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Mirkat Always Reading

I'm always reading something, usually multiple books at a time.

Currently reading

The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can't Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
The Walking Dead Volume 27: The Whisperer War
Robert Kirkman


Nerve - Jeanne Ryan



Vee is used to being a second banana to her best friend Syd, who stars in the school play while Vee does the stage make-up.  When she grows tired of being behind the scenes, she does a dare for an online game called Nerve.  Potential players can apply for the game and submit video of themselves performing various dares.  If chosen, contestants are given more dares, each with higher stakes and more tempting rewards.  To her surprise, Vee's clip is popular amongst the show's online audience, and she is invited to do more dares.  Soon she is paired with Ian, a boy she finds she can't resist.  Once she's been paired with Ian, the pressure to continue doing dares mounts, because his ability to keep winning coveted prizes is tied to her willingness to continue the game.  The Grand Finale ups the ante because they are grouped with several more players, and everyone becomes ineligible to win prizes if any one player in the group fails to complete the dares.  Which grow increasingly extreme and dangerous, not to mention ridiculous.


I listened to this book on audio, and I can't remember a time when my eyes got so much of a workout--from all the rolling.  Just--so implausible.  My willing suspension of disbelief snapped apart.  This book really wanted to tap into the Hunger Games audience, but the author seemed to miss the point that the tributes in THG had no choice but to participate.  In Nerve, players are wooed by prizes that happen to be things they really, really want (the Nerve producers research/snoop really well).  Eventually, some blackmail is used to keep players in the game.


In certain ways, this book reminded me of the Swedish thriller Game.  I kept thinking that at least, unlike Game, this isn't the first installment of a trilogy.  But the ending of Nerve was left suspiciously open-ended, so it's possible that this story could be dragged through two more installments.  The middle book would essentially be filler, as Vee and Ian try to track down the evil people behind the evil game.  In the third book they could finally succeed, after the evil game has gone through a couple more cycles/casts.


Oh, and do you hate fake flaws?  Our heroine's blue eyes are "too large" for her face.  Because no one wants to have big, blue eyes--that's just the worst.  And she is (::gasp::) a skinny girls with small breasts.  The horror!

Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande, Robert Petkoff



Atul Gawande takes on the uncomfortable topics of old age and terminal illness, discussing ways in which medical approaches to these areas have resulted in less-than-optimal experiences for people facing them.  In the case of care of the aged, nursing homes grew out of the basic hospital setting, and out of that has grown a culture of safety and institutional routine take precedence over quality of life and preferences of residents.  With end-of-life, there is always something more that can be done--treatments, procedures--but the outcomes and trade-offs for the patients might be untenable.


Gawande explores alternatives that take into account retaining quality of life and helping the elderly and dying identify what matters the most to them and to design the best approaches to their living situations and care.  His examples include interactions with patients, friends, and his own father.  In his process, he recounts learning better ways to communicate with patients, especially in the difficult conversations no one wants to have but that can make all the difference.

Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness - Susannah Cahalan, Heather Henderson



Susannah Cahalan was a healthy 24-year-old working as a reporter for the New York Post when she began to have seemingly unrelated and inexplicable symptoms, such as memory problems, sensitivity to light, anxiety, mood swings, food aversions, and insomnia.  Tests revealed nothing unusual, and her neurologist was convinced she was a heavy drinker who just needed to lay off the sauce.  After a seizure and a psychotic break, Cahalan woke up at NYU Hospital with gaping holes in her memory.  Tests continued to yield no clues until neurosurgeon Souhel Najjar asked her to draw a clockface and write in all the numbers, 1-12.  In her drawing, Cahalan crammed all of the numbers into the right half of the sphere she had drawn.  This caused Dr. Najjar to suspect that the right hemisphere of her brain was inflamed.  Once that was confirmed, the medical team was able to home in on a diagnosis.  Cahalan's condition was a  rare auto-immune disease, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.  This condition was causing her body to attack her brain.  Once identified, the anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis could be treated, and a slow but steady recovery made possible.


