two mini reviews: a DNF and a dud

Witherwood Reform School by Obert Skye
Pub. Date: March 3, 2015
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Macmillan/Henry Holt!!)
Summary: After a slight misunderstanding involving a horrible governess, oatmeal, and a jar of tadpoles, siblings Tobias and Charlotte Eggars find themselves abandoned by their father at the gates of a creepy reform school. Evil mysteries are afoot at Witherwood, where the grounds are patrolled by vicious creatures after dark and kids are locked in their rooms. Charlotte and Tobias soon realize that they are in terrible danger—especially because the head of Witherwood has perfected the art of mind control.

If only their amnesiac father would recover and remember that he has two missing children. If only Tobias and Charlotte could solve the dark mystery and free the kids at Witherwood—and ultimately save themselves.
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Recommended for: Actual Middle Grade readers – this is definitely one that’ll be appreciated more by a younger audience

Oh how I wanted to love Witherwood! A creepy boarding school, mysterious locked gates, creatures patrolling the school grounds (which, by the way, was built on top of a plateau that arose from a meteor crash). It was like a checklist of Things Leah Loves. Unfortunately, when it all came together, it did absolutely nothing for me and for a novel this short (even shorter when you take into account the FULL-PAGE ILLUSTRATIONS), I barely made it to the 100-page mark before finally admitting defeat.

I think it was the humor that sealed the deal. It tried to be overly clever and speak directly to the reader, but where powerhouses like Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket got it right, Obert Skye got it wrong. So very wrong. There was nothing clever here, no one-liners that made me giggle in delight. The tadpole incident described in the blurb totally missed the mark and ended up reading as downright disgusting: two siblings play a prank of their awful nanny by putting live tadpoles into a gravy boat during a meal. I’ll spare you what happens next, but you get the gist I’m sure.

Who knows – maybe I’m just being a big ol’ grump, but Witherwood Reform School feels like a book that actual Middle Grade readers would enjoy far more. I don’t really see much middle ground here – this is a novel that’s definitely written to be enjoyed by a younger crowd.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Pub. Date: January 13, 2015
Source: Bought
Summary: Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery, Thriller
Recommended for: Fans of Psychological Thrillers, casual readers curious about the Next Big Thing in books

IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME. I think. This is the book to read in 2015 and y’all know I can’t get enough of my Psychological Thrillers! Add in glowing praise from two friends (who have pretty much the exact reading taste as I do) and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this one. Sadly, I don’t know if my expectations were overly high, but The Girl on the Train never grabbed me like I had hoped it would.

I’ve actually been putting off writing this review (at one point I hadn’t even planned on writing one at all!) because I honestly don’t have anything to say. While reading, I was completely okay with setting the book down and not picking it up again for the rest of the day. Whereas my friends read this book in a single sitting, I stretched it out over multiple days. I didn’t care enough to keep going, I didn’t care enough to pick it back up after I had set it down.

I will say though that toward the end I was curious – and it took a while for me to correctly guess Who Did It, so the novel gets a point for that. That said, I’m seriously bummed out I didn’t love this one and I’m not sure who to blame: myself or the book.

mini-review: Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula by Andi Watson

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula by Andi Watson
Pub. Date: February 24, 2015
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, First Second!)
Summary: Princess Decomposia is overworked and underappreciated. This princess of the underworld has plenty of her own work to do but always seems to find herself doing her layabout father’s job, as well. The king doesn’t feel quite well, you see. Ever. So the princess is left scurrying through the halls, dodging her mummy, werewolf, and ghost subjects, always running behind and always buried under a ton of paperwork. Oh, and her father just fired the chef, so now she has to hire a new cook as well. Luckily for Princess Decomposia, she makes a good hire in Count Spatula, the vampire chef with a sweet tooth. He’s a charming go-getter of a blood-sucker, and pretty soon the two young ghouls become friends. And then…more than friends? Maybe eventually, but first Princess Decomposia has to sort out her life. And with Count Spatula at her side, you can be sure she’ll succeed.
Genre: Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Paranormal
Recommended for: Readers with fifteen minutes to spare & looking for something quick and cute

This past summer I got back into the deep dark pit that are graphic novels. I churned through series after series, binging on whatever I could get my hands on. Print or digital, it was all the same to me. In this addiction-fueled spree, I came across Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula on netgalley and requested it without hesitating one second.

