The Time Traveler’s Wife

img_0097Book: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Date Read: July 27 to August 7, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Generally speaking, I tend to lean toward books that are on the shorter end of the spectrum. Not that I avoid longer books altogether, but I find myself satisfied with books staying in the 300-400-something page range. These books feel like anytime books. Anything longer feels like a little more of an undertaking—something that should be taken on with some intention. So I was intentional about timing the “read a book over 500 pages” prompt, and my week of summer travel seemed like the perfect fit. I started this book on a plane on my way home from Denver, and then wrapped it up a couple days after arriving home from Nashville.

The story follows the lives of Clare and Henry, a couple dealing with some peculiar circumstances: Henry cannot stay put in time. Due to this, the story is told in snippets with some variations in chronology. While it mostly follows the traditional chronology of Clare’s life, there are flash-backs and forwards that fill in additional details. The author did well in varying how these were used, sometimes foreshadowing aspects of the story and other times circling back to give more context to things that had not been fully explained. Although I’m not really sure—does it count as foreshadowing when you know things are happening in the future?

I loved the concept of this book, and thought it was done well as a romance/science-fiction crossover. I am not sure that “science fiction” is the perfect classification, but feel the time travel aspect and the genetic studies piece was enough to at least set it on the edge of the genre. It is certainly not simply a traditional love story. In some ways, I debate in its classification as a love story at all—but in the end, I am not sure how else to classify it. The time travel aspect complicates it. While I feel like it is intended to add an element of sadness to Clare’s love, it also takes away the spontaneity and serendipity of a traditional love story. Clare knew she would marry Henry before she had even met him in her chronological life—if she had not been told that, would things have happened as they did? Henry’s attempts to change other events seems to indicate that her knowing did not matter, but I think the idea of everything being preset by fate takes a little magic out, flattening the story just a bit.

Boris’s Thoughts: “This is all a bit much, isn’t it? 1 paw.”

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!

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

Anxious People

img_7587Book: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Date Read: February 1 to 7, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

After finishing A Man Called Ove, I knew that Fredrik Backman was an author that I was not done with. I was super excited when I learned that he had a new book coming in 2020, and even more so when I won this advance reader’s edition in a giveaway on Instagram. This was a giveaway copy from the original recipient after the release of the book, and not sent to me from the publisher. I chose it for the February prompt for the Unread Shelf Project: a book you got for free. Most of the books I have gotten for free have been gifts, so this one and only book I have ever won seemed like a perfect creative twist for the prompt.

This is a story that could be about numerous things: a town, a robbery, a father and son, a divorce, a bridge, a couple (or several couples), a hostage situation, a second chance. In the end, it was about all but not quite any one of these. It reminded me of the term “sonder”—defined as a feeling of realizing that every person who passes through our lives, however briefly, has a life as complex as our own. To me, it is a sentiment that makes me feel both small and significant. An unusual sort of connection to the world at large, and one that I think we all could use just a bit more of in our lives.

Backman certainly knows how to spin a beautiful, although sometimes meandering, narrative. There are a few parallel storylines going on, each with seemingly spurious connections that all come together nicely in the end. There is enough information shared to pique the reader’s interest and generate some ideas of where things are headed, before another string is woven in to complicate and sometimes challenge our thinking. It reminded me somewhat of the tendency for conversation or thoughts wander. The type of journey where you begin by talking about where you would like to go to dinner, but somehow end up in a debate over whether it was 2 or 3 summers ago when you bought a particular lawn chair—there were logical connections along the way, but it takes a bit of effort to track them back.

One of the things that I found most intriguing is how Backman starts with a cast of characters who are not particularly likeable, but uses that to as an asset to the story rather than a hindrance. There are some glimpses of potential good qualities, but nothing that outright makes you want to root for them. Each one of them comes with their own agenda, challenges, and anxieties, but they all have something to offer, and somehow manage to make the story better for all of their flaws.

Along the way, I definitely found myself generating ideas about the overall picture, just as the police officers were trying to put together the pieces of the situation. I found myself needing to revise quite a bit—often as a result of assumptions that I had made about the information given thus far. I think that is part of the beauty of this story, its ability to challenge the reader while still keeping interest and staying true to life. There are twists that are not really twists, and coincidences that seem too convenient until you realize that perhaps in a small town they are not.

