Winter’s End

img_9697Book: Winter’s End by John Rickards

Date Read: July 1 to 11, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

In July, the Unread Shelf Project challenged readers to own up to doing what they are told to never do: judging a book by its cover. I decided to put my own personal twist on the prompt, to read a book bought for the cover. This is a book that I bought for the cover, but not in the way that you would suspect: I bought it because it did not have a cover. I found this book in the discount section of a discount bookstore. Presumably it ended up there because it was a hardcover book that had lost its dust jacket. A plain black covered, with the title embossed on the spine in metallic red. This was many years ago—at least long enough that I did not have a smart phone or other convenient way of looking up anything about the book. Intriguing enough for me to bring it home.

As with many books, it got filed away on my shelf to read when the time was right. This month, its number was up. Despite the temptation, I refrained from looking up the book or checking reviews before reading. However, I did get a glimpse of the actual cover by adding it to my to read list on Goodreads. That all is to say: I went in to this with very few expectations. I suppose it is safe to say that it lived up to all of them. It was a quick and entertaining read, but nothing that jumped out or sets itself apart. It’s a pretty straightforward murder mystery story, with a few unusual elements. The leading man, Alex, is called back to his hometown to help the local sheriff solve an unusual case, and the clues begin to point to a larger story buried under the surface of small town life.

While the story was pretty straightforward in what I would expect from a murder mystery novel, the author did throw in some misleading trails and enough hints toward the supernatural that I wondered if there was something more to the novel than it seemed. As he revisits his hometown, Alex reminisces about his childhood, but most specifically about stories of ghosts and hauntings in the town and its surrounding woods. There are several characters that are implied to be important, who end up simply falling out of the story. I did enjoy some of these elements, especially descriptions and references to the purportedly haunted Crowhurst Inn where Alex stayed in town.

Unfortunately, none of these possibilities pan out. It really is just a murder mystery in the real world. There was one piece in particularly that had me wondering: Alex makes it a point to state that he moved on from the town when he left for college, never looking back. Initially, he talks about hoping to quickly solve the case so that he can get home to Boston. However, at several points later in the book, he refers to the Inn where he is staying as “home.” As I was reading, I wondered if this was some kind of clue, but in retrospect I wonder if it was merely a bit of careless editing.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I find hauntings more interesting than the real world as well. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for July

  • Books Read: 3
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 280

I have added it up several times, and my math does not fit from where I was last month. Not sure where the error is, but I know that this current total unread is right!

Little Feminists

img_9808Book: Little Feminist Books by Emily Kleinman, Illustrated by Lydia Ortiz

Being a wide-ranging bookworm can be a funny thing. My shelves are filled with such a variety of books that pretty much anything seems fair game. So, despite being a full-blown adult with cats instead of children, I was thrilled to get these Little Feminist baby books for my birthday this year.

This is a boxed set of Little Feminist books from Mudpuppy Books, including four board books with individual themes: Artists, Leader, Activists, and Pioneers. Each book features four women, with a kid-friendly explanation of their accomplishments and impact. There is also a cartoon illustration of each woman, all with bright colors and some distinctive accessories related to their inclusion.

I thought the author did a great job of choosing women from diverse backgrounds for inclusion. Some more traditionally known women like Amelia Earhart and Rosa Parks were included along with less familiar names like Malala Yousafzai, Billie Jean King, and Indira Gandhi. While I am definitely planning to hold on to this set for myself, I think this is one that I will have to gift to a few people in the future!

Boris’s Thoughts: “Boys should be feminists too. Girl power! 4 paws.”

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse

img_9719Book: The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy

Date Read: June 30, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I picked this one up at least a dozen times before I finally brought a copy home with me. I had seen occasional praise for it online, and the book itself is certainly eye catching. For some reason, it never felt like the book to get right in that moment—until it was. While I cannot say what it was that caused that shift, I am thrilled that it happened. This is more than a simple book: it is a work of art.

