination, guts, and soul, but the truth is this book deserves to attract a much bigger audience. Important book people, I’m looking at you. Plot junkies? Jump on board. The Tamzene is ready to set sail.

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Book Review: Steelies and Other Endangered Species: Stories on Water, by Rebecca Lawton

Steelies and Other Endangered Species: Stories on WaterI began reading this short story collection during a stay at a tiny cabin on Minnesota’s Gull Lake and couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setting to enjoy Rebecca Lawton’s stories. Flipping pages to the soundtrack of the waves hitting the shore, I became effortlessly drawn in to the worlds of the Western whitewater river guides. The stories span decades and many circle the lives of two female guides, R.J. and Mare, who make the rivers their home. In the only story in which they appear together, “Weaker than Water,” they discuss the river they are navigating:

This is unbelievably high water.
Yeah, Mare. Un-fucking-believably high. Way higher than it’s supposed to get anymore.
But it’s only water, right? Nothing’s weaker.
Yeah. It can only kill you.

True to the collection’s name, Lawton returns to water again and again; its power, its suddenness, and its necessity to all life. Every major character is in tune with water’s importance, from a spring that gives life to an endangered mountain lion or through the fossils encased in the waves of an ancient sandstone riverbed. Water seeps through the pages, until you can almost hear the sucking eddies and smell the rain, and even though the characters’ lives are easily as tumultuous as a wild river the writing never strays into the obvious metaphors. Lawton nods at the clichés swirling in front of her narrative and easily rows beyond their grip, as in this excerpt from “What I Never Told You.”

You swept like one more drop of water into the foam and waves and sharp falls that together pounded loud and thunderous. You’d spent nights under the dark sky and bright stars, watching the glow on far rims after the moon goes down. You had the distance in you.

What I loved most about this collection was its straightforward prose and glimpses of unexpected beauty. Lawton takes her readers on a river journey that spans every major milestone in human life—conception, love, loss, calling, and rebirth—while never forgetting that we are only here by the grace of the water that flows beneath us.

Publicity Still from Little Curlew Press

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Book Review: Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

ThreatenedEliot Schrefer’s Threatened reads like a thematic sequel to his 2012 National Book Award finalist Endangered. Both books tell the story of a teenager who leaves human society in Africa for the jungle and the company of other hominines. Where Endangered focused on a Congolese girl’s life changing journey with bonobos, Threatened moves east to Gabonese AIDS orphan, Luc, and his voyage into the jungle to study chimpanzees with a mysterious Egyptian professor. When the professor, Luc’s last link to the human world, disappears in the middle of the night, Luc finds himself turning to two similarly orphaned chimpanzees in his desperation for a family.

There are many things to admire in this novel. I appreciated Schrefer’s uncommon choice of a male protagonist in the young adult genre. It’s urban legend among writers that books with a young, male narrator can’t sell, and ironically their scarcity makes them that much more refreshing. For his part, Schrefer has done everything possible to debunk this myth. Luc shifts between despair and blazing, adolescent anger about everything he has lost in his life, setting the perfect emotional landscape to showcase chimpanzee society. Chimps are perceived to be extremely aggressive–more reading here on whether or not that may be true–and are capable of killing leopards, fellow chimps, and humans with ease. Schrefer himself, in the book’s afterward, noted this uncomfortable similarity between our species:

Very few animals live in patrilineal, male-bonded communities wherein females routinely reduce the risks of inbreeding by moving to neighboring groups to mate. And only two animal species are known to do so with a system of intense, male-initiated territorial aggression, including lethal raiding into neighboring communities in search of vulnerable enemies to attack and kill. Out of four thousand mammals and ten million or more other animal species, this suite of behaviors is known only among chimpanzees and humans. (Quoted from Demonic Males, by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson.)