As Princess of the Underworld, Decomposia’s life isn’t exactly as carefree as you’d think. With her father suffered from some new illness every waking hour, everything has fallen to her. Decisions need to be made, meetings need to be held, papers need to be signed. Everything reaches a boiling point when the king fires the head chef (if he says he wants meat, by the time the food gets to his chambers he’ll have changed his mind and demand soup – the king is never happy). Now on top of everything else, Decomposia has to see about scheduling interviews and reading through resumes.

After a number of unsuccessful candidates, Decomposia has just about given up hope when someone new walks through the door: a vampire named Spatula. Count Spatula. Within minutes Decomposia realizes he’s perfect – and not just at cooking! With their new-found friendship, the Underworld has become a better, a happier place: Decomposia has a friend and confidante, someone to bounce ideas off of. That is, until the king finds out about the lowly commoner his daughter has been hanging out with.

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula was an absolute delight! It took all of fifteen minutes to get through (if that!) and was a joy the entire time. Before you even begin reading, you can easily guess at how the story will play out, what lessons the characters will learn, how it will all end, but I quickly realized I didn’t mind one bit; the journey there was half the fun!

With a comic of this length, there isn’t a whole lot to say and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The art was adorable, the characters charming, and the little bits hidden in the background were an extra treat! Prior to this story, I had never heard of Andi Watson before, but he’s got quite an impressive backlist: numerous Middle Grade comics as well as multiple Buffy omnibuses! If the rest of his work is as lovely as Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula, I’ve just hit the jackpot!

weekly wrap-up 2/22

Happy Sunday, everyone! How was your week? This weekend we got a huge snowstorm – the city was practically a dead zone it was so empty. Businesses were closed, roads were silent. I took full advantage of the weather and stayed in my pjs all day. SAD THOUGH, because my vacation ends today. :( I haven’t been to work since February 6…I go back tomorrow and I am not ready.

The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant
It’s here, it’s here!! If you somehow missed it, head over here to read all about the oh-so-happy accident that led me to discover this amazing writer. I’m shocked by how short this book is: less than 300 pages! I have the highest expectations for this one – don’t fail me now, Vaillant!

The Tomb of Shadows (Seven Wonders #3) by Peter Lerangis
Percy Jackson fans, take note. These books are a ton of fun (you can check out my reviews for the first two here), full of mythology and adventure. I adore Middle Grade and I’m very excited to sink back into this delightful world!

Empire of Night (Age of Legends #2) by Kelley Armstrong
A NEW KELLEY ARMSTRONG!!! Last summer I fell hard for her Cainsville series, but have yet to read any of her YA (I know, I know)! You can bet I’ll be picking up a copy of Sea of Shadows soon!! Thank you, HarperCollins!

Have you read any of these? What books did YOU get this week?

In Case You Missed It
Since November I have been going crazy over Allison Pataki’s The Accidental Empress and now I can FINALLY share my thoughts with you guys! Historical fiction fans, this is an author you need on your radar (and shelves!), PRONTO. She’s not only a fabulous storyteller, but her eye for detail is unlike any other. The Accidental Empress follows the very real Sisi (Pataki’s novels are biographical fiction which makes me even more starry-eyed!) as she wins the heart of Emperor Franz Josef and becomes a Hapsburg Empress. So, so much love.

#LoveAThon kicked off!! The chat was an absolute blast and I’m so, so excited to see what’s in store for today!

#LoveAThon intro post!

The Book Blogger Love-A-Thon is a two-day event hosted by Alexa!
  • What’s your name?


  • Where in the world are you blogging from?

Pittsburgh, PA. We have a ton of Indie bookshops here and for a while I had a short-lived feature called Books in the Burgh where I highlighted some of them (this was also the perfect excuse to buy more books!) Should I start it back up again??