In the book’s short introduction, Mackesy states that “this book is for everyone, whether you are eighty or eight.” It truly is exactly that. It is a quick read full of wisdom and humor, coupled with some enchanting artwork. The art has an interesting style, with variation in its feeling of completeness. Some drawings are done with lines only, and give more of an impression than a full image. Others are more whole, with more details in the form and the addition of watercolor. The text of the book is handwritten, making it part of the flowing art piece.

Although the book does tell an overall story of the four friends who find their way into each others’ lives, it is not necessary to view this as a chronological story. Each page is a valuable work on its own, all of them coming together to make a book that is worth treasuring. I know that it is one that I will revisit from time to time—perhaps the whole book, or just a few pages when I need some wisdom and grounding.

Minka’s Thoughts: “This seems nice. Do you think they have room for a cat friend? 4 paws.”

City of Thieves

img_9752Book: City of Thieves by David Benioff

Date Read: July 18 to 23, 2011; June 13 to 18, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

A few weeks ago, I finally got myself a library card. I moved across the state in 2012, into my current home at the beginning of 2019, and it was not until 2021 that I first made it inside my local library. Of course, a major part of this is that I already have a rather extensive library at home. The draw that eventually got me through the door was the expanded access to audio books—since I have found my audio sweet spot with rereading, I have a hard time justifying buying an audio copy of books that I already own. Up until now, I have been accessing through my school’s library, but have started to run low on books there, as it primarily offers children’s and young adult options. So, I got my shiny new library card (Grand Rapids Public Library’s 150th Anniversary edition!) and then went home to start browsing the audio options.

My first choice with my new options was to revisit this book that I read very close to 10 years ago. At the time of my initial reading, it was something of an impulse buy. I was at the store looking for another book, which turned out to be not in stock. While talking to the bookseller, she recommended this one. Ten years later, I could remember only the vague outline of the story, but recall that it made a strong impression on me at the time. It made it onto my Goodreads favorites shelf, and there it has sat.

It’s an interesting thing, to label a book as a favorite and then sit on it for 10 years. Not only did I never get around to rereading, I never looked for any other work by the author, explore more in the genre, or look for recommendations based upon it. When I decided to reread now, I wondered if this one was truly deserving of its place on the list and thought about reevaluating it and several others. A few chapters in, I was starting to question my past self. The plot was thinner than I remembered, the characters more vulgar. Nothing that outright signaled dislike, but threw up a red flag: was this really worthy of the designation “favorite?”

I cannot recall the exact moment when my thinking turned, but yes: this is absolutely worthy of its place on my favorites list. This is a story that draws you in and holds you there. It feels real. The characters are introduced to you in the same way they are introduced to each other. They are people you want to know, and you feel their impacts on each other as they develop through the story. It is alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking, often at the same time. Lev’s voice rings true, not only with the telling of the story, but in how he perceives his surroundings and how thoughts of the past break through into the present moment. It was immersive in a way that I do not often feel with historical fiction.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I don’t like how they talk about the missing pets in the starving city… very suspicious. 1 paw.”

Saving Fish From Drowning

img_9415Book: Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

Date Read: June 3 to 30, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

For June, the Unread Shelf Project prompted me to choose a book that was bought in a spending spree. I feel like about 85% of my books could probably fall into that category, so decided to refine it further as it relates to my own shelves. Although I do not remember the specific trip when I bought this book, I got it during what I consider an extended book-buying spree. I know I have talked about this before, but I spent large stretches of time at Borders Books when I was in college, coming home with at least 1-2 new books every week in certain semesters. Since I was not reading much for pleasure at that point, I amassed a huge number of books rather quickly—I am still working on tackling many of them more than 10 years later. Along with being purchased in that time frame, I know this was not a book I went in specifically looking for, but one I chose in the moment at the store.

The novel is set up with the suggestion that it is a true story—told from beyond the grave based on the “automatic writing” of a medium. The story is narrated by Bibi Chen, who planned a trip to China and Burma for a group of friends, but is now tagging along as a ghost after her sudden and mysterious death. It is an interesting concept, but I have to say that I was not really sure what to think as I was getting in to the first few chapters. Honestly, after finishing the novel I still have the same mixed feelings. There were pieces of it that were lovely, but as a whole something about it fell short for me.