Schrefer writes more deeply into this connection between our species, finding hope as well. Luc’s adopted chimpanzee family, a wounded adolescent male he names Drummer and a young, affectionate girl coined Mango, are an obvious mirror for Luc and his dead baby sister. When Luc figures out how to insert Drummer into a neighboring chimpanzee troop as the dominant alpha, it’s as clearly a triumph for Luc as the chimpanzee. Both boy and chimp are loyal, brave, and resilient: they are survivors.

The book’s postscript highlights the threats facing chimpanzees right now, namely the startling fact that only two countries in the world still allow laboratory testing on chimpanzees: Gabon and the United States. While the information alone is galvanizing, it’s a shame the postscript didn’t also include some direction or encouragement to get involved in chimpanzee protection.

My only real critique is that, as in Endangered, no truly cruelty-free point of view appears in the narrative. When the professor tries to teach Luc about animal rights, both sides of the conversation seem lacking.

I thought Prof had fallen asleep, but then he spoke up. “Don’t kill a chimpanzee,” he said dozily. “Please. Don’t ever. They’re trying to survive, like you and me, like we’ve always been fighting to do.”
I’d killed plenty of things that were fighting to survive – how else did anyone eat? But I understood what Prof was saying. The chimps were mock men, with family and hopes. I guessed that could make it different.

An animal’s right to live should not be based, as some of Schrefer’s characters suggest, on their genetic proximity to humans, but I understand this is a starting point for most people and a great way to begin children and young adults on their journey to compassionate adulthood.

Between Endangered and Threatened, Schrefer is making quite a name for himself as a literary primate champion. Whether or not you love chimpanzees, this is a beautifully written, page-turning story. I was captivated by Luc’s journey from the very first sentence and would recommend it to any young adult reader. A thriller with substance and heart.

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Book Review: Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

EndangeredI stumbled on Elliot Schrefer’s young adult novel Endangered while searching my library’s catalog for fiction about endangered species. Other than two genre novels, this was the only hit and it felt, well, a little too obvious. I probably should have noticed this title when it was released in 2012, or at the very least when it earned recognition from the ALA, NPR, or became a National Book Award finalist, so it was with some chagrin that I checked it out and sat down to read. And read. And read. This book is a serious page turner.

A veteran of the genre, Schrefer flawlessly constructs all the pillars of YA. We are immediately introduced to Sophie Biyoya-Ciardulli, the sulking fifteen-year-old narrator on her way to spend the summer with her mother in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “where even the bullet holes have bullet holes.” She impulsively buys an abused juvenile Bonobo from a roadside hawker and brings him to her mother’s Bonobo sanctuary outside the capital city of Kinshasa, but just as she settles into sanctuary life a terrorist siege takes over the country. Schrefer sends Sophie on a pulse pounding journey to find her mother—who travelled to another refuge before the violence started—while becoming a mother in her own right to the orphan Bonobo she rescued. Terrorists try to kill her and starving citizens will poach Bonobos, so they flee to the jungle in their struggle to survive.

Eliot Schrefer and Oshwe at a Bonobo sanctuary outside of Kinshasa
Eliot Schrefer and Oshwe at a Bonobo sanctuary outside of Kinshasa

While Schrefer uses a fast-paced plot and increasing danger to make YA storytelling look deceptively easy, he moves beyond it at the same time to deliver a multilayered experience. Take, for example, the fact that Sophie is half Italian and half Congolese. At the beginning of the story she bemoans that she doesn’t fit into either cultural world. This identity issue later becomes symbolic of the crisis; she can’t be part of the cities or the jungle, she has neither human nor animal home. By also using a removed narrator—Sophie is an adult on the verge of marriage as she recalls the ordeal—Schrefer manages to deliver a vital, nuanced portrait of a girl who learns the dichotomy of being a compassionate human. Sophie finds incredible strength in becoming the Bonobo’s guardian, while realizing how vulnerable they both are to the forces of violence and destruction.