  • How did you get into blogging in the first place?

Way, way back in the late ’90s there were Harry Potter message boards I used to visit. At the time LiveJournal was taking off and a lot of my friends were making the move. It was only natural to see what all the fuss was about. In additional to a personal blog, I ran a pretty successful music community there where I featured and reviewed all sorts of Asian musicians. I kept that up for a few years and from there I would up reviewing television shows for an online site. When the site became too large to be run by one guy, a company bought it and that was when I took a breather. In the summer of 2011, The Pretty Good Gatsby was born.

  • How did you come up with your blog name?

By partying with Jay? I wanted something bookish but a little off-beat and quirky.

  • What genre do you read and review the most on your blog?

Historical fiction is my jam.

  • What other types of posts do you do on your blog, apart from reviews?

I haven’t updated it recently, but I have a feature called History 101 where I combine my love of history with a passion for books.

I also have a feature I love called Get Your Fix where I round up a bunch on novels (both reviewed on the blog and books I haven’t yet read) that all deal with a certain topic. So far I’ve discussed books focusing on art, the Civil War, and the Romanovs.

Another book-related feature is GoodReads Recommends where I take a look at some of the books GR recs – there have been some winners so far!

  • Best blogging experience so far?


  • Favorite thing about the blogging community?

Totally a cop-out answer, but the bloggers. Not only have I met people I otherwise would never have gotten to know, but I’ve also discovered new books I wouldn’t have dreamed of picking up!

  • Name the 5 books you’re most excited for this 2015!

OH LORD. Off the top of my head:

Prudence by Gail Carriger | March
EEEEE, A NEW GAIL CARRIGER SERIES! I recently fell hard for her Finishing School series!

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy | April
A post-apocalyptic re-imagining of Lewis & Clark!

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson | May
A companion novel to Life After Life, one of my Top Reads of 2013!

Finders Keepers by Stephen King | June
This year Cassie and I are teaming up for #hailtotheking, a year-long Stephen King reading challenge!

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee | July

  • What’s an underrated book or series that you think everyone should read?

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. YA Historical Fantasy from the 70s! Tudors, fairy folk, the greatest YA romance I have ever read.

  • Which book boy or girl would be your book BFF?

Percy Weasley, though that’s more of a book BF. ♥

  • Apart from reading, what are your other hobbies or interests?

My studies focused on the Civil War, but anything Military makes my heart skip a beat. I also love Imperial Russia, crime dramas (UM CAN WE DISCUSS THE FALL?!?), and I’m an amateur beekeeper!

  • Apart from book shopping, what else do you like shopping for?

Clothes! The spare bedroom in our house is my closet. I’m also a big fan of cutesy little knickknacks. Anything kitschy.

  • At a party, the DJ suddenly changes the song – and it’s your song. What song would be playing?

That’s a toughie – I go through phases. I tend to stick to a folksy, Americana sound, but I rock out to showtunes and Disney soundtracks too!

  • Pick out either a book you want turned into a film/TV show, or a film/TVshow you want turned into a book.

Fingers forever crossed that American Gods will one day come out of Production Limbo!

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki
Pub. Date: February 17, 2015
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Howard Books!!)
Summary: The year is 1853, and the Hapsburgs are Europe’s most powerful ruling family. With his empire stretching from Austria to Russia and Germany to Italy, Emperor Franz Joseph is young, rich, and read to marry.
Fifteen-year-old Sisi – Elisabeth, duchess of Bavaria – travels to the Hapsburg court with her older sister, who is betrothed to the young emperor. But shortly after her arrival, Sisi finds herself in an unexpected dilemma: she has inadvertently fallen for and won the heart of her sister’s fiance. Intrigued by Sisi’s guileless charm and energetic spirit, not to mention her unrivaled beauty, Franz Joseph reneges on his earlier proposal and declares his intention to marry Sisi instead.
Plucked from obscurity and thrust onto the throne of Europe’s most treacherous imperial court, Sisi has no idea what struggles and dangers – and temptations – await her. She upsets political and familial loyalties in her quest to win, and keep, the love of her emperor, her people, and the world.

