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

Bad Kitty

img_7749Book: Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel

This unique take on an alphabet book is great fun for all—cat lovers and deniers alike. (I refuse to believe that anyone cat really be a cat hater, they just have not found their right cat yet!) Unlike some books that fall into the “alphabet book” category, this one has a reasonable story to go along with it, and embeds several alphabetical lists into Kitty’s story. This is definitely one of my top picks for alphabet themed books.

Anyone who has known a cat personally can understand where things began to go downhill, when Kitty’s owners ran out of food and only had an alphabetical list of healthy foods to offer her. She then took her revenge on the world in her own little romp through the alphabet. Luckily, her people came through with some more appropriate alliterative alphabetical food offerings that put Kitty back on the path to be a good girl.

This book probably works best as a read aloud, as the alphabet book concept is more appealing to a younger age group, but some of the silly things listed push the required reading level up a bit. The story, especially the alphabet lists, includes a nice combination of text and pictures to make the lettered items stand out. Personally, I love the cat reaction pictures that are included along with the alphabetical food lists—they are exactly how I imagine one of mine would react if we could hold a conversation about what was for dinner!

Minka’s Thoughts: “Is this how I am supposed to do it?”

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.”

Snow Crash

img_7621Book: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Date Read: January 10 to 28, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I chose this book to meet my first bonus challenge for the 2021 Unread Shelf Project: a book that has been on your to read shelf for more than a year. There were many options to choose from for this, so I decided to reach way back. This is the book that I suspect may have been on my to read list the longest. Although I do not remember the exact date that I added it to my shelf, a friend recommended it to me when I was in middle school. That was around 20 years ago. I cannot say for certain why it took my so long to get to this one. The same friend recommended several other books and authors to me as well, and I have loved all of them. For some reason, this one always got pushed off.

Well, I am glad that I finally read it, and a bit irritated with myself for putting it off for so long. I am not a huge reader of science fiction—it’s not so much that I do not like it, but that I often find it a bit dense and can become overwhelmed by the necessary details and descriptions. I do not avoid the genre, but tend to lean toward the lighter side. Without much of a range for comparison, I would say this was a little more toward traditional science fiction than I am used to reading. Despite the step outside my comfort zone, I really enjoyed so much of what was happening here.

The main plot had a really intriguing combination of ancient religions and modern ideas, with the perfect amount of absurdist humor. Also a unique situation when I refer to modern, as I truly do mean current despite the book being around 30 years old (more on that later). There were definitely some satirical elements that were current at the time of publication that still ring true today, but I found the connections to ancient mythology really fascinating, particularly as to related to the spread of information. Today, we talk about things going viral online, but this was long before that was in common usage or even that internet usage was widespread enough for it to reach so many. Stephenson really dug into the concept of virality, tying in the spread of culture while also pulling in the idea of a computer virus spreading to humans. While it obviously sounds a bit bizarre, the connections made felt really valid.

Coming back to the timeline, another interesting aspect to me was that this was a book set in the future, but not too far into the future. With this being a recommendation from so long ago, and the book released about 10 years earlier, I would put the time frame for the setting to be around now, possibly a few years ago. Given that, it was really interesting to me to see some accuracies (and inaccuracies) in the technology. While there are some things that might be attributed to the novel (like the popularization of the term avatar for someone’s online representation), there are many that are more likely to be either coincidence or some educated guesswork. Personally, I liked that there were some pretty spot on pieces with modern cell phone technology, but that pay phones were still in use.

Boris’s Thoughts: “This all seems unnecessarily complicated. You know what isn’t complicated? Naps. 2 paws.”

The Art Forger

img_7822Book: The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Date Read: March 1 to 18, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

In March, The Unread Shelf Project had me do some traveling, by challenging me to read a book that I got on a trip. I had plenty of options, since books are one of the things that I collect when I take trips! I currently have a book for every country that I have visited, and am working on collecting books for each state. I chose this one for this prompt because it was the first “official” book in my states collection. Although it was not the first purchased, it was the first one that I got with the intent of a collection. I picked it up on a weekend trip to Boston a few years ago.

While I did enjoy this one, it fell a little short of what I was hoping it would be. There were so many elements here that appealed to me: a little real life mystery, dual story lines, descriptive settings, and some art nerdiness. I suppose I have always fancied myself to be the creative artist type, although I never had the talent or dedication to make anything real from it. Instead, I content myself with the brilliance of others’ art. So of course, as I started reading about the specific artwork and the Gardner Museum heist, I was compelled to do a little research of my own. I was disappointed to learn that although the heist was real, the main painting that the book focuses on was not. At the end of the story, I understood the decision to write about a fictional painting—but that did not do much to ease my discontent.