This true-life medical mystery makes for an interesting--and harrowing--narrative.  The fear and frustration that Cahalan, her family, and her boyfriend experienced during the process are palpable.  I recommend this book with just a small caveat that for me, the ending fell a bit flat for me.  I guess I wanted just a bit more.

Lower Back Tattoo

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer



I wasn't very familiar with Amy Schumer's work in comedy, but I couldn't resist the title.  Now I know--she's funny, frank, and has a big heart.  She made me laugh out loud.  (Hazard of listening to funny audiobooks.)

Unseen World

The Unseen World: A Novel - Liz Moore



When Ada Sibelius turns 13 in 1984, she has been living an orderly albeit unconventional life.  Raised by a homeschooling single father, David Sibelius, she spends most of her days by his side at the Steiner Lab, which he runs at the Boston Institute of Technology, or Bit.  David and the lab staff and graduate students treat her much like a colleague, and she is immersed in mathematics and computer programming as they progress in their work in artificial intelligence.  Their ongoing project is a "chatbot" called ELIXIR.  All members of the team work on the project of teaching it to converse by engaging in regular text-chat sessions with it.


Ada begins to notice signs that David's memory and cognition appear to be slipping.  For a while, he denies that there is a problem--but before too long, it becomes apparent that he is losing his faculties to early-onset Alzheimer's.  When David is admitted to a longterm care facility, his friend and colleague Diana Liston takes Ada in.  During the process of establishing legal guardianship, certain irregularities about David's vital records and background come to light.  Suddenly, there is a mystery about his past, and David himself is no longer capable of explaining.  However, he has left behind clues and codes that Ada can use to discover the answers.


The book mostly moves between two timeframes:  1980s and 2009.  Ada's quest to unlock the mysteries of David's past extend into her adulthood, though she does discover his true identity while still into her teens.  The book's narrative also extends into the future, in a segment labeled as "soon."


Listening to the audiobook, I developed an affection for Ada and found the mystery intriguing.  Most of the way through, I felt the book was on its way to a four-star rating from me.  But the last couple of chapters shifted my impression somewhat, ending on what felt to me as sort of an anti-humanity/pro-AI note.  This might not have been the author's intent, but that was the effect, and it felt a bit cold to me. 

Husband's Secret

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty

A while back, a co-worker and I were discussing our shared love of Gillian Flynn.  After having read/listened to Gone Girl, I quickly tore through Flynn's other books.  My co-worker suggested that if I enjoyed Gillian Flynn, I'd probably also enjoy reading Liane Moriarty's novels.  "Liane Moriarty?  Great, I'll have to seek out her books!"  I said and meant this, but then I got busy and forgot.  This process repeated itself a couple more times, and then just recently, I was browsing available audiobooks on my library's e-collection website--and stumbled across The Husband's Secret.  I downloaded it, transferred it to my mp3 player, and quickly got hooked.  Soon after, I decided to seek out the print version to supplement my listening.  Only then did I pay attention to the author's name and...  "Oh, hey--is Liane Moriarty the author you've been recommending to me?"  "Yup."


The book begins with a short re-telling of the myth of Pandora--pointedly correcting misconceptions by specifying that she was given a jar, not a box, and that it came with absolutely no warnings about the dangers of opening it.  One of the main characters, Cecilia Fitzpatrick, faces a Pandora's jar of her own.  While searching in the attic for a small piece of the Berlin Wall--for her daughter Esther who has become obsessed with learning all about it--she stumbles across a sealed envelope, which falls out of one of the shoeboxes her husband John-Paul uses to store receipts.  The letter is marked:  "For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick.  To be opened in the event of my death."