Genre: Historical fiction
Recommended for: Fans of biographical fiction, court life, rich details, and fantastic storytelling!

When I grabbed Pataki’s debut, The Traitor’s Wife completely by chance last year, I had no idea just how hard I would fall for this new author. Her storytelling blew me away and she took a person I knew very little about (Peggy Shippen, socialite bride of Benedict Arnold) and gave her life. Over the course of a few hundred pages, Pataki took this complete stranger and turned her into someone I not only cared about, but craved further knowledge of (and bless her for a fantastic list of research material/books compiled at the end!). So when I heard about her upcoming novel – this time taking place in the mid-1800s in the Hapsburg court – it was a no-brainer: I needed this book.

The lovely people at Howard Books are too, too good to me and they sent along a review copy my way. I received it in November, I read it in November. That right there should tell you a little something. Can an author be declared a favorite after only one book? What about two? While I don’t believe there exists a magical number for this, it’s clear Allison Pataki has carved a special place for herself in my heart and I guarantee you I will read anything she puts out!

Rich, powerful, and young, Emperor Franz Joseph is the most eligible bachelor in the world. When word is sent to Bavaria that he seeks the hand of the eldest duchess, it certainly comes as a shock – a rather liberal approach to parenting hasn’t exactly groomed the children for life as nobility let alone royalty! Helene is a meek, pious girl and horrifically shy, so it comes as no surprise when Franz Joseph finds himself captivated by bold, opinionated Sisi. As the pair spend more time together, their favorite outing traveling the countryside on horseback, Franz’s interest deepens and he reneges on his earlier proposal – much to the dismay of his mother Sophie. Through her son, Sophie essentially rules the empire and she is not pleased to discover her choice for bride has been turned down. If only Sisi had realized just what she was getting herself into.

Still in her teens, Sisi is virtually on her own; Sophie has made her feelings clear and Franz always sides with his mother. As the once-happy marriage begins to crumble – and the longed-for heir never arrives, just daughter after daughter – the pressure takes its toll. It’s not until a trip to Hungary that Sisi receives the love and respect she’s been craving and it’s this country and these people that will play a vital role in Sisi’s life.

What constitutes as a spoiler when it comes to historical fiction? Halfway through the novel I was so enchanted by this family and these characters that I wanted to know more. I should have known better than to head over to Wikipedia, but my history buff heart was a-flutter. Things don’t end well for anyone involved and The Accidental Empress gives a hint of things to come. As much as I held out hope for Sisi, I knew her decline was imminent. In her later life she became somewhat fanatical about her weight and the barest of whispers were evident here. Sophie took Sisi’s children away, dictated every waking second of her life. It really is remarkable Sisi managed to hold out for so long.

Because this is historical fiction, there are a few changes made and Pataki discusses this. Personally I enjoyed the story immensely, minor reworkings and all – at least here Sisi found a few moments of happiness.

The Accidental Empress proves Allison Pataki is not a one-hit wonder; this woman is here to stay and, my goodness, does she have stories to tell! As with The Traitor’s Wife, I savored every chapter, relished over every paragraph when I normally would race to the end. Here, however, I took my time and when I finally finished (only four days later – and to be honest, I’m surprised I finished that quickly: this is a big book that demands a lot of attention) I felt hollow. I wasn’t ready to let go and give up these people I had come to care for. Pataki describes the Hapsburg court in such vivid detail it was jarring to look up and realize I was in my living room (sadly, nowhere close to being anything as grand as a palace).

As much as I love chatting about books I adore, I absolutely dread having to review them. The Accidental Empress hit me hard and I’m still reeling from the blow. I laughed, I teared up, I wanted to swoop in and save this child from her horrible future (not to mention awful mother-in-law). Pataki positively shines in this novel and there isn’t a single sentence I can string together that could fully describe how much I loved this book. The Accidental Empress is a story to cherish and absolutely, positively a book I’ll be recommending whole-heartedly.

weekly wrap-up 2/15

How was your Valentine’s Day? Mine involved pizza and fancy new gadgets (new phone for me, new tablet for Matt). I also finally felt justified in taking the majority of February off – there was a horrible snow storm yesterday, so it was wonderful to (for once!) be able to stay snuggly warm inside while everyone else had to be out in the cold.

