The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

img_5275Book: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Date Read: July 13 to 21, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This book was gifted to me earlier this year. My friend told me that she knows it is not the kind of book that I would normally choose for myself, but that it was cute, fun, and light—something that we could all use a little more of this year. I always feel just a slight pressure to move gifted books up on my to read list, but I try to balance that with the commitments I have made to the books already waiting on my shelves. The timing worked out for this one, since I really needed something easy after a couple heavier reads earlier this summer.

Nina works in a bookstore and is comfortable living alone with her cat. She has a routine that she likes to stick to, although perhaps a little more strictly than most. She values the things that she has planned into her life, and is reluctant to make changes. I think she is a character that all true bookworms can relate to on some level, despite her unusual background raised in hotel rooms and then by a nanny in place of her mother.

This is a romantic comedy in the form of a book. Is that its own genre? I am not well versed in this area. I usually think of romantic comedies as movies, and am more familiar with the generic “romance novel.” I am not sure this quite hits the mark there either. So after my rambling, I’m sticking with romantic comedy. The main plot is a dual storyline that fits well with the genre: Nina sees the potential for a relationship with a guy from a rival trivia team, but things get complicated when she also learns that her absent father has died and included her in his will… also connecting her to a complicated network of brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews that she never knew existed. Things get messy.

It is also a book for bookworms, full of bookish references and other nerdy tidbits. There is definitely an element of predictability, but I felt the author was at least clever and a bit tongue-in-cheek about it: near the middle of the book a character even suggests how the story is going to end, saying “that’s how it happens in the movies.”

Waxman pokes fun at the trendiness of Nina’s neighborhood, full of hipsters and activists, with their competing specialty ice cream shops and quirky stores. It is the sort of joke that I appreciate and make myself—even though I know that it probably applies to me as well! One of the reviews included with my copy of the book refers to Waxman as a “modern day Jane Austen,” which I find very intriguing. Although I have added Austen onto my to read list, I have never actually read any of her work. Drawing a parallel between these authors makes me wonder if it is time for me to give Austen a chance.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Cute, fun, and light—just like me! Also stars a cat! 4 paws!”

Good Omens

Book: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Date Read: August 3 to 24, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Another month complete for 2020’s Unread Shelf Project! August was the month for buddy reading, and I did the best I could: my buddy, who chose the book, also finished it the day that I started it. I suppose I should have known better than to buddy read something with someone who aims for 100+ pages per day. For us, it was more so an easy way to choose our next book rather than an opportunity to read and discuss—although we did manage to get a bit of that in. My reading buddy is the only person that I know personally who has “to read” list longer than mine, so I suppose this one was good for both of us. We even got the cats in on this one, with her boy Rahl reading alongside Boris!

Where to begin? This is a book that I very much enjoyed, and definitely will be putting on my shelf to revisit one day. Oddly enough, these are often the very books that I have the hardest time articulating my feelings on. Good Omens was full of moments hilarity, but also included some poignant social commentary. Although originally published 30 years ago, much of the themes have held up over the years—perhaps this is more of a sad reflection on the state of the world than a compliment to the book. I especially liked the accusations of the aliens that humans could be charged with being “a dominant species while under the influence of impulse-driven consumerism.” And of course, on a day-to-day basis I cannot be sure that the apocalypse won’t be brought on by bureaucratic incompetence.

Continuing on perhaps a deeper level of the book, I also really enjoyed the discussion of good and evil as opposing sides. While it is certainly not a black and white issue, I think the point of the contrast is important—early in the book Crowley puts it well when he says that heaven and hell are merely “sides in the great cosmic chess game.” The truth behind real good and evil comes from within humanity.

I have always had a fascination with religion as a construct, although I do not specifically align myself to any particular set of beliefs. I know some of many religions, although am admittedly most familiar with the tenets of Christianity. I appreciated the inclusion of true bits of religion, along with some humorous twists. I thought the inclusion of the horsemen of the apocalypse as semi-human characters was interesting, especially the replacement of Pestilence with Pollution after too many advances in medicine.

Overall, I was very much impressed with the writing here. I have read a few works by Gaiman, but am not at all familiar with Pratchett. Having some experience with one of the authors’ writing, I thought it would be obvious which parts seemed “different,” but it was so seamless that I would never suspect that this was a co-authored book. The edition that I have includes some information on the writing process, which sounds like the authors mostly were having some fun and being silly most of the time. I suppose this is an appropriate place to comment on the humor, which I must admit sometimes evaded me. It is not too surprising that, as an American reader, I would feel like I do not quite get all of the jokes—however there is something that I appreciate about what I consider the British style of humor.

Boris’s Thoughts: “This is all a bit ridiculous, don’t you think? Obviously cats would have a much larger role in the end of time. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for August

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 263

Everything Is Illuminated

img_4360Book: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Date Read: May 17 to June 9, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

I have been sitting in front of my keyboard for several minutes thinking about how exactly I would like to start this review, but nothing quite feels right. I suppose I should say that I really wanted to like this book. In some ways I did, but it is sitting heavier with me than I was expecting. Parts of this were beautifully crafted; other parts were cleverly crafted. It all comes together into something that is sometimes tragically beautiful and sometimes irritatingly painful to read.

