Midnight Sun & Twilight

img_7155Book: Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer; Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Date Read: December 10 to 16, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars; 3 (of 5) stars

Like most everyone else who read these, I found Twilight in the middle of the hype in 2008. The series was complete, and the movie would be coming out soon. My sister, who was not a big reader, was interested in the series, and we decided to split the cost of the boxed set of books. I loved the idea of encouraging her to read, and figured that I would get around to them eventually; but when her and my mom both finished it and started to get excited for the movie release, I caved so that I could join them.

I think it goes without saying that I do not consider Twilight, or any of the remaining books, as high quality literature. I take them at face value and consider them for what they are: quick entertainment romance novels aimed at a younger demographic. As that, they succeed spectacularly. (I suppose I should note that, at the time, I was probably just on the cusp of this ideal demographic, having graduated high school a couple years before the first book was released.) Along with that, I have to give Stephenie Meyer credit with perfect timing in the release of Midnight Sun, coming long enough after the initial series that those who read the first can look back with enough nostalgia to not cringe too much.

Knowing that Midnight Sun was coming soon, and with my new habit of rereading via audio book, I decided to revisit Twilight over the summer. I like to be prepared when reading something from a series. It was definitely an interesting look back. While the story was much as I remembered, the writing was a bit worse than my memory. Bella is more irritating of a character than I recalled—although this may be somewhat biased from reading the other books. I do remember liking her more in the later books of series, so perhaps taking that development backward clouded my view. I will say, however, that the narrator for the audio book was matched well, and I do like listening to audio books written in first person.

All things considered, I think this was a better story from Edward’s perspective. Perhaps some of this is improvement in writing over time, but I also think that part of that relates to the difference in the voice of who is telling the story. Sure, Edward comes across pretty arrogant much of the time, but he is also more reflective, and, well, does not talk like a teenage girl. Being familiar with the story from Bella’s view, and the more neutral view from the movie, it was interesting to see things from the other side. There is certainly more brought in regarding the other members of the Cullen family, which makes for a richer story with a bit more depth. I particularly liked filling in the pieces toward the end of the story, when Bella is in the hospital.

The switched viewpoint also allows for more insight into the actions of Edward and several other characters, given the “talent” of mind reading that Meyer has endowed him. It was good to piece together the motivations of him and others, which also shed some new light on some of the events from the original book. Edward’s view of himself was also different that I was expecting—although he often has a superior attitude, he very truly believes himself to be something terrible and unworthy of good things. His reminders to Bella that he is “not good for her” are much deeper than the obvious consideration for her safety. Turns out, Edward’s head is a pretty dark place to be, but of course, why didn’t I see that coming?

Minka’s Thoughts: “This book is so big. Almost me-sized. Do you think it wants to play?”

Just Mercy

img_7112Book: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Date Read: November 15 to 30, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I heard about this book some time during the last school year, at one of our district PBIS Meetings (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports). Each school has their own systems in place to support behavior proactively—teaching expectations, building community, and reinforcing those expectations throughout the school. A few times throughout the year, the coaches from all of the elementary schools gather to share ideas, successes, and get input on our practices. An additional focus in the last few years has been equity.

Equity. Not to be confused with equality. The idea of equity goes beyond the idea of everyone getting the same thing, to the recognition that individual circumstances matter in what is needed to create an equal outcome. Not everyone needs the same thing to have the same potential outcomes. Representation matters. When it comes to literature, many often characterize this by saying that children who are minorities need to see characters that look like themselves. This falls short. Diversity in reading is important for everyone—not just the people who fit in a particular category.

Bryan Stevenson tells the story of working on the case of Walter McMillian: a man who has been sentenced to death for murder, but maintains his claim of innocence. As the circumstances that lead to Walter’s arrest and imprisonment are laid out, the reader has an interesting view of the justice system: how things fall into place in an investigation, how individual circumstances impact progress, and how many opportunities there are for things to go wrong.

Walter’s story is told interspersed with many others: specific cases of executions, sentences for life imprisonment, and statistics of crimes and punishments that readers will find shocking. This was an excellent read; an important read; also one that will intermittently turn your stomach and/or bring you to tears. There is injustice and redemption, progress and frustration, and so many places where we can do better as a society.

While we would like to think that our justice system follows the adage that “justice is blind,” there is clear evidence that it is not. Perhaps in light of this, we should consider things differently. Maybe justice should not be blind: background and circumstances matter. If we strive for equity, we need to acknowledge that there are differences in how our system treats individuals, and adjust accordingly.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Books that cause tears really put a lot of pressure on us lap cats. 2 paws.”

