100 Grumpy Animals

Before jumping into a book, I have a mini-announcement! For some time now, I have been posting picture books to start the month, and then wrapping up the month with an update on the Unread Shelf project. Starting with June, I am going to flip that. I was having some issues with my reading total numbers, since my USP project posts where I update these did not actually fall on the last day of the month. Going forward, I will wrap up the month with a children’s book, and then post for the Unread Shelf Project in the first week of the following month.

Since I already posted for the Unread Shelf Project for May last week, and I am pushing the children’s book back to the end of the month, I have this week a transition book:

img_4488Book: 100 Grumpy Animals by BeastFlaps

www.grumpyanimals.com

I woke up one morning to find this book on my doorstep. It was unexpectedly gifted from a mystery friend, and came to me “hot off the presses” – about a week after its publication on May 10, 2020. Why am I calling this a transition book for this month? Well, it does follow my usual habit of posting picture books on the first week of the month, but unlike my usual picture books, this one is not quite intended for children.

This is a collection of single-panel style comics, many of which were originally featured on the BeastFlaps Instagram account (link above). Each page features a cartoon animal, with a reason that it is grumpy, ranging from a cheetah who can never prosper to a woodpecker who feels like he’s just banging his head against the wall. Along the way, there are a few mildly inappropriate inclusions—nothing I would call offensive, but enough to say that this is not a picture book intended for the kids. Of course, many are spot on: I have certainly encountered more than a couple geese that were saying “honk honk mothercluckers!”

It was definitely good for a few pun-ny laughs, as well as some clever comments based on each animal’s characteristics. At the end of the book, there is a list of notes for anyone who may not have “gotten” some of the cartoons. There’s a nice spot on my shelf for it to join its kindred spirits: All My Friends Are Dead and I Could Pee On This; among others, of course.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I was napping, you know. I am grumpy animal 101. 1 paw.”

Noir

img_4487Book: Noir by Christopher Moore

Date Read: May 1 to 16, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

In May, the Unread Shelf Project challenged everyone to read a “backlist” title from their shelves. I had to put a little work into this one, because that is honestly not something that I usually track. I have some obvious new(er) release books, but often buy based on recommendations, so do not always end up with the latest that is out there. While I was debating the best way to choose a title, I received a notification that a book I had pre-ordered awhile back would be out this month—which reminded me that I had never gotten to this author’s previous release! Serendipity.

I am going to start out by admitting a slight bias: I really enjoy this author. His writing has a unique combination of humor, intelligence, and absurdity that I love. I was intrigued by the idea of a noir novel, although I confess that I only really have a general idea of what makes something “noir.” Throughout reading, I felt that this became clearer to me, and I think it was done well—although I’m not familiar with noir literature, this definitely had the feeling of film noir, and I could picture scenes on a movie screen in black and white.

Appropriately, it all begins when a dame walks into a bar. From there, we end up with a fair amount of scene setting: a slew of characters, and several possibilities of where the story many be going. Everyone seems to be “working an angle,” and although there was some general predictability, the pieces come together interestingly. We have the girl who we know is going to be trouble for the leading man Sammy, and then a mystery when she disappears. The story is told from a double perspective, sometimes first person by Sammy and sometimes from the perspective of an unknown narrator. Early on, the second narrator mentions that he is part of the story, but will not reveal himself yet.

The first two thirds or so of this novel were a nice set up to the main plot and problem of the narrative. There were several pieces included that seemed secondary to the plot, but were woven in nicely to the conclusion. It was a bit different from what I usually expect from Moore: while it was definitely his brand of humor, there was less outright absurdity than I have come to expect. Not a bad thing of course, just something a bit different. Of course, Moore came through with just the right touch of lunacy to round things out in the end, including the revelation of the secretive second narrator.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I do not approve of how this book talks about cats. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for May

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 253
  • Also: 1 book unshelved, removed 1 book double counted, 1 book started

Dead is the New Black

img_4346Book: Dead is the New Black by Marlene Perez

Date Read: December 9 to 17, 2019

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

I read this back in December, as part of a mad rush to finish as many books as possible by the end of the year. This was a book that I had gotten as a daily deal on Kindle quite some time ago, and it was the perfect fit for a reading spree: short and something that does not require a ton of mental energy.

This supernatural detective novel is written as if it were realistic fiction. There is no real world building here—this book takes place in a normal town in California, just with the understanding that fictional creatures like werewolves and vampires are real. Our protagonist, Daisy Giordano, is the daughter of a psychic who is known to assist the local police. Her sisters have similar abilities, but Daisy reports herself to be a “normal.” Daisy is determined to help her mother solve a case that she is stuck on: all while navigating life as a high school student. There is high school romance, girl drama, cheerleaders, and every other young adult cliché you can think of.