Oh well. Spring is just around the corner, right? …right??

The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin
For months now I have been on a MASSIVE Hapsburg/Sisi kick, thanks to a book I’ll be telling you all about next week! The Fortune Hunter came out over the summer and despite the fairly low ratings it’s received, I’m still looking forward to it. The story centers on Sisi’s (the Empress) relationship with Bay Middleton. In real life, I have no idea whether the two had an affair or not, though he was her pilot when she hunted in Ireland. There’s actually a rumor that he might have fathered Clementine Hozier (later known as Mrs. Winston Churchill)!

The Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Vaughan
In 1966 Kathleen Eaden published The Art of Baking, the go-to cookbook. Now five amateur bakers are battling to become the new Mrs. Eaden. I’m a huge fan of cooking/baking competitions so this one is right up my alley! (Thank you, St. Martin’s Press!)

Witherwood Reform School by Obert Skye
YAY MIDDLE GRADE! I’m always thrilled when a new Middle Grade novel finds its way to my door. Two siblings play a trick on their nasty nanny…and wind up at the strange Witherwood Reform School where the halls are monitored by creatures and the doors are always locked. (Thank you, Henry Holt and co.!)

In Case You Missed It
Although I was initially hesitant to read this one, Sally Hepworth’s The Secrets of Midwives surprised me! I’m a sucker for multiple narratives (especially when there are multiple eras as well) and read this one in a single sitting. It’s not without its flaws, but don’t let the title scare you off like it did to me!

Rhiannon Frater’s Dead Spots was another novel that shocked me. After narrowly avoiding a deer, a woman pulls off to the side of the road and finds herself in a world built on nightmares. Once you enter a dead spot, there’s no going back, and as the world slowly feeds off Mac’s fears, she becomes more and more determined to find a way home. Again, this one wasn’t without some flaws, but for a relatively larger novel it read incredibly fast!

In a huge upset, Jonas Karlsson’s The Room enraged me and wasn’t anything like the quirky, inventive novel I had expected. A man finds a secret room in his office building that no one else can see. Doesn’t that sound interesting?? Unfortunately, the main character completely destroyed anything good with this one. Egotistical and narcissistic to legendary proportions, there was absolutely nothing about Bjorn that made me want to keep turning the page which is sad when a novel is less than 200 pages.

But then, like an angel descending from the heavens, John Vaillant swooped in with The Tiger and I just HAD to post my review on Valentine’s Day. Okay, so maybe a man-eating tiger isn’t the most romantic thing, but this book was so much more than that. In my review (one of the longest ever posted on the blog!) I described this as one part true crime, one part thriller, one part anthropological study, and one part character exploration…only the characters here are real people. There are history lessons, scientific studies, entire chapters all about the amazing amount of creatures that inhabit this patch of land. Since reading this book I haven’t stopped talking about it and it skyrocketed Vaillant to the top of my autobuy authors list!

The Tiger by John Vaillant

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
Pub. Date: August 24, 2010
Source: Library
Summary: It’s December 1997, and a man-eating tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. The tiger isn’t just killing people, it’s annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren’t random: the tiger is apparently engaged in a vendetta. Injured, starving, and extremely dangerous, the tiger must be found before it strikes again.

As he re-creates these extraordinary events, John Vaillant gives us an unforgettable portrait of this spectacularly beautiful and mysterious region. We meet the native tribes who for centuries have worshiped and lived alongside tigers, even sharing their kills with them. We witness the arrival of Russian settlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, soldiers and hunters who greatly diminished the tiger populations. And we come to know their descendants, who, crushed by poverty, have turned to poaching and further upset the natural balance of the region.

