In this month’s Between the Bookends, Sophie, Robin, Sarah, and Rebecca share the good and the bad of what they’ve been reading recently. From a disturbing future vision of social media to sentient rivers, artistic cats to the latest from Margaret Atwood, they hope there’s something that you and your family will enjoy.
A History of Art in 21 Cats by Nia Gould
Sophie’s first book of the month was A History of Art in 21 Cats by Nia Gould. This short and sweet tome introduces 21 different art styles and movements from throughout history by showing us how a cat might look if painted using those techniques.
There’s more here than just a few paintings, however. Each art style/movement gets an introductory paragraph opposite its cat painting that explains how it was founded, its key concepts and values, and important artists from the movement. The following pages break down the cat painting and explain why each element was included, from the use of color to brush strokes, line thickness, angles, and more. After reading each short chapter, Sophie felt as if she had a very basic, core understanding of what that art movement or style was about and she could attempt her own painting using some of its common elements.
The book is laid out chronologically, beginning in Ancient Egypt and moving through the Renaissance, Symbolism, Art Deco, Pop Art, and ending with the Young British Artists including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. There is a strong focus on art styles from the 20th century, but the book covered all the movements you would imagine and many that were new to Sophie, at least by name.
While art lovers are unlikely to learn anything new from this book, Sophie is sure they will find it amusing (especially if they are cat lovers) and she also imagines it would be very helpful for kids who are just beginning to learn about art in school. The book inspired her to start experimenting with different styles in her own drawings, and if that isn’t the point of a book about different kinds of art, Sophie isn’t sure what is.
The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer
Having been an avid fan of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books for many years, and with a 10-year-old son who has very recently discovered the wonders of this marvelous series, Sophie was very keen to read The Fowl Twins when it was announced earlier this year. While Artemis himself is conveniently on a mission to Mars, the focus of this first book in a new series is his 10-year-old twin brothers, Myles and Beckett Fowl.
Myles is almost (but not quite) a clone of Artemis with the same fanatically neat sense of fashion, certified genius-level intellect, and, unsurprisingly, more than a slight interest in criminal activity. Beckett, on the other hand, is very much a child of nature who—on the surface, at least—appears to have not inherited the family’s prodigious level of intelligence and favors more simple interests leaving the “thinking” to his twin brother.
This introductory adventure tale sees the Fowl twins abducted by a super-secret intelligence organization called ACRONYM whilst at the same catching the attention of a 150-year-old Duke who is on a fanatical quest to keep extending his life span and traces a potential source to the Fowl family’s island.
And thus Eoin Colfer weaves one of his typically humorous adventure stories full of exciting action, razor-sharp wit, ingenious plans for capture and escape, and a breathless cat and mouse chase across parts of Western Europe.
As with the previous Artemis Fowl series, although this is marketed and aimed at eight to 12-year-old children, it is an enjoyable read for all ages with a few jokes and references only adults will understand and be amused by. Sophie is sure her son will love this book when he has finished the original Fowl series. She did.
Midnight Radio by Iolanda Zanfardino
Sophie found herself deeply unimpressed by this one. Midnight Radio is four stories in one, following four young protagonists facing four very different challenges but who are all trying to figure out how to be the people they want to be instead of the people the world is trying to shape them into. Sadly, the stories felt forced and the consequences lacking. None of the actions seemed to carry any weight, which made the whole thing feel dull.
Sophie did appreciate the diversity on display with characters who are Latina, Japanese-American, and LGBTQ, but without backstory or depth, those same characters remained staunchly two-dimensional and she failed to bond with any of them. The issues covered in the stories are often weighty, but their handling felt heavy-handed and lacking in nuance. Supposedly, the four stories are interwoven but this element is so minimal that it may as well not be there at all.
One thing Sophie did appreciate was the color choices. Each protagonist is assigned a color and the artwork on their pages drawn in a polychromatic style using that color. This makes it really easy to tell when the perspective shifts to a new character, something she really appreciated and would like to see repeated in other books with multiple perspectives.
As much as she wishes she could recommend Midnight Radio, there are far better graphic novels out there featuring POC and LGBTQ characters tackling issues of social justice, and Sophie suggests you go and hunt down one of those rather than spending time on this lackluster tome.
Join the No-Plastic Challenge by Scot Ritchie
Sophie has been working to reduce how much single-use plastic she and her family use during the last year, so when she spotted Join the No-Plastic Challenge by Scot Ritchie, she picked it up in the hope that it might offer them some new ideas.
In Join the No-Plastic Challenge, Nick and his friends are heading to a local island for a birthday picnic. After learning about plastic pollution, Nick challenges his friends to go the whole day without using any single-use plastics. The kids take their food in glass jars or wrapped in waxed paper, bring along their own water bottles and reusable bags, and Nick’s mom baked a cake herself instead of buying a plastic-wrapped one from a store.
