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.”

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.”

The Hate U Give

Book: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Date Read: February 8 to 14, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I read this book back in February to fill the prompt of a book that was recommended to me. Of course, this is one that I had heard about from multiple sources—and I suspect one I would have ended up reading without a specific friend recommendation.

I schedule my blog posts in advance, putting each book I read on the calendar shortly after I finish reading. Originally, I had scheduled this post for the third week in April, which happened to be the week when jury deliberations began in Derek Chauvin’s trial. Although the content was certainly relevant to the time, I did not think it was appropriate to put this particular review out in to the world then.

This is a book that I am not sure I can do justice to with my own words—I will give some, but keep it brief. At its heart, this is a coming of age story, although perhaps in a slightly different than what is traditionally put in that category. Starr’s voice is one that we all need to hear. She offers a perspective on life that is both outside the mainstream and familiar. On the one hand, she is just an ordinary teenage girl, dealing with typical teenage dramas: friends, school, family. At the same time, she is faced with issues of finding her own identity while juggling the complexities of race, violence, and societal expectations. I believe I have said this here before, but will reiterate again: having diverse voices in literature is important for everyone. The sole purpose of diversity is not that minorities can see themselves represented—we all need to hear these perspectives too.

Aside from the important themes and perspective provided here, this story in itself is pretty spectacular. The writing is engrossing, the characters feel so real, and the story is poignant and authentic. Taken as a whole, this is a huge triumph of a story, and absolutely deserving of every bit of hype that it has received.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I agree that it is weird when people treat dogs like kids. Everyone knows that’s only cats. 4 paws!”

The Vanishing Half

img_8761Book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Date Read: April 18 to 27, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

For April, the Unread Shelf Project asked me to pick a book that was purchased from a used bookstore. This one is something I consider a gem of a find—I picked this up in the used section of my local bookstore only 3 months after it was released. I had seen multiple times on Bookstagram, and had already added to my mental to read list. I have been forcing myself to wait for paperback releases for many books, knowing that it does not make sense to spend the money on a hard cover that I likely will not read right away. So when I saw this at a reasonable price, I was super excited. Not only was it an unexpected find, it was in perfect condition. When I got it home, I realized that it was also signed by the author!

This turned out to be yet another amazing addition to my pretty phenomenal reading year. The book tells the story of a family over time, starting by following two twin sisters as their once inseparable paths diverge. The girls, raised in a small community of light-skinned Black people, run away to the city at sixteen where they seek to find a place for themselves. Stella finds herself in a position where she is able to get a better job and position by hiding her colored background, eventually seeing an opportunity pass over into a new life. Desiree continues to live her life as the person she had always known herself to be: beginning to come into her own in the absence of her sister. Separated for half a lifetime, their paths converge again through the lives of their daughters.

At its heart, I felt like this was a story about identity, and all the complex pieces of our lives that make up who we are. Although both girls grew up in much the same way, there were differences in their personalities and how their shared past impacted them. Desiree sees Stella’s choice to become white as a selfish one, where her sister chose the path looking for an easy life—unaware of the internal terror instilled in her from their childhood traumas that lead her to the decision. Although Stella did find something of an escape, her fears evolved along with her changing identity. Their daughters, in turn, each impacted by the circumstances of their upbringing and their relationships with their mothers.

This was a beautifully written and intricate story that had me frustrated with and feeling empathy for each character in their turn. The changes in time and perspective were well done, so that each time I began to form opinions about a character, there was a shift that allowed some greater insight into the full story. This is definitely an author I will be looking for more from in the future.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Seems twisty. Like me. See? 3 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for April

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 270

The House in the Cerulean Sea

Book: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

Date Read: February 16 to 22, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

This book was my one planned exception to the rules I made for myself in completing the challenges for the Unread Shelf Project this year. In order to truly focus on my unread shelf, I decided that I could only count books that were already on my unread shelf at the beginning of the year. The one exception being when it came time to read the book most recently added to my shelf. This is one of several books I wanted badly to add to my “to read” list, but was waiting for a paperback release. While I am still excited about the others, I am so thrilled that this was the first to be released.

I feel like everything about this book was set up for me to fall in love with it, and I was not disappointed. We start with a character that hits close to home: a social worker living a life that is just fine, if not completely satisfying. He is pushed out of his comfort zone into a setting that would seem magical all on its own—but has a dash of real magic mixed in for good measure. Enter a wonderfully diverse cast of misfits, some lessons to be learned about understanding others, and just a little bit of awkward romance, written in a style that alternately had me smirking and giggling. For me, this was the perfect combination for a book that I did not want to put down and left me with the warm fuzzies. The story was cute and charming, but still managed to have an edge of seriousness when it came to acceptance and appreciation of those who are different.

It’s a funny thing that I often have a much harder time expressing all of the things that I loved about a particular book; much harder than expressing things that did not fit for me. Out of a strange curiosity, I decided to check out a few of the more critical reviews. (I am not sure why, but I often feel the need to see why others dislike the things that I love.) In this case, it only reinforced why understanding of why this book felt so perfect to me: several of the reviews commented that the story was too much like a fairy tale, and the writing style similar to that of Douglas Adams. As an ardent fan of both fairy tales and Douglas Adams, there is no doubt as to why this one swept me off my feet.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Linus really should have just listened to the cat from the beginning. At least he finally figured things out. 3 paws.”