Despite my personal irritation at needing to imagine myself a picture of the fictional Degas painting, there were some really intriguing elements to the novel. I liked the art history aspects, which other than the information related specifically to the made-up work were true to life. I felt like the mystery was played out well, with just enough information given in the letter flashbacks to keep things moving. The descriptive use of setting was interesting as well. Personally, I could have done without the romance storyline—it felt a bit forced, as if added in for a little more scandal and intrigue.

I do have some mixed feelings about how the ending played out: while I was mostly happy that Shapiro did not go with the obvious easy solution, I was not wholly satisfied with the ending. It seemed to wrap up a little too quickly and neatly. As I was nearing the end of the book, I was getting anxious that there were not enough pages left to reach an ending with sufficient closure. I was happy that it did not have a completely smoothed out happy ending, which would not have felt realistic given the number of problems to be resolved. I suppose I have chosen to be mostly satisfied with how things turned out: despite some foolish decisions along the way, I felt like Claire got the redemption that she deserved without it being a straightforward “win” for all involved.

Minka’s Thoughts: “There should be more fancy artwork featuring cats. Why is it always ladies bathing? I am much more elegant when I bathe. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for March

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 1
  • Total Unread Books: 268

The Cricket in Times Square

img_7901Book: The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

To follow up last week’s post on a book I am still unsure was a new or re-read, I have another book from my childhood—one that I can saw with certainty I have read before. How can I be so sure? I can tell you when I read it: in the fall of 1995 as a read aloud in Mrs. Lint’s Fourth Grade class. I was so inspired by the story of Chester Cricket that I insisted on dressing up as him for Halloween that year. My mom had to spray paint some fairy wings black, and I glued a bunch of googly eyes to a mask to make insect compound eyes. I am sure not a single person knew what the costume was supposed to be, but I was so proud of it. Oh the joys of being a weird kid.

Of course, that was many years ago. Obviously it is a book I enjoyed as a kid, but not one that I thought about often. Until recently: last year, it was in a pile of books to discard at the school library, as the cover was damaged and no students had checked it out in several years. I added in onto my bookshelf then, and shortly after discovered that it was among the free audio books I could access through my district online library. At only 134 pages and roughly 2.5 hours audio, this was a nice fit for a long walk on a winter day. My only regret is that the story would have been a better fit for an evening stroll in late summer or fall.

I am not quite going to claim that I loved this story, but I think that it speaks to its appeal for children by the fact that seeing it on a shelf triggered such a detailed and specific memory. I suspect the idea of the friendship between different animals held a high appeal for me. And as an adult, I still think the idea of a cat and mouse becoming friends in New York City is fitting. I did think the ending was a bit sad, with Chester becoming burnt out with something he loved and leaving his new friends to journey home—but the tiniest bit of research led to me the fact that this is the first book in a series! While I do not now feel the need to continue, I imagine that would have been valuable information to my Fourth Grade self.

Even with the somewhat sad ending, I think there is a good message there for kids: sometimes we get tired of the things we like, and we might need a break. Overall, I thought this was an entertaining story with a cozy feel to it, and a good fit reading difficulty and interest wise for middle grades. It is a little dated, having been written in the 60s, but I think it has aged fairly well.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I don’t know if I’m cultured enough to have friends that would be so fun to chase. 3 paws.”

The Outsiders

img_5950Book: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Date Read: January 4 to 7, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

A few months ago, I wrote a post about revisiting previous reads through audio. This was my first audio book of the year. It is one that I had been sure that I had read before, although I do not own and it was long enough ago that I never had it listed in my logs. I feel like I normally have a pretty good memory for books, but as I was listening to this one, I started to question whether or not I really had read it before. Even after reaching the end, I am not entirely sure. One of the biggest factors in my uncertainty is a feeling that if I had read this years ago, I feel like it is one that would have stuck with me more. There are parts that were familiar to me: meeting the girls at the movie theater, hiding out in a church, even reading Gone With the Wind. At the same time, there were major events that I did not remember or anticipate at all.

I suppose all that is to say that this is an unusual one for me: a book that I am not sure I have ever physically read but finished on audio at the beginning of the year. There were so many things about this book that I really loved—and I have to say that some of the things that it did not fully resonate with me enough to get 5 stars probably has to do with me reading it now as an adult rather than when I was younger. In some ways, I think this might be the perfect book for its target demographic. While some aspects of it may be dated, Hinton does an excellent job of capturing how it feels to be a teenager even now—a weird mix of feeling like everything in the world is against you, but in some small way tuning in to the fact that others’ struggles may not be that different from your own. And, of course, feeling at the same time like everyone else’s struggles could not possibly be anything like your own personal experience.