While reading, I only had one point of critique that unfortunately surfaced a number of times in the narrative. Sophie makes repeated reference to the fact that Bonobos are the most genetically similar animal to humans and her objection to eating them is that it would be almost like cannibalism. It read like the weakest possible argument for animal protection; a species’ right to live depends on its genetic proximity to humans? I understand the narrator is only fifteen and still developing her moral compass, but I would have liked hearing a more comprehensive conservationist point of view from at least one of the other characters. Sophie herself makes some explanation for this absent viewpoint, when she quotes the chants of the terrorists that have invaded the Bonobo sanctuary.

“Banyama, banyama, pesa biso nyama, nyama!”

This translates to, “Animals, animals, give us meat, meat!” In Lingala, animal is just the plural form of meat.

The edition I read had a lot of great information in the appendix, including an author Q&A and a number of resources to learn more about Bonobos and get involved in their protection. I would recommend this book to every reader from middle school on up. Endangered is a gripping environmental and societal coming-of-age story, and if you enjoy this one, get ready for Threatened, Schrefer’s next title that moves north of the Congo river into the home of the chimpanzee. I know it will be on my must-read list.

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Book Review: Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Dame Daphne Sheldrick

Love, Life, and ElephantsLet’s start with a friendly reviewer disclaimer. I usually read fiction because I enjoy stories about uncompromising people who do extraordinary things. Memoir, biography, and autobiography don’t typically interest me because I couldn’t care less about famous or political figures and, to be frank, most of my attention for someone’s struggles and triumphs through life is reserved for family and friends. Enter Dame Daphne Sheldrick and her astounding autobiography, Love, Life and Elephants; An African Love Story. The book charts Sheldrick’s life from her grandparents’ immigration to Kenya, through her childhood playing in the WWII biltong camps, into her star-crossed love story, and the creation of her internationally praised animal orphanage that has saved hundreds of elephant’s lives. Fiction pales in comparison.

I wasn’t immediately hooked, however. The book starts unevenly with an account of how Sheldrick’s family came to settle in Kenya. She depicts them as brave, adventurous pioneers–and they undoubtedly embodied these qualities–but the unspoken imperialist presumption left me somewhat uncomfortable throughout the first chapter. It was only after the narrative settled into recounting Sheldrick’s own life that I became thoroughly engrossed.

Daphne Sheldrick was born and raised on her family’s ranch in Gilgil, sixty miles northwest of Nairobi. She attended boarding schools in Nakura and Nairobi and earned a full university scholarship in England, but decided instead to marry her high school sweetheart, Bill, who was an assistant warden at the recently created Tsavo National Park. The newlyweds moved to Tsavo, where David Sheldrick, a man who “was renowned for his film-star looks and had…an unusual reverence for life as well as a deep empathy for animals,” presided as warden. A gorgeous love story ensues, but it is only the first of many.

Sheldrick paints Tsavo so vividly that the landscape becomes a beloved character in its own right.

…opening my eyes to the spell of space and the contrasts that transformed the semi-desert of the brick red earth and grim leafless trees in the dry season to a vibrant painted paradise after the first rains. The first precious drops of rain had an intoxicating effect on us all.”

In this rugged environment, there is a constant struggle for survival. The park wardens battle poachers in an effort to protect the local elephants from the horrific and pervasive ivory trade, and a seeming parade of orphaned fauna gravitate towards the human occupants of Tsavo. Sheldrick gives detailed accounts of dozens of animals she cared for over the years, from Rufus the rhino to the tiny buffalo weaver named Gregory Peck. Some of the orphans thrive and others die, a few in such tragic circumstances that I was in tears, but every loss is framed by Sheldrick’s enduring hope and belief in the natural order.

Love, Life, and ElephantsIn tending these orphaned animals, Sheldrick developed the correct formula and methods to feed infant elephants. Prior to her discoveries, I learned that if an elephant calf lost his mother to poachers before he was ready to be weaned, he was essentially doomed to die. Sheldrick’s continued work and legacy has saved hundreds of elephant’s lives and earned her the honor of Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire–which is just fun to say!–yet her tone throughout the book is one of humility and humor. She tenderly recalls fond memories and faces every challenge to each elephant’s survival with simple and complete purpose. Each chapter feels as if you are being treated to a lovely afternoon in Sheldrick’s garden, stopping for a spot of tea as she chats about subjects like animal telepathy and her childhood camping trips where lions could be heard licking the sides of their tent.