This ancient, tenuous relationship between man and predator is at the very heart of this remarkable book. Throughout we encounter surprising theories of how humans and tigers may have evolved to coexist, how we may have developed as scavengers rather than hunters, and how early Homo sapiens may have fit seamlessly into the tiger’s ecosystem. Above all, we come to understand the endangered Siberian tiger, a highly intelligent super-predator that can grow to ten feet long, weigh more than six hundred pounds, and range daily over vast territories of forest and mountain.
Genre: Non-fiction, Nature, History, AMAZING
Recommended for: Everyone. Seriously.

“…when thunder rolls, lions will roar back. What other creature, besides the lion, the tiger, and the whale, can answer Creation in its own language?”

– Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Tribe of Tiger

The Tiger came to me by way of a happy (oh, so, so very happy) accident. I had originally wanted to read Vaillant’s newest novel, The Jaguar’s Children, a book which – at the time – I knew very little about apart from it being the book to read this year. At the border, a man’s truck (containing human cargo) breaks down and as the hours turn into days, it becomes evident that the group sent to find a mechanic won’t be returning. The Jaguar’s Children is pitched as a ‘gripping survival story’ and, judging from his work in The Tiger, I’m wondering if it might not have at least some ties to reality. Unfortunately, at the time my library hadn’t yet received a copy of this novel (they since have and it’s currently in transit from another library in our system – soon to be in my grabby hands), but this one was listed and available.

I’m a big fan of non-fiction and the way The Tiger was described with words like vengeance and annihilation made it sound like more of a true crime tale than anything else. Lately Matt and I have been watching a LOT of Nat Geo Wild and nature documentaries on Netflix (going on a bit of a tangent here, check out PBS’s Nature series – full episodes are available online! Leave it to Beavers was absolutely fascinating; until watching this I had NO idea how vitals beavers are to ecosystems. This episode alone is worth a watch but, seriously, make a weekend of it. Snow Monkeys, Honey Badgers, eels, plant behavior, I know I sound like a complete nerd, but I’m geeking out in the best way possible. These episodes – and other documentaries – opened my eyes to just how amazing our world is!) and it’s this new found passion-slash-obsession for wildlife that sealed the deal. I put in a request for The Tiger and in the best possible outcome, fell madly in love.

Looking back, I really shouldn’t have been all that surprised: John Vaillant is a best-selling, award-winning journalist-turned-writer. His first work, The Golden Spruce, went on my TBR list before I was even finished reading The Tiger. Sadly, that’s one my library doesn’t have, but I’m ordering a copy because after just one book, Vaillant has become an auto-buy author. THAT is how much I loved this book and if The Golden Spruce is anything like it (which I suspect will be the case – its subtitle is A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed) I know I’m in good hands.

It’s usually around the four-paragraph mark that I begin wrapping up my reviews. Here, however, I’ve barely begun! Do you follow a strict pattern, an outline you use when discussing books? I’ve found that, while I make an attempt, the book itself takes the lead. Jacqueline Woodson’s brown girl dreaming, for example, subconsciously had me defaulting to short, direct sentences in response to the novel’s verse format. The Tiger is so much more than just a tiger hunt, so it only makes sense to me to take my good old time and discuss beaver documentaries while in the process. Really, though, The Tiger is one part true crime (with the tiger as the Big Bad), one part anthropological study, one part thriller, and a whole lotta character exploration. Only, in this case, the characters are real people. Although I’m gushing like a fool, I want to warn you: if you want a book about a hunt for a killer tiger, this is not the book for you. No, I’m not kidding. The actual time spent on tracking down, locating, and finally killing the animal can be summed up in 30 pages. Instead, Vaillant takes you on an incredible journey – over land and through history – and at times it’s hard to forget I’m reading non-fiction.

Since well before the Kung’s engine noise first penetrated the forest, a conversation of sorts has been unfolding in this lonesome hollow. It is not in a language like Russian or Chinese, but it is a language nonetheless, and it is older than the forest. The crows speak it; the dog speaks it; the tiger speaks it, and so do the men – some more fluently than others.