Thus begins the story.  The action mostly takes place in Sidney, Australia, in a tight-knit community of people with connections to the Catholic School St. Angela's.  Cecilia is the school's premiere "school mum," along with being a highly successful Tupperware distributor and mother of three lovely daughters:  Isabel, Esther, and Polly (yup--there is a "Polly" AND an "Esther" in the family).  Rachel Crowley is the school's part-time secretary.  Rachel's adult son has announced that his wife Lauren has accepted a two-year job assignment in New York City, and that will mean two years without Jacob, the young grandson Rachel cares for two days a week.  With that change imminent, Rachel finds herself newly obsessed with her late daughter Janey, whose murder back in April of 1984, the month before she would have been 18, has never been solved.  Tess O'Leary has impulsively brought her six-year-old son Liam with her from Melbourne, with the excuse of looking after her mother Mary, who has broken her ankle.  She makes this decision after the confession of her husband Will and cousin Felicity that they've fallen in love and feel the need to pursue a relationship.  Tess enrolls Liam at St. Angela's, and the lives of Cecilia, Rachel, and Tess become entwined.


Cecilia, Rachel, and Tess are the primary narrative points of view, although there are some others interspersed, including occasional moments where an omniscient narrator shares things none of the characters could know.  This omniscient narrator appears in a mind-blowing epilogue that I won't spoil--just expect your brain to go "BOOM!"  The secret in the letter (of course Cecilia opens and reads it!) creates serious dilemmas.  But I won't give this book's secrets away.  Just read it--you'll be glad you did.

You Won't Actually Learn About Diabetes

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls - David Sedaris



The audiobook is narrated hilariously by the author.  Warning:  if you listen to this out in public, walking around or running, you WILL laugh out loud and seem quite crazy.  But it's well worth the risk.

Then and Now

The Girl Before: A Novel - JP Delaney



One Folgate Street, in the Hendon neighborhood of London, is no ordinary house.  The rental property has a low rent for the area, but not just anyone can rent it.  Becoming a tenant in the minimalist "smart" house requires the completion of an extensive application, accompanied by photographs, and approval by the owner-architect Edward Monkford, who conducts a personal interview before accepting tenants.  The tenants must abide by the terms of a contract that imposes a series of rules about how the home must be maintained and furnished.  Certain items, such as throw pillows and any kind of clutter, are prohibited.  Tenants must complete periodic "assessments":  questionnaires taken through the property's "Housekeeper" app, which shuts down house services (like the shower) until the assessment is completed.


The book is structured in two time frames, "THEN" and "NOW."  Emma Matthews narrates the "THEN" chapters, and Jane Cavendish narrates "NOW."  Both women successfully complete the application/intterview process and move into One Folgate Street, after having experienced a personal trauma.  Each woman, for her own reason, is attracted to the simple, open design of the house and senses that the home's rules and procedures will transform them into better versions of themselves. 


Jane becomes aware that Emma died in the house, under mysterious circumstances.  As she delves into Emma's life at One Folgate, she soon discovers that she and Emma bore a physical resemblance to one another.  On top of that, certain personal developments in Jane's life parallel Emma's.  Is Jane's life in danger, too?  What are Edward Monkford's motives in having the house shape the lives of its tenants?


The narrative moves quickly, and the plot contains a series of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing.  With both women, there are surprises as bits of new information continue to change the impression the reader has been developing of the narrators.  Recommended to readers who enjoy a fast-moving psychological thriller.


I received this book as an ARC from Netgalley.  This has not prevented me from writing an honest review.

Trigger Warning: Imagination

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Discoveries - Neil Gaiman



Listening to Neil Gaiman is such a lovely thing, I realized I would be willing to listen to him reading phone books or grocery lists.  But it's even better to hear him reading his stories.  In his introduction, he discusses trigger warnings--from their start on the internet to their being attached to works of literature and art.  He shares that after wondering if trigger warnings would ever be attached to his own work, he decided to be the first to do it.  Proceed with caution if you are triggered by a wonderful, wide-ranging imagination.

Everything You Want Me to Be

Everything You Want Me to Be: A Novel - Mindy Mejia

I received a free ARC of this book from NetGalley. This does not prevent me from providing an honest review.


The residents of the small farming community of Pine Valley, Minnesota are shocked when an unrecognizable corpse found in an abandoned barn turns out to be high-school senior Henrietta "Hattie" Hoffman. With a successful opening night of the spring school play, MacBeth, featuring Hattie as Lady MacBeth, no one would have expected such a thing.


The book's narration moves back and forth in time, taking the reader through the events that lead to Hattie's demise as well as the investigation that follows. There are three narrators.