Interested in supporting the work discussed in this book? Find more information and donate to the Equal Justice Initiative at: http://www.eji.org

Butts Are Everywhere

img_6759Book: Butts Are Everywhere by Jonathan Stutzman

I first saw this book in an Instagram post from Penguin Publishing, and knew immediately that it was going to be a must have coming into the holiday season. It was in consideration for all the kids on my list—but I decided to mix things up some for the others, and only purchased this one for my siblings’ kids. (Honestly though, this is a gift for my brother just as much as for my nephew, right?) My nephews are 4 and 2; my niece is 3. For them, a butt is just about the funniest thing on the planet. Although none of them are old enough to read, they were delighted to see the butt illustrations on the cover of the book when they opened their gifts.

This gem is an ode to butts everywhere: the small butts, the smooth butts, the large butts, and the furry butts. There are just so many types of butts that can be discussed! Obviously, there is plenty of silliness and laughs abound with the topic of butts. There is some educational information mixed in along the way, with a list of many other names used for butts, as well as some fun facts about the many purposes of butts in both humans and animals. Of course, no book about butts would be complete without mention of toots. Just like butts, there are many different types of toots—and all of them are perfectly normal, even if they do sometimes stink.

In addition to being a book that kids can laugh along to, this could be a good start to a conversation about bodies and body positivity. The book celebrates all types of butts: every size, color, and shape that they come in. The book wraps up with a reminder that even though we sometimes laugh about them, our butts are an important part of us; and you should never forget: Your butt is awesome!

Boris’s Thoughts: “You are so immature.”

Annihilation

img_7041Book: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Date Read: December 1 to 8, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

For December, the Unread Shelf Project asks you to read the shortest book on your shelf. It’s really the perfect fit for this time of year, when everyone seems to be going just a little crazy to fit in their holiday plans along with wrapping up their goals for the year. While I am often somewhat rigid when it comes to metrics and data, I interpret this one a little loosely: anything under 200 pages counts as my shortest books. There are quite a few of them—mostly Shakespeare, as I am that person who gets the complete works of Shakespeare and then individually lists all plays as things to read (making Shakespeare both the shortest and longest books on my list!). In the end, of course, I did not go with Shakespeare: I picked this one up at one of my local independent bookshops, when I went in for a gift and had to leave with something for myself too.

Annihilation is a little outside my normal reading spectrum, as a mystery and science fiction combo. While I do enjoy both, I do not read too heavily in either genre. The story is a slow build without much direct action, but much time put into building the world of Area X. This fits with the context of the novel—it is written as a journal belonging to a biologist, who is part of an expedition to an area reported to have had experienced an “environmental disaster.” Early on, her reports suggest that there is more going on than meets the eye, although this is never quite defined.

Each member of the expedition has a different area of expertise, which they are defined by rather than named: the Psychologist, the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, and the Biologist. While they have been given general orders as a group, each seems to have their own slightly varying agenda. The expedition quickly devolves, as each of the members is impacted by their surroundings and begin to follow their own paths. The biologist’s journal paints an eerie picture of the landscape, as she tries to make sense of her surroundings and describe things that she does not seem to understand herself.

While the concept here is definitely interesting, this book left me wanting more than it was willing to give. It was an enjoyable read, although a little unsettling in places. The style allows for the reader to start piecing some things together, and there’s definitely a ton of room for speculation. However, the ending is left too open for my liking. Of course, this is the first book in a series, so there may be some of what I was looking for in the other books; though I am not sure that I am invested enough in the story to continue.

Boris’s Thoughts: “All that strange wildlife, and not cats? Ridiculous. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for December

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 8
  • Total Unread Books: 271

Old MacDonald Had A Truck

img_6773Book: Old MacDonald Had A Truck by Steve Goetz

My discovery of this book came out of a bad habit: I often browse the discount section for children’s books that look interesting, and if the price seems right I will buy a few without really thoroughly looking at them. I figure these are great things to have on hand for gifts, and although I would love to personally pick out a book for every occasion, there are times when it’s nice to have something on hand. Knowing that the holidays were coming up, I grabbed this one primarily based on the title and a quick glance at the illustrations.

A few days later, I took a closer look at the books I had picked up to see what might be good fits for Christmas, and gave this one a more careful look—the next day I headed back to the bookstore to pick up another copy. At first glance, this is a play on the familiar “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” song, with most of the text following the pattern of the verses. However, rather than going through a list of animals, the song goes through all the machinery owned by Old MacDonald: an excavator, bulldozer, and many others. Rather than animal noises, each piece of machinery is paired with its function, with a dig dig here or a push push there. It’s great fun for kids interested in vehicles or machines, but also has some other interesting features.

