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.”

Christmas Cheer and Disney Cinestory Comics

My family’s Christmas gathering is a pretty big deal for us: although each family has always spent Christmas day on their own, we kick off the holiday with a Christmas Eve gathering of around 35 to 40 people spanning four generations. We have dinner, share drinks, exchange gifts, and always have a visit from Santa, who pulls out a guitar and leads a few Christmas carols. There are usually a few games of euchre, and the night often ends with a Christmas movie on as people begin to go their separate ways. As the family has grown, we have had some evolving rules around gift giving. Adults have always drawn names to exchange, and with a growing number of young kids there is a newer tradition of kids drawing names and buying for each other. Some of the adults—those without young kids of their own—still opt to buy for all the young ones. Several years ago, I started the tradition of buying books.

One of my favorite things leading up to the holidays is picking out books for each kid. When they were younger, it was easy to find fun picture books. Now, with a few getting older and becoming readers in their own right, I have tried to get a little creative. Being in schools, I do read a fair amount of children’s and young adult literature, but it’s not always easy to find the perfect match for each kid. I usually end up with a mix of new books and ones that I have read. Although I know my Christmas is going to look different this year, I still picked out books for all the kids, and decided to use the blog to share some of my finds.

img_6658Book: Cinestory Comics by Disney

Pictured: Big Hero 6, Coco, Inside Out

My first discovery of the holiday season was these Disney graphic novels. Disney has always been popular in my family, so these caught my attention right away. I found these in a box set for a pretty reasonable price considering it comes with four books. There were a few options of sets available, including princesses and blockbusters—I liked the variety in this particular set and thought it was a good fit for some of the older kids (around age 9).

Since the kids all read a fair amount, I am always trying to find the balance between something popular that will interest them, but not something so popular they will likely have already read or seen it through school. Graphic novels have been gaining popularity for some time, and I thought these were a fun addition in that format. These are especially cool because they are not simply comics telling the story of the movie—the comics are created from still shots from the movies. I am especially excited about the Big Hero 6 book, which I think is going to be perfect for my cousin’s son who can be picky about his reading, and tends to be more into video games lately.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Does being in my bed make these bedtime stories?”

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.”

The Count of Monte Cristo

img_6428Book: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Date Read: February 26 to October 28, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I stretched the rules a little bit for the October challenge for the Unread Shelf Project, by starting the book early. I knew that there was no way that I was going to tackle a 1200+ page book in a single month, especially during the early months of a school year. Although I started the book back in February, I was rather slow about getting into things. I read only a few chapters each month, with the goal of getting myself in a good place to finish the book during October as a book that scares/intimidates me. With the exception of the complete works of Shakespeare, The Count of Monte Cristo was the longest book on my to read list (including several volumes that contain multiple novels). Coincidentally, I timed my reading perfectly: this novel could easily be divided into two general “sections,” and I reached the faster paced second section just as October was starting.

Despite the length, this was not a novel of wasted words. This was a very complex and intricate story, with a long build up. The style was descriptive without becoming burdensome. Each character was given a moment of importance, with few added in to be mere filler. While some parts of the beginning section seemed to move a bit slowly, there were details included that became important reference points later. I was surprised to discover in chapter 63 that there were references to seemingly minor events as far back as the sixth chapter, their significance finally coming to light with time.

Prior to reading, I had some vague notions of the story, knowing that it was famous for a prison escape. While this is obviously an important aspect of the story, I would say that the more intriguing part of the story comes later, after many layers are unfurled. It is written with an air of mystery, giving the reader many opportunities for wonderings and predictions, making the length seem a bit less overwhelming. Edmond Dantes is identified early on as our leading man, but there is still some uncertainty of his exact role in events moving in to the later chapters. It is not until chapter 82 that it is revealed that a single man is playing multiple parts, and several chapters further before it is confirmed with certainty that titular Count is Edmond Dantes.

While vengeance seems the driving force through most of the novel, I think there is a complexity in this that could be easily overlooked. Dantes is certainly seeking retribution, but sees himself acting as an agent of providence rather than vengeance—he is not directly bringing the demise of his enemies, but linking the pieces together so that they bring down themselves. At the same time, he attempts to give redemption to others, and to spare those who exist in the circle of his enemies but whom he views as innocent. With few exceptions, it seems that he has foreseen and planned for every possibility.