On their trip, the children see garbage floating in the ocean, realize that the ferry’s snack bar has no recycling bin, and spot people using plastic cutlery to eat. Nick then teaches his friends about how plastic is manufactured, and about things they can do to minimize their plastic usage. At the end of the day, the kids all help to tidy up the beach before heading home.
This is a cute little primer that does a good job of introducing a lot of ideas about plastic waste, recycling, and minimizing our impact on the environment through the choice we make. It is far from perfect. No mention is made of the pollution coming from Nick’s mom’s car, for example, or the huge ferry they ride to the island instead of having a picnic closer to home, and Sophie was rather alarmed to see the kids using their reusable shopping bags to gather garbage off the beach, but for younger kids this is a good first step toward understanding how their actions can change the world around them for the better.
Heartstream by Tom Pollock
Robin is a huge fan of Tom Pollock’s books. They’re filled with great storylines and raw honest emotion. He reviewed This Story Is a Lie last year and was thrilled to have the chance to read Heartstream too.
Again, the book melds high concepts and mental health. This time, we follow Amy Becker who uses the Heartstream app to telegraph her emotions to her followers. Forget YouTube and Insta, Heartstream literally delivers all the feelz.
Only now things have become too intense. Sharing the death of her mother and the overwhelming emotions she experienced has taken the ghoulish nature of the relationship with her fans to a whole other level. She returns home after the funeral to discover a follower in her house. Amy is not too worried; she’ll talk her way out of this. But then she realizes the “fan” in question is wearing a vest of explosives.
Trapped, she must listen to her fan’s story.
Running alongside Amy’s narrative is the story of a teenage crush, a band obsession, and whirlwind romance with boyband rockstar.
How do the narratives relate to each other? How will Amy escape her captor? Just two strands of this compelling novel that examines the effects social media on society and its impact on mental health.
Once again Pollock delivers a compelling novel that will keep you hooked to the very end.
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Robin’s second book of the month, The Silver Wind by Nina Allan, started life as a short story about one character but gradually morphed into a novel about another. Maybe. This is a peculiarly constructed book that is probably more a series of short stories than a single narrative.
The story concerns an expert watchmaker who makes almost perfect timepieces, most notably a tourbillon, building on the work of the famous (real-life) horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet. In this book, Breguet discovered the art of time-travel, and that’s where the fun begins.
The narratives in The Silver Wind are forever shifting. The repeated rediscovery or invention of the watch shifts reality. Is it all a dream? A strong wish? Or just related but separate stories? It’s hard to tell.
Some chapters are more interesting to read than others, but The Silver Wind is an intriguing device filled with intricate parts that work together. It’s a story of prejudice, of hardship, of love unrequited and dreams unfulfilled. It’s a story of intrigue and ingenuity, and it’s fair to say that Robin hasn’t read anything quite like it during the rest of 2019.
Hard to pin down, there are some haunting stories in this book that leave the reader with a sense of unease and some great prose writing. The gray dreariness of British suburban life is well-realized and more warming than it has any right to be!
Robin can’t say that The Silver Wind has been his favorite recent read, but it has certainly been the most unusual and the most interesting.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
In addition to re-reading the Hilda Netflix tie-ins this month, Sarah has been devouring The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. The sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale comes on the heels of the popularity of the Hulu show of the same name.
If you have seen any amount of the show, the book feels sluggish to start, like you can’t quite determine if Atwood has decided to treat the show as canon or veer away, and you aren’t quite sure what comes next. However, that quickly falls away as you get pulled into the characters presented in the book. The three perspectives offered are very different from each other, and in places, you can find yourself wanting to jump ahead to continue a storyline where Atwood decided to show something else.
Unfortunately, so much about the current social and political debates feels like it belongs in a dystopian novel, so it can be hard in places to read something that should be shocking but actually isn’t. In tone and rhetoric, this is nothing like the first book. There is more hope here, less speculation, less passivity even among the women in Gilead. It feels like a different place, and the multiple perspectives make it feel less isolated, which Sarah supposes was the point.
It is unlikely to become the classic that its predecessor is, but still a worthwhile read.
Angel Thieves by Kathi Appelt
Angel Thieves by Kathi Appelt was not what Rebecca had expected. It sounded like a fantasy novel but instead was a tapestry of tales told in lyrical prose. Although there was no overt magic, the author wove the story threads magically together.
A sentient river in the bayou of Texas has watched over its residents for centuries, including the various characters in this book that span generations.
There is Achsah, the slave who is trying to escape with her two daughters, hoping the river will mask their scent.
There is Zorra, an ocelot trapped by a hunter and dying if she doesn’t escape.
The main storyline is Cade, a sixteen-year-old cemetery angel thief. His father became a single dad at sixteen and raised his boy with the help of an elderly antique shop owner who also dealt in illegal marble. The river may hold a secret that could help Cade and his family make the biggest score ever. But all statues have a past, and the river does not always give up her secrets.
Finally, there is a church along the river banks and a congregation that serves those in need across time.
All the characters are trapped in some way and need compassionate people, and maybe a river, to get free. Highly recommended for ages 14 and up.