Although Sheldrick highlights many different animal species, Love, Life, and Elephants is largely a stunning display of the impact humans make on elephants’ lives, from the heartbreaking scenes of slaughter to the lifelong friendship between an elephant matriarch and one very inspiring woman. I was in awe of Dame Daphne Sheldrick by the end of this book and you will be, too. Her life proves exactly how much extraordinary good one person can do.

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Book Review: The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

The Lorax

In a quiet part of town where the houses stand close
and evening stretches long the shade of the garden hose
and the baby falls asleep clutching her teddy bear’s toes . . .
it’s time to read my son The Lorax.

We’ve read this book for almost a month to the day
and our ritual always begins the same way,
snuggling on top of my bed,
he tilts up his tow head
and asks, “Why the Lorax is lifted away?”

We pretend not to know why the Lorax will leave
and we crack the book and start the nightly read.
That first time, I wondered,
“Will he understand?”
Can he know why we must give Truffulas a hand?
I wasn’t quite sure where his intuition would land.

But boy! Oh, boy!
How he loved the first smacker!
His eyes went wide when we spied the Super Axe Hacker.
He gleefully counted the trees on each page,
watching the Onceler quickly clearcut the stage,
leaving me quite shocked at his industrialist rage.

The next day I began his reeducation.
We went into the yard and took up a station,
learning the importance of all of creation.
“Do you think,” I drilled,
“trees want to be Thneeds?”
“No,” he parroted. “Trees help us breathe.
“They give homes to the birds and squirrels and bees.”

So back to The Lorax we went after dinner,
(my hopes for his morality considerably thinner)
but I found that my lessons indeed struck a bell.
“Poor trees,” he sighed,
as one by one they fell
and when the Lorax left, the tears even started to well.

What a marvel it was to see this drastic change;
this single book created such emotional range.
How does The Lorax set such sympathies loose
when the hero has–come on–all the charm of a moose?
It is, quite simply,
the mastery of Dr. Seuss.

He chooses the Truffula residents with care,
whether humming fishes or ridiculously playful bears.
The colors are crisp. The world is bright
and somehow there isn’t a predator in sight
until the Onceler–or at least his disembodied arms–alight.

Then the mise-en-scène bleeds into purples and browns.
The belching factory begins to dominate the town
and all the animals faces fade into frowns.
It’s an overt approach even a toddler can sense,
at least, once all his blood-lust is dispensed.

There are still parts I don’t like for a boy in his threes
we skip the Onceler’s line, “Shut up, if you please.”
And last week when I chased him
while the bathwater ran,
he protested, “No, you dirty old Onceler man!”
prompting more revisions and narrative bans

Of course, I see the book with a writer’s skew,
noting the strategy of the villain’s point of view,
but a curious villain
because he sees the light
and inhabits the mess, where most messmakers take flight,
if indeed they’ve even witnessed their terrible blight.

Why did the Onceler decide to stop biggering?
Wasn’t there a new “Truffula” to axe while sniggering?
A new product, a new market,
today’s entrepreneurs know
when you go flat broke
you simply find a new show,
regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.

The mystery of the Onceler’s remorse aside,
I’m underwhelmed by his decision to fret and hide,
and even the Lorax, for all his blustery shouts,
makes no effort to restore the world he touts;
he just shepherds his creatures toward other routes.

Yes, I understand Dr. Seuss’s grand plan
to show every child with a Truffula seed,
“They can!”
They are the change agents, the world’s future holders,
but what awful weight
for such tiny shoulders.
This ending has all the joy of Sisyphus’s boulders,

which is why when we come to the story’s end
and with tearful eyes, my son asks me again,
“but why the Lorax is lifted away?”
I hug him close, and lie as I say,
“He went back to his mommy, and she’s so happy he’ll stay.”