The premise of the story, as indicated in the back cover summary, is that this is the story of a young man who is visiting Europe, hoping to find the woman who he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis. This is a vast oversimplification. There are actually three different stories here, told in an alternating fashion between characters: Jonathan, the young American searching for the past, writes the story of his grandfather’s town and his family’s past; Alex, the young man who served as his guide and Ukrainian translator, writes letters to Jonathan to tell of his family, also sending along his own writings about their journey.

Through each of these stories we are given glimpses into the past, both charming and horrifying. The story of Jonathan’s family ends with a chance escape, but we hear the heartbreaking fate of his town through the woman they encounter while searching for the long forgotten town. We also hear first hand the experience of Alex’s grandfather, who still felt the misfortune of the Nazi invasion despite not being one of the targeted Jewish people. His guilt in the aftermath felt a bit close to home with the current state of affairs. These two stories of the past have a somewhat listless ending. While the stories draw to a definite end, there is no satisfaction for finding their conclusion. The story of Alex’s family has a more satisfying, although still tragic, ending with Alex giving up his dreams for what he knows to be the right thing for his family.

I had a hard time getting into this book, partially because the style of some sections were difficult to read. I understand the use of the broken English for parts of the story, but I felt like it was overdone. It was an important aspect of the story for some things to be written like this, but it was often unnecessarily crude. While the structure of the novel was unique and often interesting, there was an underlying feeling that the author might be trying a bit too hard to come off as clever.

Despite my personal qualms with the style, the themes of truth, responsibility, and tragedy here are undeniable and well handled. We are faced with the responsibility of each individual in their place in history, as well as their responsibility in relaying their stories to future generations. Alex writes to Jonathan that he hates him for not allowing some happiness for his grandfather in his story. When viewing the past, is it the responsibility of the writer to tell the story exactly as it was, or perhaps how it should have been?

Boris’s Thoughts: “This is quite depressing for having such a cheerful cover. Deception. I like that. 4 paws.”

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

img_3982Book: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Date Read: April 8 to 16, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I have seen this book all over Bookstagram for the last few months, so when I saw it in a small bookshop I decided that I needed to give it a try. I feel like this is a little outside my normal reading realm, as I am not usually a historical fiction reader. (I know this is based on a true story, but as it is not purported to be a fully accurate factual account of events, I think it should still be considered a work of fiction.) I wish I could give a good reason for my tendency to steer away from historical fiction, but I cannot quite put my finger on it. I suppose this genre just does not seem to jump out to me in the same way that others do.

That all said, I quickly found myself totally engrossed in this story. The cover declares it to be a story of “love and survival,” although I feel like those two descriptors should be reversed. No doubt this is a love story that will satisfy any romantics out there, but I personally found the survival aspects of the more intriguing. Both Lale and Gita must fight for their survival, constantly walking the line of making life bearable and endangering themselves and others.

An interesting aspect of the story is the fear associated with their positions—Lale as the Tätowierer and Gita simply as a person put to work. Despite their treatment as prisoners, they are at risk for being labeled as conspirators against their own people. Lale is reluctant to become the Tätowierer, but rationalizes this with his own survival, and the thought that he can at least try to treat new prisoners humanely as he does his work. It is an interesting perspective on difficult choices: is it realistic to think that they would refuse to work when the other option is death? Although not quite overtly stated, the guilt associated with his assigned work is the driving force in his dangerous efforts to help others in the camp.

I suppose I would be remiss to completely disregard the love story aspect of the novel, since I imagine that is what held the appeal for many readers. Of course, I cannot blame them—it is beautiful as a love story as well. While I always give an internal eye roll at the “love at first sight” trope, this definitely goes beyond that in its depth. Lale and Gita find themselves in a harrowing time and situation, forcing their relationship to develop in a nontraditional manner. There are countless obstacles at hand to separate them, and so much uncertainty in their lives that this bit of happiness seemed a saving grace for them both. The relationship was certainly against the odds—both in surviving the camps, and then locating each other afterwards when they were forced to flee independently.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Hmmm. This is different. I like it! 3 paws.”

The Da Vinci Code

img_4905Book: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Date Read: June 9 to 30, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I admit that I am a little behind with this one. I was intrigued by the controversy when the movie came out, but that was when I was in college and not quite ready to commit to do a ton of extra reading for pleasure. So I saw the movie, and mentally shelved the book as to read. Fast forward a few years, I’m browsing deals on kindle books, and there it is: this book that I have been intending to read. Serendipity! I added it to my kindle shelf and continued to browse. That was almost 10 years ago now, and I am just now getting around to it, thanks to the June prompt from the Unread Shelf Project which told me to pick a book from a series.