Of course, the experiences of relayed by Ponyboy Curtis certainly fall outside the norm for the typical teenager—most readers probably find themselves somewhere in the middle between the two groups described in the book, although nonetheless feeling like they are also an outsider. I really enjoyed the voice of Ponyboy. He is introspective enough to add some depth to the character, but not so reflective and self-aware as to become unbelievable as a real teenage boy. This is a great book for middle school and high school age students, who may need the reminder that their thoughts and feelings are valid and shared. It’s also a great book for adults who may need a bit of a reminder about how hard it can feel to be a teenager.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I still don’t understand how you read with these. Where are the words? Where was the snuggles? Is it really a book if it did not involve cat snuggles?”

Turtles All The Way Down

img_7411Book: Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

Date Read: December 27 to 29, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I read this at the end of the year, as I was trying to squeeze in a few more books to round things out to an even 50 (although my goal for the year had only been 30). This was my last book of the year, as I decided that I did not want a book that was going to span the year mark. I know it’s an arbitrary technicality, but I like my data clean—something that I think the main character, Aza, would appreciate.

Supposedly this book is about a missing billionaire, and the “adventure” that ensues when two teenage friends begin an investigation hoping for some reward money. While I will say that this is something that happens in the book, I would definitely not say that this is what the book is about. To be honest, the underlying sad love story that is typical of Green’s work is merely an undercurrent here to a much more interesting story about mental health. This is a first person account of a girl who is struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

While Aza is dealing with some unusual circumstances related to her childhood friend’s missing billionaire father, most of it is an account of her every day life. Her mental state impacts every aspect of her life, and she seems only semi-aware of how it impacts those around her as well. I thought it was interesting that she is able to see how her illness effected her developing relationship with an old friend turned love interest, but did not realize the influence on her relationship with her best friend. I suppose this is part of the nature of mental illness: even when you know you are unwell, you do not realize its extent.

As Aza’s internal thoughts spiral out of control, her behavior also becomes increasingly concerning. Her fear of germs turns from excessive hand washing and sanitizing to trying to sanitize her internal organs as well. Seeing the underlying thought processes here was somewhat disturbing, as it is pretty clear how this obviously destructive and dangerous behavior seemed perfectly logical to Aza. I liked that Aza was connected to the help that she needed, without minimizing the hard work that she had ahead of her.

While I was reading, I was impressed with the handling of Aza’s illness. Although I am very interested in mental health, I am sometimes put-off by depictions in media. It was not until much later (actually, part way through writing this review) that I realized that Green also has obsessive-compulsive disorder, making this an “our voices” novel on mental illness. Although I know there is plenty of legitimate criticism of the repetitive themes in Green’s books, I think this one was very well done and worth the read.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Where are the turtles? I was misled! 1 paw.”

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

What Cat Is That?

img_7622Book: What Cat Is That? By Tish Rabe

Illustrated by Aristides Ruiz and Joe Mathieu

This fun book is from the Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library—a series of nonfiction children’s books inspired by the work of Dr. Seuss. These books are meant as an introduction to the world of nonfiction for young readers, keeping the easy reading rhymes of Seuss, but pairing it with real world information. It’s a great way to introduce the concept of “reading to learn,” while still maintaining the fun aspects of many of the books children are used to when they are learning to read. I was not familiar with the series until I was gifted this book, but cannot help thinking there is a stroke of genius here.

In this book, the Cat in the Hat returns to visit the children from his original story, taking them on an adventure in his Kitty-Cat-Copter to see as many cats as possible. Then they are off to explore a wide array of cats, from the famous big cats to the different types of house cats. It also manages to include a variety of cat facts, while maintaining the ABCB rhyming pattern throughout and even includes a visit from Thing 1 and Thing 2! The illustrations are a really interesting mix—there is enough detail to show the differences in many cat types and breeds, while still maintaining elements readers will recognize from classic Seuss works. The colors are more realistic, of course, but the overall look is very similar.

Although this is the only book I have read from the Learning Library, I think these would be a great fit for kids around Second to Third Grade. This would be around the age when school begins to focus less on the foundations of reading, to working on comprehension and using books to find information. This is a entertaining transitional book that kids can still get excited about, rather than viewing it as purely informational.

Minka’s Thoughts: “That cat is this cat! This cat is me cat! All the cats; all the paws!”