Initially, I found it a bit hard to keep track of the characters. With a cast of 12, it was hard to keep introductions straight, although this did get easier as the story began to move along. One of the biggest detractors for me was the attitude of the tourists as they began their journey. Although they had signed up for a pretty intensive cultural experience, none really seemed fully committed to actually living that experience. They seemed to be falling into a put of every negative tourist stereotype possible. I frequently found myself feeling that the place described seemed incredible and made me want to visit—but that I would be thoroughly miserable if I had visited with that group of people.

That said: some of the tourists did start to grow on me as things progressed. Of course, that did not completely negate my irritation with them. The description of the novel simply talks about the disappearance of the tourists, whereas in the story it is very clear that they have essentially been kidnapped. I do not want to give too much away, but will say that the kidnapping is not a violent one, and is primarily due to an unusual set of coincidences, cultural misunderstandings, and information lost in translation. So much so that by the end of the novel, even after being rescued, not one of them ever realized that they had been kidnapped. While the narrative was interesting and included some great descriptions of aspects of Asian culture, the novel as a whole did not resonate well.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I do not approve of stories that make you want to go to faraway places. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for June

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 278

The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig

Book: The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas

I am sure I have talked about this before, but I have a fascination with fairy tales. Of course, I feel I need to say that I am by no means an expert or even particularly well read when it comes to fairy tales—which is actually part of what I find so intriguing. There are hundreds of these stories that “everyone knows,” but there are so many different versions of each that not everyone really knows the story in the same way. It’s easy to say that the originals have the fairest claim to legitimacy, and while there is truth to that, I am not wholly convinced. Where do you draw the line when an interpretation of a story becomes more popular or well known than its source?

That is quite the lead in for a fairy tale adaptation that is neither well known nor anything like the original story. This is a book left on the shelf at my parents’ house from a Scholastic Book Fair long ago. I have a vague memory of it being read aloud to one of my elementary school classes. Really, I had not thought about it in a very long time until my cousin’s daughter pulled it off that shelf at a family party a few years ago and asked me to read it to her. From what I remember, we both enjoyed it, sitting on the landing upstairs while the party continued on below without us. It was returned to the shelf again until recently, when I stopped to look it over while visiting. A few days before that, I had been reading something online about non-traditional adaptations of fairy tales. It seemed a serendipitous moment, as I had not yet chosen a picture book for this month. I snatched the book up to read at home with the kitties.

I think this one even pushes the limits of being a non-traditional adaptation. The original tale of The Three Little Pigs seems like a familiar one, but not one that I can recall a specific source for. While I am sure that I had it in a story collection at some point, no particular storybook comes to mind. I did a little Google research to find that the most commonly known version may come from a Disney short, but that there are differences in that story from the generally agreed upon original from the mid-1800s. I’m sure you are shocked. While certainly a stretch from either story, this version takes elements from both. As I am sure you have inferred from the title, the tables are turned a bit here, with some cuddly little Wolves being picked on my a big bully of a Pig.

The story starts similarly to the original Pigs tale, with the Wolves being sent off by their mother to build a home of their own. Continuing along those lines, they begin to create houses from building materials they get from several other animals that they happen upon. Luckily for the Wolves, these are rather more sturdy materials than those of the Little Pigs: the first house built by the Little Wolves is made of brick. When the Big Bad Pig comes along, he threatens the Wolves and claims he will huff and puff and blow their house in. Of course, we all learned from the original tale that huffing and puffing is not effective against bricks. Unfortunately for the Little Wolves, the Pig also owns a sledgehammer. We have veered off course from the story you were expecting, perhaps?

The story continues with escalating building materials and destruction, coming to something of a twist ending—I do not want to give too much away, but I will say at least that everyone has the chance to live happily ever after. Overall, this is a cute story that will definitely get some laughs out of both children and adults. As I said above, this works well as a read aloud. I can see this being a great addition to a school unit on fairy tales, at any age. However, I think the ideal age group for this one would be middle elementary, around 7 or 8. Although I think younger children would still enjoy the story, I am not sure that they would fully appreciate the “twisted fairy tale” aspect.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I don’t know if I fully appreciate the twisted fairytale aspect. These animals are crazy.”