As a final thought on this bookish endeavor, I want to share something that I learned: translation matters. I realize that this must seem fairly obvious to many, but it is the first time that I have experienced a clear example. I started this as an ebook, which I found for free due to the age of the story. A few chapters in, I was not particularly impressed, and was surprised that others had been so excited about such mediocre writing. After checking some reviews, I noticed that a few mentioned a particular translation: the unabridged version translated by Robin Buss. I ordered this translation (available through Penguin Classics), and it truly made a world of a difference. I do not know that I would have carried this to completion based on my original version—especially disheartening considering how much I enjoyed reading.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I must say, I like this count’s style. I approve. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for October

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 6
  • Total Unread Books: 269

Night of the Gargoyles

img_6412Book: Night of the Gargoyles by Eve Bunting

Just in time for Halloween, I have something a bit different from a popular children’s author. I say a bit different because most of the works I am familiar with from Bunting tend to be a little lighter. However, I may have an inaccurate impression of her, considering the vastness of her bibliography (seriously, did you know that she has written more than 250 books?). Although not specifically a Halloween themed book, this one has a definite creepy vibe that is perfect for the Halloween season.

Most books aimed for children have at least a slight element of silliness incorporated, which is noticeably lacking here. I would not call this outright scary, but it definitely has a creepy feel. The monochrome pictures add to this, but also compliment the story nicely. Continuing on the idea of silliness, I would not say it is completely absent: although not included overtly in the story, there are a few fun or amusing details included in the illustrations.

The story reads like a poem—not the typical rhyming verse often found in children’s literature, but a long form poem more reminiscent of classic poetry. This makes it a bit of a higher reading level than would be expected of a children’s book, although I think it makes it a good fit for a read aloud or an introduction to different types of poetry.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Ooh. Looks fun. Boris, can we play Gargoyles?”

Boris’s Thoughts: “You’re doing this wrong, Minka! Cut it out! 1 paw!”

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

img_6189Book: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Date Read: September 10 to 29, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Why did I decide to revisit The Hunger Games recently? Because I needed to prepare myself for the prequel that came out this year, of course.

Although the book is technically a prequel, I think it may be more aptly described as a sort of character study. This is not a story to try to redeem President Snow (of course not, how can you be redeemed by something that happened before the acts you need to be redeemed from?). However, there is definitely some interesting insight into his motives during the primary trilogy, as it seems that Katniss Everdeen has been tailor made to push every single one of his buttons.

We meet Coriolanus Snow as an ambitious, but desperate, teenager. Despite coming from a prominent family, the war was difficult for them and they are still trying to recover 10 years later. He is in his final year of what seems to be the equivalent of high school, with hopes of a scholarship to the university. Of course, his methods of seeking that scholarship are different than normal circumstances: he is part of a new program where Capitol children will be mentoring the tributes from the Districts. The Hunger Games are entering their tenth year, and are not the popular spectacle that readers know from Katniss’s story. They are a grim affair, with limited interest in the Capitol and nearly none in the districts after the day of the reaping.

As this new version of the Hunger Games comes underway, Coriolanus finds himself not only as a mentor of a tribute, but also as the reluctant mentee of Dr. Gaul, who seems to take a special interest in him. Although he sees much of her behavior as twisted or sadistic, he also seems to have an understanding of her motives that begins to frighten him. He finds himself playing a larger role in the reimagining of the games than he had anticipated, and has occasion to believe that he has gotten himself in too deeply.

As for his assigned tribute, there are a few immediate things that call Katniss to mind: primarily, that he is assigned the female tribute from District 12. His tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, creates a bit of a spectacle at the reaping with a snake and a song, setting the stage for her peculiar entrance into his life. Lucy Gray is a performer, but also a survivor. Over the course of their mentorship, a bond forms between the two, leading Coriolanus to take some exceptional risks to help her; and landing him some time spent in District 12 after the conclusion of the games. He struggles throughout the events, with an ever looming question: was he taking risks for the sake of Lucy Gray, or out of desperation for his own personal circumstances and gain? At the same time, I am not quite sure which of those he considered to be the “right answer.”

It was interesting to see some history of things that featured in the trilogy, and to see them in a different light. Some of these were overt, like the Hob, the meadow in District 12, and the lake that Katniss liked to visit: all places that Coriolanus got a glimpse of in his youth. There were a few more subtle items that may or may not have a connection: is the penthouse apartment with a rooftop garden where Coriolanus grew up, the same penthouse apartment and rooftop garden where the District 12 tributes are housed in the Capitol?