Despite the clichés, I thought this was well done for what it is. The story was interesting, the writing reasonable. There were a few predictable developments, but also some surprises along the way. I discovered while reading that this is the first book in a series, and while I did enjoy this first book, it is not something that I feel I need to run out and read the rest. That said, I am happy to report that this was serviceable as a standalone novel. I can definitely see where there is room left open for further development with the characters, but the main plot of the story is wrapped up well.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Cheerleaders and girl drama? Can’t you make the new cat read these ones from now on? 1 paw.”

Harbor Me

img_3633Book: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Date Read: March 19 to 21, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Every year, I make an effort to read the book that is chosen for the One Book, One City program in Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids Public Schools and Grand Rapids Public Library partner on the project that provides a copy of the book to all 5th grade students in the city, as well as classroom resources for teachers and an online community for students to participate in. The program makes an effort to choose diverse books, and books that lend themselves to engagement and discussion from students. Honestly, they have outdone themselves with their choice for 2020.

Unlike previous years, I almost missed my opportunity to read this book. In the past, we have received at least one additional copy of the book that I have been able to borrow from the librarian. However, this year we only received exactly the number we needed for students and classroom staff. I was disappointed, but heard talk around the school: this was shaping up to be the best year yet for the program. Students were connecting with the book in ways that they have not in the past; classrooms were having open and honest discussions about real issues, initiated and lead by students. And then—COVID-19 reached our state. Within days, schools were shut down and teachers were left lamenting the cancellation of their wonderful plans. Me being the optimist, I am trying to be grateful for the fact that the school closures landed an abandoned copy of the book in my hands before I headed home.

The story focuses on six students from different backgrounds, who are all in the same small class at school. One Friday afternoon, their teacher takes them to an empty classroom, and leaves them to use the space to talk to each other without direction or interference from adults. Over time, each of the students opens up to their friends, as they start to recognize that although they are each living their own stories, their lives overlap with the stories of others. Although there are a couple ongoing storylines, this book is not heavily plot driven—the focus is more on the feeling and memories associated with a group of friends.

While I think I would have enjoyed this one any time, I think the time that this book fell into my hands amplified how I felt about it. There is an immense sense of community here; a sense of recognizing oneself as a part of something larger. At the same time, there is a recognition of each individual’s one story: a realization that everyone around us is living a life full of its own complications, and while we may be center stage in our own minds, we may only be a background character in the life of someone else. In a time of solidarity through solitude, I find something comforting about this.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I’m center stage in your mind though, right? 3 paws.”

Extra Yarn

img_4077Book: Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett

A few years ago, a group came to my school to read a book to all of the First Grade students. They really hyped up the guest coming to read to them, and then when the story was over, each student received a copy of the book to take home with them. This was that book, and such a lovely choice for a project like that!

Annabelle is walking outside one day in her cold, grey town, when she finds a box of brightly colored yarn. She makes herself a sweater, but finds that she still has extra yarn. So she makes a sweater for her dog. And then she makes one for her friend. And eventually there are sweaters for the whole town. She seems to always have some extra yarn to make something for someone. That is, until the evil archduke comes to town demanding that she sell him her box of yarn. When she refuses, he steals the box and runs away. Unfortunately for him, when he returns to his castle he finds that there is no yarn in the box for him!

This is a great book for a younger age group. The text is fairly easy without a ton of words on each page, and the story is easy to follow. The pictures are simple, yet interesting: most illustrations are a watercolor mixture of blacks and browns on a white background, with some bright contrast for the rainbow of colors in Annabelle’s yarn. This is a cute, simple story is pretty straightforward story about kindness. There is a clear “good guy vs. bad guy” dynamic, with a victory for good without a ton of conflict. Annabelle is able to continuously give to others from her magic box of yarn, but there is no yarn left for the selfish archduke who wants it all for himself. I’m sure if he had asked nicely for a sweater, she would have made him one. But I suppose that was not likely to happen—who makes a better villain than an archduke anyway?

Minka’s Thoughts: “Do you think she would make me a sweater to play with? 3 paws.”

The Lola Quartet

img_3865Book: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

Date Read: April 1 to 8, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

April’s prompt for The Unread Shelf Project was to read your most recently acquired book. Unlike some of the other prompts, this one was fairly easy and straightforward for me! At the beginning of March, I spent a couple days in Ann Arbor for work picked up this book (and one other) at the Literati Bookstore there. Since I read the other book at the end of March, I was left with The Lola Quartet as my clear choice!

This book was super intriguing, and I feel like I was able to really fly through it. The main story starts with Gavin, a reporter in New York whose life seems to be slowly unraveling. A slow downward trend starts to spiral out of control after a trip back to his hometown, when his sister shows him a picture of a girl named Chloe who bears a strong resemblance to their family—and happens to share the last name of his high school girlfriend. Gavin becomes obsessed with the idea of tracking down his old girlfriend Anna, and finding out about his possible daughter. This leads down an intricate rabbit hole of events, with simultaneous storylines: Gavin’s search for Anna in the present, and the story behind Anna’s disappearance beginning back when they were in high school. Anna’s story is twofold: the story of what happened 10 years ago, melding into a personal crisis for her in the present.