Hattie's acting talent appears to be linked to her instincts about fashioning herself into whichever version of herself suits her situation--hence the title. She's an actress in all parts of her life and a people pleaser. The problem is figuring out her genuine self.


Naturally, Hattie has certain secrets. She forges an online relationship with a man she never expects to meet in real life. And by chance she realizes she already knows him. Drama ensues.


I kept thinking of the Fine Young Cannibals song: "Ever fallen in love with someone, ever fallen in love, in love with someone, ever fallen in love, in love with someone you should'n'a fallen in love with?" That's the catalyst for what happens. Both parties shouldn't fall in love with one another, but they do, and it's tragic.


I read most of this over the course of two days, becoming completely immersed in the book's world. One small criticism I have is that two suspects are sent to the Mayo Clinic to leave sperm samples in order to establish a match with semen found on the crime scene. Okay, in every single episode of Law and Order SVU where a match like that needs to be made, a cheek swab for a DNA test is sufficient. What the heck with requiring a sperm sample?!?!? Nonetheless, recommended for people who enjoy a mystery with some star-crossed lovers in the mix.

Bring on Volume 27!

The Walking Dead Volume 26: Call To Arms - Robert Kirkman



Things get very interesting in 26...  And what happens right at the end made my jaw legit drop open.  I don't want to wait to see what happens next in 27, but I will have to!

The Bookseller and Her Alternate Universe

The Bookseller - Cynthia Swanson, Kathe Mazur



On Goodreads, I belong to a group called "What's the Name of That Book?"  As the name suggests, it's for people who read a book and remember details about it but not the title.  They post the details they can recall and hope someone in the group will be able to produce the title.


I came across a thread called "A woman falls asleep and, in her dreams, she has a totally different life. When she sleeps in this second life, she returns to her first life, and vice versa."  The original post in the thread reads:


I'm pretty sure the protagonist is a woman, but I could be wrong about that- I believe the book is from the last five years or so. The main character falls asleep and in her dream leads a second life. She falls asleep in this second life and returns to (or dreams of) the first life, and she just keeps repeating this over and over. She is extremely confused as to which life is real and which is a dream. I don't believe it involves time travel or anything like that- just two contemporary lives that are totally different.


The original poster also clarifies that the protagonist has a different name in reality A than in reality B.  Person A dreams life as Person B, and in turn, Person B goes to sleep and dreams life as Person A.


One of the responses in the thread suggested The Bookseller.  This didn't turn out to be the book that was being sought, but I thought the premise sounded intriguing, and I downloaded the audiobook from my library's e-collection (though I also ended up checking out the hardcover and finishing the book in print after my run today).


Unlike the book the person in the group was seeking, the dreaming only goes in one direction in The Bookseller.  In the fall of 1962, Kitty Miller, a single 38-year-old woman who co-owns a bookstore, goes to sleep and dreams a reality in which it is February-March 1963, she is married to a man named Lars Andersson, has young children, and is known by her formal given name, Katharyn.  Katharyn never goes to sleep and dreams Kitty's life.  One blurb I came across for the book compares it to the movie Sliding Doors.  Like that film, the book hinges on the idea that one small change in an incident (eight years before) could have resulted in a completely different life for the protagonist.


Both realities have their appeals and their short-comings.  When Kitty is in her "Katharyn" reality, she experiences it as a weird, recurring dream, where she struggles to understand the role she is expected to play, but she also finds herself with flashes of knowledge/memories of this "Katharyn" life.  In her "Kitty" life, she finds herself exploring and researching certain elements of the other reality--finding some of the same people, places, and facts she wouldn't otherwise know.  Yet she keeps returning to the premise that this is all "imaginary."


Without giving away its details, I will say there is a twist toward the end, one that took me by surprise, but in a good way.  I'm a sucker for alternate realities, so I recommend this book to readers who are, as well.