To go along with the different vehicles included, the author occasionally makes a play on the “E-I-E-I-O” part of the song, substituting an appropriate “O” rhyme that matches the equipment. I especially enjoyed the “E-I-E-I-SLOW” to go along with the steamroller. There is also a double story here for those who give more than a cursory glance at the illustrations. As each of the machines are being introduced, we can see that Old MacDonald is working on a construction project on his farm—leading up to the appearance of the truck from the title, which happens to be a racing stunt truck ready for the course that he has built!

Minka’s Thoughts: “Old MacDonald had a… cat? ME-I-ME-I-OW. I am poet!”

City of Ember

img_6662Book: City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Read: March 2016

One of the kids that I buy books for each Christmas is good about giving me requests. I usually do not even need to ask—he will find me at one of our fall get-togethers to let me know what he is interested in right now, or sometimes even to request a specific book. He started middle school this year, and told me that he is looking for something new. He asked if I knew about any books that are “kind of like Harry Potter, but not really because magic and stuff like that isn’t important.” Sounded like a bit of a tall order to me, but I told him I would think about it.

So, the first step for me was thinking about what is important about Harry Potter when you take out the “magic and stuff”—friendship, choosing your path, fighting for what’s right, working together to make a difference, and, of course, at least a little adventure. Some of these are common elements in much intermediate and young adult fiction, so my challenge was to find an appropriate combination in a story that will grab his interest. Nothing came to mind outright, so I decided to look for inspiration in the substantive children’s section at one of my local bookstores. I found the answer there when I spotted a book from a series that I read a few years ago from my school’s library.

This is the first book in a “trilogy plus prequel” series, but I think works well as a standalone novel as well. The story centers on Lina and Doon, two 12-year-old acquaintances with a vision of saving their struggling city, and to a lesser extent Lina’s younger sister Poppy. I would call this light science fiction and semi-dystopian—the world built here is not tremendously different than our own, although it is in much more unusual circumstances. In Ember, there is no natural light. The city runs on electricity, but the citizens are beginning to have increasing difficulty keeping things running smoothly.

Doon is interested in the generators and finding a way to save the town—Lina is concerned, but not so sure about what can be done. When Lina finds part of a document that appears to be left by the builders of the city, the two begin an investigation that may lead to a solution for their town. Of course, along the way they encounter the number one obstacle of all young protagonists: adults who are concerned with their own agenda, or fear the change that is suggested by the younger generation.

Boris’s Thoughts: “No lights? No sunny spot on the couch to sit in? This is not going to work for me. 1 paw.”

Shakespeare for Squirrels

img_6788Book: Shakespeare for Squirrels by Christopher Moore

Date Read: November 5 to 15, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

As an intro for this book, I am going to repeat the same sentiment that I had for last year’s November prompt from The Unread Shelf Project: I have no idea what my favorite genre is. This year I enlisted a friend to talk me through figuring it out, but we both ended up a little stumped. As it turns out, apparently my favorite genre is “fiction;” which seems too nonspecific for the prompt, and also means about 90% of the books currently on my to read shelf. We decided that an acceptable adjustment would be to choose a book by a favorite author, leading to books from Christopher Moore meeting prompts in two different months of 2020! It seems fitting for such a wacky year.

If you have been around Books On My Cat for awhile, you may know that this is the third book from Moore that I have written about. In the past, I described his writing as “a unique combination of humor, intelligence, and absurdity,” and commented on his masterful ability to create new life while building from a well-known source material. Both of these hold true in Shakespeare for Squirrels, and I continue to marvel at the research, time, and thought put into a work so riddled with penis jokes.

This is the third book that features Pocket, the fool in the court of King Lear, who readers first met in Fool. After the downfall of Lear and some shenanigans in Venice, Pocket finds himself on the shore of Greece amid goblins, fairies, and manipulative royals. The main feature here follows along with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but also draws upon other aspects from the full spectrum of Shakespeare canon. He keeps many stylistic elements true to the work of Shakespeare, with some modernizations and creative curses thrown in for good measure.