This is the second book I have read from Emily St. John Mandel, and I have to say that I love her writing style. While the main plot of the book centers on Gavin, she weaves in multiple story lines to bring the reader along. Throughout the book, the reader seems to be only a step or two ahead of Gavin in piecing together what happened. There is some perspective shifting, telling pieces of the story as it centers around multiple characters at different points in time. At some point, almost every character gets their time in the spotlight, shifting the dynamic of the book so that each feels like a “main character” for a moment. The reader is able to see how the action of each person impacts the others, and ultimately the outcome of the story.

At the end, each of the stories culminate in the present: Gavin tracks down Anna, where he is finally able to put together the final pieces of the puzzle. Anna has been involved in multiple criminal acts, which ultimately led to a death. While Gavin initially views himself as outside of Anna’s problems and the crisis that played out in the present, he realizes that he played an unintentional role: his sister taking the photo of Chloe was the impetus for the string of events. He grapples with what is the “right thing” to do with his knowledge, possibly with the realization that if he had been more upfront about his own actions, he could have altered the outcome.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Too much thinking for me to follow this one. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for April

  • Books Read: 4
  • Books Acquired: 0
  • Total Unread Books: 255

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Part 3

Book: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Date Read: December 12, 2019 to February 5, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

img_3185The Slippery Slope

While not the first time the orphans are separated from one another, this is the first time our story begins that way. At the end of The Carnivorous Carnival, Olaf sent Violet and Klaus tumbling down a mountain inside the freak caravan, while he made off with Sunny. Violet and Klaus are forced to use their skills to save themselves, and then begin to track down their sister. While the two meet up with an unexpected accomplice and make progress toward solving the mystery of V.F.D., Sunny is left to her own wits in dealing with the group of villains. This is our first real opportunity to see some real development in Sunny’s character, as up until this point she has been very much treated as a baby. However, she is starting to talk more in actual words, and is smart enough to take advantage of the fact that the villains do not realize she is starting to grow up. The older Baudelaires visit the line between nobility and villainy again, when they develop a plan to kidnap Esme Squalor in order to trade her back for Sunny, but find they feel guilty about considering the plan and cannot follow through. Although I would not quite call their results a “win,” the children are able to be reunited and headed off on their next adventure, away from Olaf.

I feel like the main focus of this book was on piecing together more of the puzzle to V.F.D. While there are some important events here, it is much lighter in plot than some of the previous books, with more focus on gathering information. We get a bit more on the Quagmires—discovering that Quigley, the remaining triplet, survived the fire and has been on a quest to find his siblings. He seems to have been a step behind the Baudelaires in their travels, and they are able to combine their knowledge to make some more sense of the schism and how it relates to Count Olaf’s schemes. We also get to meet two new villains, who are apparently so awful that even Count Olaf fears them and will not say their names: the man with a beard but no hair, and the woman with hair but no beard. There is also the reintroduction of a character that I, personally, could have done without any more of: Carmelita Spats. She presents as her spoiled and rotten self, of course endearing herself to Esme and Count Olaf.

img_3189

The Grim Grotto

Although I suppose it could be argued that this entire series is fairly dark, it takes an even darker turn in The Grim Grotto. The whole of the book seems to hold a bit more air of danger. While the orphans have certainly been threatened before, everything here seems more precarious, as they join the crew of the submarine Queequeg. The submarine is run by Captain Widdershins, along with his step-daughter Fiona, who becomes a suggested love interest for Klaus. In a search for the mysterious sugar bowl, they search a remote underwater grotto where they suspect the currents lead and encounter the Medusoid Mycelium, a deadly mushroom that nearly overtakes Sunny.

There is also much more exploration here on the dark nature of life, and the confusion they have struggling with in the battle of good versus evil. For the first time since their parents’ deaths, Baudelaires are forced to call upon some not-s0-pleasant memories, remembering that although they loved their parents dearly, nobody is completely good all of the time. They are faced with this again after returning to the submarine to find Captain Widdershins has disappeared and encountering Count Olaf—where they discover that Fiona’s long lost brother has been a part of the Count Olaf’s troupe. Although the Baudelaires try to convince her to stay with them, Fiona’s loyalty lies with her family; which means joining with Count Olaf and her brother to search for her missing stepfather.