Stuart Little

img_5956Book: Stuart Little by E.B. White

Date Read: April 12 to 13, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

Back in September 2020, I wrote some about audio books, sharing that I have decided the format is a good fit for revisiting books that I know I have read. I have mostly been accessing these through the free library at my job, as I do not want to invest much in purchasing audio versions of books I already own. I tore through many of the books last summer, and things have fallen off some during 2021. While I am exploring other options for access to audio, I have only picked up a few remaining titles I can still access for free. In April this year, I decided that I needed a little something to listen to while going for a walk. I decided on Stuart Little, as it is one that I know I read long ago, but could remember very little about.

I had some mixed feelings on this one. I think it started with a fine concept for a children’s story, and thought that there were some really cute and engaging chapters. Each chapter seems to function as its own little short story, with the chapters then connected together to tell an overarching story of Stuart’s life. Many of these were fun or silly, most with an element of adventure as well. However, there were a few that fell short for me, especially later in the book after Stuart leaves home. I felt like there was some potential in some of the stories, but was ultimately unsatisfied with how things played out.

For me, the biggest issue is that the story feels incomplete. It does not have a wrapped up ending, the book just stops in the middle of what it seems should be Stuart’s greatest adventure. Stuart is driving north—he is in search of his friend, but has no ideas of where to look or really a clear idea of how he might find her. He stops to have a conversation with a man about the direction he is heading, and then the book is over. Perhaps a vague and open ending like that might be viewed as hopeful in a book for adults, but it really does not fit with the rest of the book; any deeper meaning would certainly go over the heads of children in the glossed over final interaction.

Minka’s Thoughts: “What a mean cat that was! I may be a troublemaker, but at least I’m not MEAN. This book gives a bad name to all cats! Who would write such terrible things? 1 paw!”

Wicked

img_9295Book: Wicked by Gregory Maguire

Date Read: March 19 to June 2, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I chose Wicked as a match for the challenge to read a book by an author I have never read—in this case, an author I own more than one unread book from. I added this one to my shelves around the time that the musical was really taking off. Being a long time fan of the Wizard of Oz film, I was really intrigued by the idea behind the story. Eventually I was able to see the musical, which appeased my curiosity for a bit, and then a less-than-favorable review from a friend had me moving it down the list of upcoming books. This was also right around the time I started college and began accumulating books much faster than I could read them. Somehow, I ended up with the full series on my shelves before ever opening the first book. Seems odd when I consider that my friend’s dislike delayed reading, but did not discourage me from buying the remaining books. The logic of a book hoarder, I suppose.

Despite the span of time it took my to get through this one, I actually quite enjoyed it. It was not exactly what I was expecting it to be, and I will start by saying that the musical was definitely inspired by this story, not truly based upon it. Honestly, I thought this was fitting—the translation from the source text to musical felt similar to that of the original Wizard of Oz story to film. The story itself feels a little flat, with character development skirted a bit in favor of actionable moments. This is morphed a bit, and livened up with music, to create a much more engaging experience. That’s not to say, of course, that lovers of the musical will not enjoy the novel, only that the experience is different. The origin of the Wicked Witch is still there, with Elphaba largely presented as misunderstood, although a bit less sympathetic than in the musical.

I enjoyed that the author used aspects of both the original story and imagery from the film in developing Elphaba’s back-story. Fans of the original Oz stories likely know that the primary tale contains many aspects of political allegory. Keeping true to its origin, this in definitely a tale of politics, much more overtly than Baum’s first Oz tale. Elphaba in essence is a political rebel and refugee; this leads her story to be darker and more adult than other Oz iterations. There are themes and commentaries around politics and religion, good and evil. Although consistently intriguing, it could get dense at times and was certainly not a quick or easy read. In the end, I felt that the effort was worth it. The reader gets a good picture of what can lead a person to be considered wicked—Elphaba has a troubled life, resulting some erratic and desperate behavior which is easily framed by those who feel threatened by her. Even her final interaction with Dorothy seems to be based in a major misinterpretation of motives from multiple ends.