Having not read the original work, I am not as familiar with particular play, and so find it difficult to point to specific links in the stories. However, the framework is definitely there, and my limited knowledge of the play did not lessen my enjoyment of this new take. I really enjoyed the “play within a play” aspect put together in “Act 3” of the novel, which served to pull together several individual lines running throughout the book. With some luck and a little fairy magic, Pocket makes it through to the end only a bit worse for wear, and ready to head off in the direction of his next adventure.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I may not know Shakespeare, but I know squirrels; and this is definitely squirrelly. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for November

  • Books Read: 3
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 268

They All Saw A Cat

Book: They All Saw A Cat by Brendan Wenzel

This fun cat-centric book is all about the illustrations. The author, who is primarily an illustrator, pairs simple, repetitive prose with varying and interesting illustrations to tell a story about perception. A cat goes about his day encountering others who all see him a bit differently. While the majority of the text merely states who is seeing the cat, the illustrations take the reader on a journey ranging from a child’s perspective to a bird’s eye view. Each one is bright and interesting, and all slightly different in both perspective and style.

I also love that this book can be versatile in its purpose and easy to interact with. The patterned text makes this great for early readers, but it also makes a great read aloud with the stunning illustrations to show off. It is also a great book to start some discussion around perspective taking, and helping children to see that not everyone views the world in the same way as them. The differences in style used in the illustrations could also be a good jumping off point for an art lesson: what do the colors and textures tell you about each view of the cat, and why did the author choose to portray the cat in that particular way?

Boris’s Thoughts: “I also see a cat. Oh, 4 paws, I suppose. I must appreciate an author who appreciates me!”

Speak

img_6765Book: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Date Read: Various

I read Speak for the first time when I was in high school—not for a class, but at the recommendation of an English teacher. She said that it is a book she thinks every high school student should read. Since then, I have picked up many other works from Laurie Halse Anderson, but there is something special about Speak that keeps bringing me back.

My continuous impulse to reread this one has earned it a spot on my list of favorites. Despite this distinction, I have a hard time articulating what exactly it is that draws me to this book, beyond the fact that I agree with my English teacher that it should be required reading in high school. The story follows Melinda, who enters high school as a selective mute after an incident at a party over the summer. Although she is mute to those around her, the reader gets an inside view to her thoughts, where they find the authentic voice of a cynical teenage girl. Melinda has much to say, about her school, peers, teachers, and experiences—she just does not know how to say it to others. While Melinda’s silence is linked directly to the trauma she experienced, the story of her search for her voice may relate to a broader audience.

I have not always been good about tracking my reading, although I would estimate that I have read this one around 5 or 6 times. Most recently, I revisited it as an audio book, which is a new trend for me. The narrator’s voice was matched well to the character of Melinda, and it’s first person format works well for the format. Hearing Melinda’s thoughts spoken aloud adds an interesting element, turning it from a sort of journal to an inner monologue.

Minka’s Thoughts: “This one is too big for my tent. Can I try the headphones again? I won’t chew on the cord this time.”

The Halloween Tree

Book: The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

Date Read: October 30 to November 4, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I found this little book while wandering past the children’s section in one of my favorite bookstores. The picture on the cover caught my eye, and upon further examination I quickly decided that it was one that I needed to have. Prior to seeing this, I had no idea that Bradbury had written for children and was intrigued. After reading, I am somewhat torn on its classification as a children’s book—the story fits the idea of a children’s book, but the style does not seem quite right for what one would expect from children’s literature.

That said, I am in love with the style of Bradbury. He captures the spirit and feeling of fall not only in his words but it how he chooses to arrange them. I have always loved the fall, and his writing has a way of capturing that—the feeling of wanting to light some candles and curl up under the blanket to contemplate the strange and unusual. Something about it soothes my soul, and I think I may need to make this particular book a part of my future fall routine.

A group of boys sets out for Halloween adventure, and find themselves chasing the soul of their friend on a journey through traditions related to Halloween and death, across cultures and the time. Though the focus is on the boys’ experience of the Halloween holiday, their excursion goes beyond that to explore Egyptian and pagan death rituals, the Druid celebration of Samhain, and the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos (among others). While it is certainly incorrect to view each of these as a different culture’s version of Halloween, there are definite parallels that can be drawn between them all. El Dia de Los Muertos is no more the “Mexican Halloween” than our Halloween celebrations are the “American Day of the Dead.” Yet, they both offer a celebration of life and death peculiar to the fall season.

Of course, our modern celebrations are a far cry from the origins of the holiday, even by comparison to our own culture’s history: when was the last time it was usual for a “trick or treater” to actually offer up a trick to those who denied them a treat? The Halloween Tree offers some insight into the blending of culture and traditional, the common threads that unite us all a little more than we realize. I cannot think of a better feeling to pair with the season.

Boris’s Thoughts: “A book about Halloween with no cats? Pah! 1 paw.”