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

The Unread Shelf Project 2021

img_4916A new year, and a renewed challenge to continue reading the books that are already waiting for me on my shelves! I am not going to go too deeply into the Unread Shelf Project since I wrote about it last year, but wanted to kick things off for 2021.

I felt like I did pretty well with reading this past year, making a point to read many of the books that had been on my shelf for quite some time. Unfortunately, I was not so good about controlling the number of books that I added to my shelf. All in all, I entered 2021 with a total of 271 books on my unread shelf. This is up 1 from my starting point for 2020, and marks a new high point. At one point in the year, I was down to 253.

While this is certainly not a “win” in my quest to conquer my unread books, it is more progress than I have made in the recent past. Over the past 10 years, my to read list has been increasing fairly steadily. My efforts to vanquish the stack have helped to slow the growth over the past 2 years, and an increase of 1 is certainly the smallest increase I have seen. Maybe this means I have reached a turning point. I suppose only time will tell.

Luckily for me, there are a few new twists added in to the Unread Shelf Project for 2021 that should help me along my way. In addition to some new monthly challenges, there is also a set of bonus challenges—making a total of 24 challenges for the year. My new goal is to complete these all with books that were already on my unread self at the start of the year (with the exception of the “most recently acquired” challenge, which will depend on when I am able to work it in). So, as January comes to an end, I raise a toast to us all: let’s live our best reading lives in 2021. My first challenge post of the year will be up next week.

For more information on the Unread Shelf Project, visit The Unread Shelf blog or Instagram.

2021 Prompts

  • January: A book with high expectations
  • February: A book you got for free
  • March: A book you bought on a trip
  • April: A book bought from a used bookstore
  • May: A book you bought as a new release
  • June: A book bought in a spending spree
  • July: A book bought for the cover
  • August: A book from an independent bookstore
  • September: A book you want to learn from
  • October: A book you’re secretly afraid of
  • November: A book published before 2000
  • December: A book that reminds you of childhood

Bonus Challenges

  • A book with more than 500 pages
  • An impulse buy
  • A book on your unread shelf longer than one year
  • A book by an author you’ve never read before
  • A book you bought because of a recommendation
  • A book given to you that you didn’t ask for
  • A book you got for a special occasion
  • A book from your favorite genre
  • A book bought because of the hype
  • A book from a Little Free Library
  • The unread book most recently acquired
  • A backlist title by an author with a newer release available

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

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

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

I Just Want My Pants Back

img_5912Book: I Just Want My Pants Back by David J. Rosen

Date Read: September 1 to 9, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

An interesting prompt from the Unread Shelf Project had me browsing my shelves to find a book that I forgot where or why I got it. Strangely, I remember the acquisition of nearly all of the 250+ books on my list—it came down to a choice between 4 books! I simply could not choose myself, so I send the list off to a friend, who chose the book with the funniest title.

Unfortunately for those intrigued mostly by the title, the pants only form a small part of the plot, with the line coming early on, in the sixth of 19 chapters. Over the course of the book, the pants become a bit of a metaphor for the stage of life where the protagonist, Jason, finds himself. Jason is a slacker who is slowly working out what it means to grow up. He is introspective enough to know that he seems to be lagging behind as many of his friends take steps into the “next level” of adulthood—relationships, weddings, “real jobs.” Although he can recognize that he should have some kind of plan for the future, he does not really make any efforts. Much of the book centers on his drinking, drug use, and other partying, which eventually turns into a downward spiral.

While it did come through on the humor that the title suggests, much of this fell flat for me. Jason is portrayed as a nice guy, but he’s honestly not really that likable. He does as little as possible to get by, living paycheck to paycheck, but then spends any money he has to binge on drugs and alcohol. He doesn’t seem to take anything in his life seriously: his job, his bills, or his friends, even after being asked to officiate at their wedding. Maybe I never partied quite hard enough to relate. Nothing came as a surprise when things start to fall apart for him, and I didn’t really have much sympathy for his situation. There is a little redemption for Jason at the end, but it almost feels like too little, too late.

I will give some credit to the author on the writing, as it was good enough to keep me reading a story that I was not all that excited about. Extra points for this, because there were a few lines in the first couple chapters that actually had me cringing—one particular when Jason “grabbed a slice and crammed it into [his] eat hole.” Despite this, there was a quality to the writing that pulled me through to the end. And while I am not fully convinced that Jason has redeemed himself to me as a character, at least I found out what happened to the pants.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Pants are overrated. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for September

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 263

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

Invisible Monsters

img_3435

Book: Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

Date Read: February 6 to 16, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

The February prompt for The Unread Shelf Project was a book that was gifted to you. This book was gifted to me quite some time ago—I’m going to guess some time around my 25th birthday, back in 2011. My friend Kirsten and I had a tradition of celebrating our birthdays very late with the exchange of books as gifts. It was included in the first chunk of books that I added onto my official to read list on Goodreads; the 50ish books that I consider the true bottom of my to read pile. I digress. I suppose my point is that this certainly fits the bill for the purpose of this project, as it not only meets the prompt but also has been waiting for me for quite some time (sorry, Kirsten).

