Sunday Book Reviews – 11/29/20

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

Cane Toads: An Unnatural History by Stephanie Lewis (1989, Doubleday)

This book will likely seem familiar to long-time readers, because it was designed as a companion to a movie which has previously been covered in the Owl. Still, this is the time of year when I try to make recommendations for Christmas gifts, and this book meets all of the criteria: it’s unusual enough to have broad appeal, it’s unlikely to have been read already, and it’s available at comparatively low prices despite being out of print for more than three decades.

The book is fairly simple and direct, providing a detailed explanation of how and why the cane toad was introduced to Australia and the damage which has resulted. The short length (less than 100 pages) seems accentuated by the page design, which includes a fairly small amount of text in the center of the page and large margins on each side. What keeps the reader from feeling short-changed are the photos, illustrations and explanatory asides which jam the margins and surround the text.

The structure recreates some of the odd humor of the film, preventing the historical narrative from dragging. Meanwhile, readers are given a well-researched example of the damages, however unwitting, that can be wreaked by misapplication of science.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (2003, Doubleday)

I’ve written about Pratchett twice before, once on his combined effort with Neil Gaiman for Good Omens and once addressing a novel in his comic fantasy series of Discworld. This second trip to Discworld is earned because of the target audience; unlike his standard adult novels, this was an attempt by Pratchett to produce a young adult Discworld series. To that end he created Tiffany Aching, prospective witch, and in so doing began a series as completely unlike Harry Potter as could be imagined.

Tiffany is a nine-year-old daughter in a family of shepherds who is quite adept at making cheese and, most importantly, has little time for fools. She thinks about problems, she addresses them, and then moves forward. She’s hindered by her position in the world; as a poor rural girl, she has little opportunity for education or travel or unusual experiences; Potter, stuck as he was in a makeshift room under a stairwell, is nevertheless far more informed than Tiffany could ever be. Even the age choice is unusual; young adult novels are predominantly written about characters in their late teens (who the readers can imagine they’ll be like) or characters of the expected age of the reader. Pratchett subverts expectations by making her nine.

But she does think, and she is brave. She feels empathy for others and a devotion to her home. When the land of faerie starts to intersect with her world, she is able to confront some of the emerging monsters with a cast iron frying pan. She also learns that some beings require more than simple cookware to defeat.

The novel addresses family, devotion, self-awareness, duty, the distinction between fantasy and reality and other topics in a way which never talks down to the youthful audience. Pratchett has written a book which addresses the concerns of a YA readership and uses a YA vocabulary but is structured as an adult novel would be. It’d make an excellent present for a reader of any age, provided they’ve advanced into longer chapter books.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.