Now here’s the thing: I do not own a ton of series books, and most of the ones I do own, I have already read. Despite my very lengthy to read list, I only had a couple to choose from; and I argued with myself about which of them should actually “count.” Does it still count as reading a book in a series if you have no intention of reading any of the other books in the series? Well… ultimately, with the coaxing of a friend, I decided yes. She insisted that the book was worth it, and that it worked as a standalone if I chose not to continue with the other books… and that I did not have to read the book that actually comes before it. Then she offered to lend me the rest of the series if needed. So here I am.

After all that went in to the decision to read this one, I am coming in right at the last moment to finish this within the month of June. I really feel there is no good excuse for that, since although this book is a bit lengthy, it is a relatively quick and easy read. While I will say that overall I enjoyed this read, I do find myself a bit conflicted. It’s obvious that this is written for mass appeal, and meant to be a fast paced page-turner. There are some aspects of this that feel meticulously researched; at the same time, I feel like we are getting a very surface level understanding of something that is part truth and part conspiracy theory. I enjoyed the idea of a scavenger hunt for the Holy Grail, and the concept behind the grail being Mary Magdalene. The ideas are definitely interesting, and some pieces potentially plausible, but the idea of taking this as fact is a bit far fetched.

There was one major issue here for me though: for being a novel purported to be about the sacred feminine, it is pretty anti-feminist. I imagine that much of this relates to the fact that it is a book in a series with a male protagonist, who needs to come through as the “star” of the show. At the same time, I felt myself quite frustrated with the treatment of Sophie’s character. Most obviously, Sophie is professional code breaker, and yet she needs the help of Langdon to figure out the most basic of codes left for her by her grandfather? Seems a little ridiculous. Throughout the novel, she’s primarily used as a plot device to allow for lengthy historical explanations. She could have been so much more.

As for the remainder of the series, I think I’m going to pass. I am not crazy about the trope of the brilliant leading man who continuously finds himself involved in conundrums where he is required to solve mysteries with a new beautiful woman who is obviously attracted to him. Does that seem oddly specific? Perhaps. I have no doubt that the remaining books in the series are entertaining—but I think that I will find my reading time used better elsewhere.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Are you sure this is a book? It doesn’t look like a book. It doesn’t taste like a book. Do I give paws if it’s not a book?”

Unread Shelf Progress for June

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 9 books, 1 found not previously counted
  • Total Unread Books: 262 books

The Ice Queen

img_3455Book: The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

Date Read: February 16 to March 2, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This was gifted to be by a friend who is a big fan of Alice Hoffman—and inadvertently ended up with two copies of this book on her shelf. I was not quite sure what to expect with this, as on the surface it did not appear to be the type of book that I would normally choose for myself. The back cover description makes it appear a sort of romance novel, with perhaps a slight peculiarity in that it focuses on lightning strike survivors. I will say that while there was definitely a romance element here, there was so much more than that.

The story is told in the first person, through the voice of a narrator who remains nameless throughout. She has a clear obsession with fate and death, stemming from an incident in her childhood: she wished her mother dead in anger, the same night that her mother was killed in a car accident. Since that night, she has focused her life on shutting out all emotional connection; turning herself into the Ice Queen from a fairly tale that she invented while coping with her mother’s death. Over the course of her life, she has built herself the perfect façade by going through the motions of what others expect from her, with no true emotional investment. She has convinced herself of her own power to wish ill will into the world, including a wish to be struck by lightning made in a desperate moment, just after she has agreed to move to Florida to live nearer to her brother.

After the lightning strike, she experiences many side effects, one which melds well with the icy persona she has created for herself—she can no longer see the color red. At her brother’s urging, she participates in a study of lightning strike survivors, where she meets the very limited number of acquaintances she has in Florida. This is also where she first hears rumors about the survivors that have refused to participate in the study: a man who survived multiple strikes, and chased researchers away from his home; a man who was declared dead, only to wake up nearly 40 minutes later and walk out of the hospital. She becomes fascinated with the idea of this man, referred to by others as Lazarus, seeking him out for what turns out to be an unusual love affair.

The narrator and Lazarus turn out to be an odd pair, the self proclaimed woman of ice involved with a man whose lightning strike side effects include an unusually high body temperature. Although she does not realize it at the onset, this relationship sparks the journey she needs to discover the meaning of love and cope with the losses in her past. For a time, she pushes all other things in her life aside in her obsession with Lazarus—tentative friendships, her job, her relationship with her brother. However, everything becomes blurred for her when she allows her curiosity to put the relationship at risk, simultaneously throwing her other poor relationship behaviors into the spotlight.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I always appreciate a book with a cat, but feel like she was not quite fair to the cat. 2 paws.”

Noir

img_4487Book: Noir by Christopher Moore

Date Read: May 1 to 16, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

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

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

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

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

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

Unread Shelf Progress for May

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

Dead is the New Black

img_4346Book: Dead is the New Black by Marlene Perez

Date Read: December 9 to 17, 2019

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

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

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

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

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

Harbor Me

img_3633Book: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Date Read: March 19 to 21, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

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

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

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

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

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

The Lola Quartet

img_3865Book: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

Date Read: April 1 to 8, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

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

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

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

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

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

Unread Shelf Progress for April

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