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Things I do when I’m not farming: reading

Black Wolves by Kate Elliott, available for pre-order from Hachette Press via many fine outlets, release date 3 November.

So it turns out that sometimes you can in fact sad face enough at an author (and also be the first person to name a goat after one of her characters) that you can score a sneak peek at a book! Which was me and Black Wolves, because I am a huge fan of epic fantasy and when I heard Kate was working on a new one, I was all a-flutter. BW is set in the same world as her Crossroads Trilogy, although years later. You don’t need to have read Crossroads to read this, but if you have you may find a whiff of comfort among the familiar places (and faces) even as Madam Elliott exercises the reader-torturing skills for which we adore her. I know I’m reading a Genuine Kate Elliott Novel(tm) when at least two or three times I have to resist the urge to tweet “OMG WHAT HAVE YOU DONE”.

The plot synopsis is available at every bookseller, so let me say this: BW is a book about what family means, about love, about grief, about betrayal, about hope and about struggle. It is also about, and I quote, “giant justice eagles”. It is not the book you pick up when you’re half-delirious from the flu and need to kill some time, rather it is the book you pick up to sink into a world and a plot so rich and complex it feels almost more documentary than fictional. If you’re me, it’s the book you pick up because you love fantasy and the recent trend toward “realistic” books (where “realistic” means “full of gratuitous violence against women” hi Mr Martin) has made you wary of picking up new books.

That’s not to say nothing bad happens to women here, but it doesn’t feel like it’s there to titillate or to add “grittiness”. Kate Elliott almost invariably invites the reader to empathize with the victims of violence, though, in a marked contrast to many authors, and it’s no different here. This focus means that the incidents of bloodshed are many times more devastating for the reader than they would be otherwise. You’ll probably join me in the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth if not the desperate capslocked pleas for mercy on Twitter.

In short, if you would like to read fantasy with giant eagles set in an east Asia analogue instead of your standard western European analogue fantasy setting, if you would like to read fantasy with complex human relationships in all their messy glory, you should pre-order this book in whatever format suits your fancy. If you don’t like to read these things, you should question your life choices and then buy it anyway.

5/5 fuzzy little sheep for keeping me riveted from beginning to end.

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Useful Books: Mini Farming by Brett Markham

I picked Mini Farming: Self Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre up a year or two ago, and it’s been a useful companion as we figure out this gardening thing. While I suspect we’re never actually going to achieve self sufficiency on a quarter acre, because life is too short, it’s nonetheless handy for people wanting to learn organic growing methods and soil amendment.

There is one problem though. Markham’s writing is dry. Really dry. Dry like California in fire season. I mean, the man even manages to make compost seem boring, somehow. Compost is a fascinating and complex ecosystem, and yet I found myself trying to doze off during his explanations.

But if you can get past the dry writing style and forgive yourself for not achieving food and financial independence in your back yard, Markham provides a wealth of information useful to gardeners of all skill levels and with all sizes of garden. To take advantage of some of his methods, such as preparing a bed through double-digging, you will need a fair amount of physical strength and endurance. He does not, however, require any exotic tools, just your basics and a willingness to get your hands dirty.

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A Pile of Book Reviews

I have been reading various dog books like they’re going out of style.

Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men by Donald McCaig
I really kind of loved this one, the story of McCaig’s search for The Perfect Border Collie and the people and dogs he meets along the way. It’s the kind of book that makes me feel inspired to go train my dogs, so Siddy got extra clicker-time while I was reading this one. Two instances in the book did make me roll my eyes, though. Very early on, McCaig says that wolves will stare down their prey to “dominate” it. Uh huh. “Intimidate” I would buy but dominance is not a theory that applies here, and I really really wish I could eliminate it from the vocabulary of dog people. And then late in the book, McCaig makes a passing reference to “the r*tarded girl” that a shepherd sends his puppies to for raising and again, really? Did you just need to throw that out there, Mr. McCaig? But only two incidents of eye-rolling in a book is pretty dang good for me, so I’d give this one a thumbs up.

My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen
A nice account of the dogs Mr. Paulsen has known in his life, arranged as brief vignettes about the dogs in question. Not quite Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul, but it serves much the same heartwarming purpose. Good stuff, especially for readers who prefer a brief, blog-entry-like reading experience.

Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers by Gary Paulsen
I admit it, this book weirded me out in the beginning because it opens with a lyrical description of Paulsen listening to two of his dogs have sex. But it gets much better and less weird from there, and there are moments that are positive gems of comic gold, like his description of letting thirty-some-odd sled dog puppies into his house one morning. A short book that is most definitely worth the read.

How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by the Monks of New Skete
Where to even start with this one. Oh, I know, with confusion! The Monks have a beautiful grasp of the need for trust, love, and respect between dog and person. They write gorgeously of the relationship that is possible between human and dog. But to get to that bit, first you have to read through a metric butt-ton of “dominance” bull, and also past the part where they instruct you on disciplining your dog.

The Monks were the ones who, in previous editions of this book, popularized the “Alpha Roll” where you force your dog onto his side and pin him there. They explicitly state in their book that they no longer recommend this maneuver because it is too likely to get you bitten. Unfortunately, they still recommend “the Shakedown” (grab a puppy by the scruff of the neck, or an adult dog by the sides of the neck, lift him off his feet, and shake him) and “discipline under the chin” which involves using a “training collar” (by which they mean a choke chain) to hold the dog in place in a sit at your side while you hit him under the chin. “How hard should you hit the dog?” they ask, rhetorically, before answering their own question. If you don’t get a “yelp or other reaction” then hit the dog harder.

The rest of their training is a mix of the old-fashioned “crank and yank” where you alternate verbal and physical “praise” with leash corrections using the choke chain, and for “softer” dogs they will graciously allow you to use food treats, recognizing apparently that repeatedly strangling your dog, cutting off his air supply in the “shakedown” and hitting him under the chin will totally fry the brains of some dogs. Hell, even most dogs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my dog to see sitting calmly at my side as a predictor for being nailed under the chin.

They recommend this “physical discipline” incidentally for “heinous canine crimes” such as going to the bathroom in the house and “stealing”. These are so deeply problematic. If your dog is going to the bathroom in the house, I have to ask why you haven’t worked to house train him, and why you’re giving him enough unsupervised time to have accidents if you’re going to be upset enough to hit him over it. And “stealing”? Oh please. Dogs do not have a concept of ownership like people do. To a dog, what you’re using right now is yours, but when you put it down and walk away from it, it’s fair game.

Most of the book is the same old, same old: “blah blah blah dominance blah blah get leadership blah blah.” I find it hard to believe that a human being could fail to impress upon a dog that the big-brained, thumb-having human controls everything in life a dog wants without resorting to force, seriously.

In short, I do not recommend this book in the least and only read it because I felt like I should. With the exception of a couple of pages, it was universally appalling — dog training has come a long way since the Monks published the first edition of this in the 70s, and I think it would behoove them to stick their heads out of the cloister and learn about it.