Before we can get to know the man-eating tiger, John Vaillant wants us to know the land and he does a phenomenal job at describing this wilderness so far removed from anything I’ve ever known. At times, the landscape seems almost magical, as though this is a fantasy novel I’m reading instead. Other times The Tiger feels post-apocalyptic and it’s a wonder anyone – man OR animal – can survive.

The Chinese knew this country as the shuhai, or “forest sea.” It may have been marvelous to contemplate from the deck of a ship, but on the ground, it took a savage toll on humans and animals alike. When you weren’t battling arctic cold, or worrying about tigers, there were insects on a scale that is hard to imagine.

Those insects Vaillant mentions? Their numbers are so great and their bite so effective they were actually once used as a means of punishment and, in some instances, death. A person would be bound to a tree and left to the insect kingdom. Sir Henry Evan Murchison James, a member of the Royal Geographical Society (and therefore no stranger to bugs) once stated, “If there be a time when life is not worth living, I would say it was summer in the forests of Manchuria.”

Wild boar, musk deer with 4-inch fangs. Lilacs that grow to reach six feet, giant lotus. The raccoon dog, a tropical wild dog called a Dhole that hunts in packs, red-legged ibis. Paradise flycatchers, five different species of eagle, nine species of bat, and over forty kinds of fern. A species of giant ladybugs with a reverse color scheme.

Primorye’s bizarre assemblage of flora and fauna leaves one with the impression that Noah’s ark had only recently made landfall, and that, rather than dispersing to their proper places around the globe, many of its passengers had simply decided to stay, including some we never knew existed.

Vaillant prose positively shines in The Tiger. He has a way with words and phrases and it’s mind-blowing that this is non-fiction – I keep having to remind myself that these events actually happened, that this is a land I can physically go to. And if this is how he treats non-fiction, I absolutely cannot wait to see what his fiction game holds. New favorite author, perhaps?

Interspersed throughout the novel, in-between tales of the land and its storied history (along with the people who once lived and still inhabit it), Vaillant introduces the star of the show: the tiger. In the winter of 1997 a man, a poacher, was brutally attacked and ultimately eaten. While it’s not completely unheard of, it was more than a little strange: for centuries tigers and humans have lived together. Many people are of the ‘I don’t both you, you don’t bother me’ mentality, maintaining peace with the creatures and even sharing meat. A hunter might set aside part of a large kill for the tiger, an offering almost. Some native tribes revere these beasts to the point of worship and with Vaillant’s description, I can totally see why:

To properly appreciate such an animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger back up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons on a velociraptor. Now, imagine the vehicle for all of this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder. Finally, emblazon this beast with a primordial calligraphy: black brushstrokes on a field of russet and cream, and wonder at our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature. (The tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin.) Able to swim for miles and kill an animal many times its size, the tiger also possesses the brute strength to drag an awkward, thousand-pound carcass through the forest for fifty or a hundred yards before consuming it.

It therefore comes as no surprise that an animal whose paws are so dexterous it can catch a fly and release it completely unharmed could also brutally rip a man apart and leave virtually nothing behind. There were rumors and suspicions as to what made the tiger go after this man with such blind rage. One theory is that Markov killed one of the tiger’s cubs and with an almost human-like amount of planning that went into its revenge, I can easily see this being the case.

Another side note: PBS also featured an episode on the Siberian tiger and it’s definitely worth a look. Filmed in Russia, this episode really puts into perspective just what The Tiger is all about: the landscape, these massive animals, the weather.

The Tiger is a book I clearly could ramble about for days. It’s SO much more than a story about a hunt for a man-eating tiger. Vaillant pauses yet again to bring some psychology to the table (if you walk away from the book without having learned something, you’re a liar). He talks about some incredibly interesting studies that were done on children and the age when we learned to “anticipate behavior of game and avoid predators.” Richard Coss, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis created a virtual savanna landscape complete with a thorn tree, boulder, and rock crevice. In his study, he presented this landscape to a group of American preschool children then introduced a lion. Asking where they would go to find safety, only 1/6 picked the boulder. With no prior knowledge of lions (or what knowledge they had most likely coming in the form of cartoons), over 80% of these children understood the risk the lion posed. Coss summed it up by saying, “The small percentage who chose the boulder would not have escaped the lion, and to this day, despite millions of years of natural selection, there remains that small percentage of humans who make fatal choices.”