There are also a few other ties to the future Hunger Games trilogy, starting with some Capitol names that carry over between the books, although generally not the same characters: Heavensbee, Crane, and Flickerman, to name a few. Another obvious connection is in the music: Lucy Gray sings some of the same songs that appear in Katniss’s repertoire, including having composed the song about the Hanging Tree. And of course, the title creatures cannot be forgotten: songbirds and snakes. We see the first evidence of the mockingjay birds, for which Coriolanus finds he has a particular disdain. Although snakes do not have as direct of a link to the original books, I thought it was interesting that Katniss viewed President Snow as snake-like. More important, however, is part of what the snakes represent: poison.

In the third book of the trilogy, Finnick Odair calls out Snow based on the rumor that poison played an important role in his rise to power. While there is little evidence for a clear accusation, there are certainly some peculiar circumstances that make this a viable conclusion. Here we see the beginnings of that: influenced and inspired by Lucy Gray and her affinity for snakes.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Is this a book of things I can chase? Those birds outside have been looking awfully suspicious lately.”

The Hunger Games

img_6217Book: The Hunger Games (Trilogy) by Suzanne Collins

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I recently revisited The Hunger Games, after having read the trilogy quite a few years back—about a year after the final book was published. I remember enjoying the series quite a bit, but many of the details of why have become rather fuzzy over the years. I remember the general plot of each book, many of the major events, and feeling invested in Katniss and her revolution. Beyond that, many of the particularities of the series have faded into a broader feeling of “I am glad I read that, and I would read it again.”

Well, as I said in my last post, I have always been a re-reader. While I do not re-read as often as I would like, there are a handful of books that I have read at least a dozen times. Reading the next new thing on the shelf is certainly exciting, but there is a thrill that comes with re-reading a good book that cannot be replicated. The story, vaguely familiar, comes into sharper focus. Details that seemed insignificant the first time through suddenly jump out with meaning. It is been quite some time since I have done any re-reading, and I am so happy that I chose to start here.

This series were the first books that I chose to re-read via audio book. The format is well suited for the first person narrator, and it was really interesting to actually hear the story in Katniss’s voice. It kind of felt like something somewhere between a book and a movie—there is a liveliness added to the story when hearing a character relay their first hand experience, but we are still able to hear the thoughts and emotions that can get lost in a movie adaptation.

The first thing that stuck out to me this time around was the wealth of rich details in the text. Katniss has a unique set of survival mechanisms that lead her to be very in tune with her surroundings, especially in the forest. This makes the details in her descriptions fit with her as a character, adding a nice balance to the scene setting. For me, the scene setting often feels forced with the first person narrative. Everyone notices their surroundings, but it’s not a typical line of thought to describe them in great detail. This all helps to make her story feel grounded in reality, despite the extreme differences in her world.

While I say extreme differences, I suppose I should also comment that there were a few moments that felt a little too real to me. I could not help but twinge a little as some of the characters were voicing their concerns about their government—on both sides. At the same time, I think this could be a fair introduction to some of the realities of politics and war, especially since this is aimed toward young adults. While the first book seems to pretty clearly align the sides of Districts versus Capitol as Good versus Bad, this becomes increasingly blurred coming into the end of the series. Life is complicated, just as their war is complicated. There are good and bad people on both sides; no system or side in disagreement is perfect.

Lastly, I noticed much more depth in the character of Katniss than in my initial read. She is a more powerful, yet damaged character than I remember. One thing that really impressed—and frustrated—me about her portrayal is how very clear it was that she was experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, this makes perfect sense: she had a history of trauma even before being thrown into the Hunger Games, and then a series of continuing traumatic experiences after. I felt that Collins did an excellent job of depicting this, both in Katniss’s behavior and her thoughts at trying to cover for herself. The frustrating aspect for me was how every single other character seemed completely unaware of the extent of her struggles, perhaps with the exception of Peeta. Even those who appeared to understand that she was not well also seemed to brush off the severity, or act as if circumstances make it unimportant. I suppose, while frustrating, this may be an accurate representation of what many experience when dealing with similar mental health issues. While certainly not the main focus of the book, I think this aspect of the story provides a good glimpse at the thought processes behind such an illness. Perhaps there is room for some to find some understanding of others.

Boris’s Thoughts: “If you listened to these books instead of reading them, how did I still end up in a pile of them?”