I had a little bit of a Chuck Palahniuk kick back around that time, which I remember talking about with my friend; I am sure part of the reason that she decided on this particular book as a gift, although I am not sure that she had read it. I read Fight Club, Choke, and then Haunted, all in fairly short succession. While I enjoyed them all, I needed a break from the madness. There is something about Palahniuk’s work that leaves me a little mentally exhausted. Invisible Monsters was no exception to that—I quickly found myself totally engrossed in this book. The writing and style are intriguing, but the story itself is like a train wreck where you cannot help but gape at the disaster.

One of the reviews printed in the first few pages of the book describes it as a “twisted soap opera,” and I feel that really hits the nail on the head. Although generally moving forward in time, the story is told non-sequentially, with many flashbacks that help each bit of this crazy puzzle fit together. The plot twists and turns, while somehow still moving forward at the hurtling speed of a runaway train. There is commentary along the way about the nature of existence, although I feel like it is up to the reader to decide how deeply this should be taken: maybe we are simply dealing with the insane ramblings of the drug-addled troupe, or perhaps there is something more there, in the need to break free from expectations and the possibilities brought forth from utter disaster and chaos.

At several points during my reading, I wondered at how the story was progressing and the direction it seemed to aim. The first chapter gives some not-at-all-subtle foreshadowing of what is to come, and while it all seemed to fit perfectly with the narrative, I felt myself feeling increasingly dissatisfied with how I expected things to turn out. No doubt that the book was entertaining, but the ending I anticipated seemed a sort of anticlimax in that it wrapped things up just a bit too neatly. I should have known better. There were a few additional twists waiting at the end, after the rest of the story and caught up to the opening paragraphs. The conclusion feels perfect, but also leaves a funny taste in my mouth, to be quite honest: an unusual combination of dark humor and philosophical thought.

Boris’s thoughts: “This is all too weird for me. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for February

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 1
  • Total Unread Books: 263

The Unread Shelf Project

I got behind this month, so I wanted to write an out of regular sequence post to talk about something that I am working on this year.

I discovered the Unread Shelf Project on Instagram some time near the end of 2018. It felt like a good fit for me, and I decided to participate throughout last year. This is a reading challenge, with a very particular focus: reading the books that are already on your shelves. I have a huge backlog of books that I have collected through the years. While I do want to read them all, the accumulation of high numbers can be daunting, and it can be so easy to grab for something shiny and new rather than look through the stacks that have been waiting.

I started 2020 with my highest number of unread books ever: 270. Needless to say, this is something that I do need to focus on a bit more. I think participating in 2019 was good for me, and I am planning to participate again through 2020. I love to read and collect books, but I do have a bad habit of acquiring much faster than I consume. I could list out many reasons for that, but ultimately, a big part of the problem is that I do not always make reading time the priority that I would like it to be. I am certainly not banning myself from buying new books, but am working on being more intentional in those I choose and not just loading myself up with stacks of new books.

The idea of reading challenges has always been appealing to me. It can serve as an interesting way to choose the next read, and can be a fun scavenger hunt to find something that fits. Unfortunately, I have always had difficulty finding reading challenges that really work for me. With my very long list of books to read, I always made an effort to find books on my shelf to fit each prompt, but would inevitably end up using this as an excuse to accumulate new books. This is part of what makes this project a good fit for me: a reading challenge that is specifically designed to allow you to focus on books you already own. There is a single prompt every month, and each one is written to allow for flexibility: everyone has a book in their favorite genre, or one recommended by a friend.

For 2020, I am adding my own little personal challenge: I want to finish my chosen book and write my review post in time for my final post each month. This is one of many ways that I am hoping to stay more up to date online, as well as challenge myself to read a bit more. If I want to stick to my personal time line, I will need to read quickly enough to finish the book well before the end of the month. In January, I decided to finish off a book series that I started in December as a kickoff to 2020 reading. I have plans to post on that series a bit later in the year. This week Wednesday will be the first of my monthly Unread Shelf picks for the remainder of the year: a book that was gifted to me.

More information on The Unread Shelf Project can be found here:

 

As an overview, here are the prompts for 2020:

  • January: any unread book
  • February: gifted to you
  • March: been on your unread shelf the longest
  • April: most recently acquired
  • May: a backlist title
  • June: from a series
  • July: voted for you by bookstagram
  • August: a buddy read
  • September: forget where or why you got it
  • October: a book that scares/intimidates you
  • November: from your favorite genre
  • December: shortest book on your shelf