Minka’s Thoughts: “All those familiars, and not one cat. It’s a shame. 2 paws.”

Hollow Kingdom

img_8797Book: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

Date Read: May 2 to 19, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

May brought on the challenge of reading a book that I bought as a new release. Surprisingly, I do not have a ton of these to choose from on my shelves. Knowing how many books are already waiting on my unread shelf, I do my best to avoid truly new releases. I usually push myself to wait for a paperback release, knowing that I can save a little money since I will likely not start reading it right away. It’s also a good way to sort out the books that I truly want to read—if I’m still interested in a new release by the time the paperback comes out, it’s worth adding to my list. Of course, there are exceptions made: usually for certain authors, and in this case for a recommendation in a local bookshop in Northern Michigan.

Hollow Kingdom is a book that took me by surprise. It is a story of the downfall of humanity, told from the perspective of a domesticated crow. The concept was intriguing to me, but a few chapters in I started to question my choice. Our narrator and hero, the crow S.T. (short for Shit Turd), starts out being pretty annoying to me. S.T. loves humanity, sharing all of the things that he learned from his owner, Big Jim. The problem? Big Jim does not seem like a particularly likable guy. The result is a crow who comes off as ignorant and pretentious—the exact qualities that he complains about in other animals. Still, there was a glimmer there of something special in the way he spoke about nature.

As I continued reading, S.T.’s brashness began to subside, making way for a beautiful and tragic description of the crumbling world as nature begins to reclaim the earth. S.T. begins to serve as a bridge in the natural world, with some surprising insights into the connectedness of nature and the role of humans in it. He learns what it means to be a part of the world as a bird, but is also able to use his knowledge of humanity to help the animal world. Through the story, S.T. slowly reveals details about Big Jim in a way that peels back the less appealing aspects of his personality for a look at the core of his humanity—a man who viewed his pets as part of his family, who loved and ended up heartbroken.

Despite the off-putting start and a few ridiculous seeming incidents, this story really hooked me and kind of punched me in the gut. By the end of the story, I was in love with S.T.’s picture of the world. This was a perfect mixture of humor and humanity for me, creating a sad and lovely story. I mean, who would have ever suspected that a book about a crow named Shit Turd could bring one to tears?

Boris’s Thoughts: “I like a bird that recognizes the significance of cats. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for May

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 12
  • Total Unread Books: 281

I feel like for the purposes of accountability, I need to comment on my totals update. I definitely splurged this month—the result of a trip to a much-loved bookstore that I do not get to visit often. I am committing to balance for the coming months: more books read than books acquired.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

img_9120Book: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett, Illustrated by Ron Barrett

I had not yet picked out a book for this month, when I happened upon a children’s literature puzzle in a bookish group on Facebook. The post was a Children’s Book Emoji Pictionary, which included many popular or classic books. While it appeared that most people did not have much trouble with most of the titles, it struck me that there were a few that consistently gave people a hard time. One of them was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (represented by clouds, an umbrella, and a plate of spaghetti). The consensus in the comments seemed to be that most knew of the movie, but did not realize that it was inspired by a book.

With that in mind, I had to pull it off my shelf to revisit. This is one of those books that I remember loving when I was younger, but did not have my own copy of until I picked it up as an adult. I remember this as one of the highly sought-after books in my elementary school library. The book is set up to look a bit like a comic book, with the text in boxes and some pages showcasing multiple panels of pictures. The story is set up as a tall-tale told by a grandfather after a messy pancake incident over breakfast. While obviously intended to be silly, the story itself is fairly straightforward. It is complemented perfectly by the illustrations, which add an extra layer of comedy to the already goofy story.

The reading level of this one is a bit on the high end for a picture book, with an official recommendation on the back cover for ages 9-11. I think this is a good fit both for difficulty and for content. While I think there is a silliness to the story that could be appreciated by some younger children, I think some of the story might be lost on kids that were much younger than that target range. Still, I think this could be good as a read aloud for perhaps 3rd-5th grade students, and could possibly be a good format for discussion on text features with students who are a little older.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Did someone say meatballs? You have my attention. 4 paws.”