In this book is also the Baudelaire’s first encounter with The Great Unknown—a literal unknown entity that appears as a question mark like shape on the submarine’s radar. They first see it on the radar when attempting to hide from Count Olaf, realizing that he flees the area when it seems to begin following him. The orphans have a brush encounter near the end of the book, and it is mentioned again in the remaining books in the series.

img_3193The Penultimate Peril

The penultimate book in the series finds the Baudelaires taking a more active role in the action of V.F.D. While there are still many mysteries surrounding the organization, they consider themselves volunteers fighting on the side of nobility. They meet up with Kit Snicket, who does fill in some of the missing information for them before leaving them with a mission: to disguise themselves as concierges in order to spy on the guests at the Hotel Denouement. The hotel is the “last safe place” where there is to be a gathering of V.F.D. in a few days—assuming that the orphans can verify that the hotel still remains a safe location. This book includes the return of many from throughout the series, who all come as guests to the hotel. Some of these appear to have been invited by V.F.D., and others seem to be there at the invitation of Esme Squalor.

While most of the book feels like the orphans are making some progress toward a happy ending, overall this is more of a continued blurring of the lines between good and evil. We reenter the realm of ambiguity and uncertainty in actions, as the children perform their duties as concierges to assist both guests and the managers—identical twin brothers, one a volunteer and the other a villain. In order to maintain their cover, the children feel like they must follow the orders given to them, although they are unsure if these are in service of V.F.D. or to assist the villains. Like many of the other books, we end with a fire: this one larger than any previously, and with unknown consequences as the children try to warn others as they make their escape.

img_3248

The End

The End finds the Baudelaire orphans in a much different place than usual. After escaping from the Hotel Denouement on a boat with Count Olaf, they are caught in a storm and become stranded on an island surrounded by a large coastal shelf. The water is normally too shallow around the island for boats to sail, and it is only possible to leave the island once every year. The island is inhabited by many people who also became stranded there, many with names related to famous castaways. It is mentioned several times, that this is the place where everything ends up eventually. The island has some strange customs and routines, all of which are presented as being quite lax, but are held to extremely strictly. The leader of the island, Ishmel, prefaces all directives with the words “I won’t force you,” and the islanders comply. Although there is an undercurrent of rebellion, most are generally complacent. They have arrived in a place where they can no longer be troubled by the outside world.

The islanders find Count Olaf disagreeable, and so do not invite him to join their village. The Baudelaires are skeptical of the islanders’ way of life, suspecting that there is more going on than meets the eye. After another islander suggests that they explore another area of the island, the orphans discover that Ishmel has been keeping many secrets from the other islanders; he is living a life of luxury hoarding many items they have collected all to himself. They also make the surprising discovery that they are not the first Baudelaires to visit the island: their parents were the previous island leaders, having lived there for several years before the children were born. The find a large hand written book of records that tells the story of the island and the lives of those who have spent time there: A Series of Unfortunate Events.

When another storm brings an injured Kit Snicket to the shores of the island, the orphans attempt to help her and Count Olaf attempts to disguise himself as her to gain favor with the islanders. For the first time, his disguise does not work, and the islanders put him into a large cage on the coastal shelf. As the coastal shelf begins to flood, the orphans release Olaf from his cage, as they do not want to be the ones who leave him there to drown. This sets off a short series of events where Olaf threatens the island with the Medusoid Mycelium, leading the islanders to abandon their village with Olaf, Kit, and the Baudelaires left behind. The Baudelaires are able to find a way to dilute the poison, but Kit is unable due to her pregnancy. Kit gives birth to her daughter, dying shortly after. Olaf also succumbs to the deadly mushroom’s poison. This leaves the Baudelaires to live as their parents once had on the island: a simple life away from the dangers of the world. They spend time perusing their parents’ logs in the record book, and creating logs of their own. Eventually, they begin to wonder about what has happened to the world outside their small island, and so prepare to leave as the waters on the coastal shelf rise.

————-

Overall, I enjoyed the series quite a bit. Each book added new layers to the story, with the characters and plots becoming increasing complex and intricate throughout. There was great humor mixed in along the way, with narrative asides and cultural references. The double story with the narrator sharing some of his own history and involvement in events that lead to the story was interesting.

I have to say though, that I was not completely satisfied with the ending. At the same time, I cannot say that I am completely dissatisfied either. The conclusion, or perhaps lack of conclusion, is very fitting and appropriate for the series as a whole. There is much discussion through the final book about the beginning and end of stories, and the suggestion that there is no true beginning or end to anything in life. I suppose this is left to the reader to interpret. Despite this being a fitting end to the story as told here, I felt that there were too many mysteries left unsolved. Many characters were left to face the Great Unknown, and the fate of many characters is left unstated after the fire in the twelfth book. Most of the mysteries surrounding V.F.D remain a mystery, and we never really find out why the narrator, Lemony Snicket, is so committed to telling this story. I feel like the same type of ending could have been achieved with just a bit more closure for the readers—after dedicating the time to read 13 books in the series, I feel like we are owed just a little more.