Circling back around to my comments on sonder, to me, this was a story about our connections to the people around us. A commentary on how we impact one another, whether we realize it or not. Even the best of us are sometimes unsure, anxious, lonely, or idiots—that is part of being human. After the year of uncertainties and anxieties that we have all experienced in some way, this story is a comfort to me.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Ahh. A feeling of connectedness without having to leave home. Sounds perfect. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for February

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 268

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

img_7578Book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Date Read: December 20 to 26, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I had been eyeing this book for quite awhile before finally picking it up at one of my local stores. Despite hearing the title and seeing a few different renditions of the cover, I did not know much about the premise when I started. Based on the cover art for one edition, a house made of burnt matches, I suspected that fire would play a role in the story. Other than that, I was mostly drawn in by the title, and the belief that I would discover that Eleanor Oliphant was not actually completely fine.

To start, I have to say that I found this story to be both hysterical and quite moving, with the perfect balance between humor and sadness. I found my feelings about Eleanor changing pretty quickly as I read, although not always in a positive way. Upon a first impression, she is not particularly likable. She is rigid, rude, and very quick to judge others. She is very certain of the “rightness” in how she lives, although her view of the world does not fit into the norm defined by everyone else. I suppose you could argue, in a way, that she is “completely fine”—the version of completely fine that is constantly teetering on the edge of disaster.

As the layers of Eleanor’s life begin to slowly peel back, her awkwardness shifts from off-putting to endearing. Although we do not see the full picture of Eleanor’s background, there is enough revealed to allow the reader to begin to sympathize with her. She is certainly misguided and unaware of social expectations—although she does her best with her ill-conceived interpretations of social skills. She knows that she does not quite fit in, and many of her efforts to do so lead down the path of hilarity. At the same time, it becomes clear that the surface of Eleanor’s perfectly organized life is hiding some deep issues.

My favorite thing about this book was that it was absolutely not a romance. Although she would not admit it, Eleanor is profoundly lonely. She creates a romance in her head with who she imagines could be the perfect partner, without realizing that she is also quietly cultivating some much more real connections. When she reaches a breaking point and heads into a downward spiral, it is these friendships that help to set her on a course toward recovery. I loved that the author did not seek to “cure” or “fix” Eleanor’s problems by throwing her into a romantic relationship. Her experience is much more true to real life, and the bumpy ride that many find themselves on.

Boris’s Thoughts: “See? Who needs romance? All of Eleanor’s problems start to get better when she gets a cat. This is clear proof that cats fix everything. 4 paws.”

Where the Crawdads Sing

img_7456Book: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Date Read: January 1 to 9, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

This was my pick for the first Unread Shelf Project prompt of the year: a book with high expectations. I thought through quite a few different ways to interpret this, and decided that I would use some data from Goodreads to narrow things down. This was the highest rated book on my to read list that has been rated by over 1 million people. I felt that this gave an endorsement both for the popularity of the book, and a general consensus on quality. In addition to that, this is a book that was given to me as a gift and came highly recommended.

Despite the hype, I actually knew very little about this one going into it. In fact, I was a couple chapters in before I even decided to read the description on the inside jacket. Overall, I really enjoyed the layers to this story; although it took me a little bit to really get into it. Once I was hooked though, I could not get enough of the story. I admit I was a little put off by the time jumps in the first part of the book, created by the dual storyline. Kya’s childhood was so much more interesting to me than the murder-mystery set up happening so many years later. Of course I realized that all would eventually become relevant, but it was occasionally frustrating to be pulled away from the more engrossing part of the narrative.

I mentioned enjoying the layers of the story, which I think was the most appealing aspect of this novel for me. There is so much here to consider: love, tragedy, discrimination, trauma, coming of age, loss, judgment, and a great appreciation for the natural world. To pinpoint any one cause of Kya’s eccentricities or her ostracization would be difficult, but examining her past, it is easy to see why she developed a fear of the outside world and the behavior patterns that went along with this. It was curious to me that the main source of Kya’s peculiarities was a fear of those in town, whose own prejudices led them to fear her as well.

While I have seen this elsewhere as a criticism of the book, I appreciated the details included in the naturalistic elements of Kya’s relationship to her home. It was obvious that the author has impressive knowledge on the subject, and helped in building the fascinating juxtaposition within Kya’s own character—the bits of truth in the town’s view of her life, contrasted with the accomplishments far beyond what anyone would suspect from her. Even later when the detectives from town see her collections, they do not understand them, assuming there is some element of madness in her work. I suppose this plays even further into the “fear of the unknown” element between Kya and the town.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I think I understand this girl. I, too, am fascinated by birds. 3 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for January

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 0
  • Total Unread Books: 269

Just Mercy

img_7112Book: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Date Read: November 15 to 30, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annihilation

img_7041Book: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Date Read: December 1 to 8, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

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

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

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

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

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

Unread Shelf Progress for December

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