Another study Vaillant describes was done by UCLA anthropologist Clark Barrett. In Barrett’s study, he took two groups of children ranging from ages 3-5. One group was comprised of German preschoolers, the other from the Shuhar tribe from the Amazon basin. Two completely different backgrounds and completely different experiences with animals. Barrett showed the children a toy lion and toy zebra and asked ‘when the lion sees the zebra, what does the lion want to do?’ 75% of the 3-year-olds answered with some form of kill/bite/chase. With the 4- and 5-year-olds, an astounding 100% answered with the same. Barrett than asked ‘when the lion catches the zebra, what will happen?’ This time, 100% of the Shuhar 3-year-olds replied by saying the lion with hurt/kill/eat the zebra while 2/3 of the German children responded with the same. Every single 4- and 5-year-old knew what would happen. Regardless of the culture, learning, or living conditions, Barrett found these children fully understand the rules of predatory behavior without having seen live lions before and knowing nothing about Africa.

The Tiger is a book that completely took me by surprise – going into it I expected an interesting story, but I had no idea just what I was getting myself into. Scientific and anthropological studies, history and ecology lessons with gorgeous prose to boot, this book seriously has it all and in the two short weeks it’s been in my life I haven’t shut up about it. I’ve rambled at length to my parents and siblings – poor Matt has to live with me! He’s been listening to me talk about this book non-stop! It actually reached the point where he would ask for updates (did they catch it yet?) I’ve talked about this book to my coworkers. I’ve mentioned it to complete strangers. No joke: anyone I’ve come across has now heard all about this book. I was absolutely terrified to write this review – nothing I say could possible do it justice and I’ve been sitting on my thoughts for weeks now. I’ve taken more notes and jotted down more quotes from this book than I ever have for a novel I’ve received for review! The Tiger is one of those books you just want to throw at someone, practically forcing it on them. John Vaillant has found a new fan with this book and I wholeheartedly look forward to diving into his other books!

(more) Notable Quotes

Nowhere else can a wolverine, brown bear, or moose drink from the same river as a leopard, in a watershed that also hosts cork trees, bamboo, and solitary yews that predate the Orthodox Church. In the midst of this, Himalayan black bears build haphazard platforms in wild cherry trees that seem too fragile for the task, opium poppies nod in the sun, and ginseng keeps its secret in dappled shade.

This Boreal Jungle (for the lack of better term) is unique on earth, and it nurtures the greatest biodiversity of any place in Russia, the largest country in the world. It is over this surreal menagerie that the Amus tiger reigns supreme.

There are, scattered around the hinterlands of Asia and – increasingly – elsewhere, a small fraternity of people who have been attacked by tigers and lives. Its members find their ways in through various means: greed, desperation, curiosity, bad timing, and, in a handful of cases, dazzling stupidity or madness. There is no association that advocates for them as there is for so many other niche populations of afflicted people, and there is no journal that reviews their cases or disseminates information on their behalf. Mostly, they stay at home, often in shacks and cabins a long way from paved roads. If they leave, it is usually with difficulty and something in great pain. Very rarely is there anyone in their immediate vicinity who fully appreciates what happened to them out there and, in this way, the lives of tiger attack survivors resemble those of retired astronauts or opera divas: each in their own way has stared alone into the abyss.

“..there is no creature in the taiga that is off limits to the tiger; it alone can mete out death at will. Amur tigers have been known to eat everything from salmon and ducks to adult brown bears. There are few wolves in Primorye, not because the environment doesn’t suit them, but because the tigers eat them, too. The Amur tiger, is could be said, takes a Stalinist approach to competition. It is also an extraordinarily versatile predator, able to survive in temperatures ranging from fifty below zero Fahrenheit to one hundred above, and to turn virtually any environment to its advantage.”