No Turning Back

The Walking Dead Volume 25: No Turning Back - Stefano Gaudiano, Dave Stewart, Charles Adlard, Charlie Adlard, Robert Kirkman



And the saga goes on.  (And on.)  I read most of this while viewing season six of the show on DVD (just finished disc 2).  No spoilers for season seven, please--I don't have cable, so I am always a season behind (at the very least).  It's interesting watching characters who have been around in the books for a while already beginning to appear on the show.  I know they've set the ground-work for Negan's inevitable appearance, and I've peeked in iMDB to see which actor plays him.  Good casting, I have to say!


My husband commented that whenever things have been going well for the characters for a while, they need to brace themselves for the next disaster.  That's true for the books, too.  A new disaster arrived in volume 24, and volume 25 has the aftermath.  The Whisperers slaughtered a fairly large number of the community members and left their heads on spikes at the end of 24.  25 leaves the community thirsty for revenge.  And at the end, Rick is taking some advice from Negan, of all people.  To be continued, as always.  Fortunately, I have volume 26 at the ready.

Where She Went

Where She Went (Audio) - Gayle Forman, Dan Bittner



This book is a thing of beauty.  I want to crawl into it.  But first, I'll back up and discuss the first book, If I Stay.  Do not read this review if you haven't read the first book!

In If I Stay, Mia Hall spends most of her first-person narrative with her physical body in a coma while she wanders the hospital and makes a decision:  Stay or go.  Early on, she has heard a nurse tell her grandparents that she, Mia, is running the show--making the decision on whether to stay in her body and return to her life (such as it would be after the deaths of her parents and little brother).  The narrative moves back and forth between memories and Mia witnessing her grandparents, boyfriend Adam, best friend Kim, and others as they speak with her comatose body or interact with one another.

There are many lovely moments, such as Mia's grandfather quietly telling her that if she wants to go, he understands.  Kim sits with her and tells her that she still has a family--and something about what Kim tells her, in favor of choosing to stay, convinces Mia that it would be okay to go.  She feels certain that Kim "will be okay" (not "would be okay") without Mia.  She seems to have decided not to stay.  But Adam is the one who turns things around.  In part, he promises that if she needs him to let go of her, in order for her to stay and live, he would hate it but he would let go.  And what clinches it for her is music.  Mia is a talented cellist whose Julliard audition went very well, and Adam is in an "emo core" punk band; they're a musical odd couple.  After urging her to stay, Adam put earbuds in her ears and plays Yo Yo Ma for her on his iPod.  And Mia suddenly finds herself back in her body, willing herself to squeeze the hand Adam is holding hers with.  And....  that's where the book stops.  If I hadn't been able to transition right to Where She Went, I might have knocked my rating down to three stars (from the four I gave it).

Where She Went does not pick up where If I Stay left off.  Instead, it jumps three years into the future. Adam narrates, and his life looks enviable from the outside.  His band has become a phenomenon, he's a bona fide rock star, and he lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, a famous actress named Bryn.  But he can't seem to enjoy anything and relies on anti-anxiety meds and cigarettes to get through each day.  Echoing the structure of If I Stay, Adam moves between what is currently happening and memories, slowly filling in the three years since the end of the first book, as well as reaching back into his recollections about meeting and falling in love with Mia.

When Adam is in New York City, poised to travel to London to meet his band for a recording session before their European tour begins, he happens to see an advertisement for a concert Mia is performing that night.  On impulse, he goes to the box office and buys a "rush" ticket.  And to his surprise at the end of the concert, an usher approaches to let him know that Mia wants to see him backstage.

It's been three years since he's seen Mia, and he's fantasized about having the chance to see her again.  Will he find out why she withdrew from him once she went to Julliard?  If she explains, will he understand?  

I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that it's satisfying and earned.  The characterization is wonderful--no one feels cliched, though it could have gone that way.   I'll definitely seek out more works by Gayle Forman.

If You Leave Don't Leave Now (Please Don't Take My Heart Away)

If I Stay - Gayle Forman

I have gone straight from listening to this one to its sequel, Where She Went. I'm so glad that I had them both loaded on my mp3 player, because HOLY CLIFFHANGER. I can't help but think of these books as a unit and will hold off on reviewing until I am through the entire series (don't know if this is just a duo or if a third book is forthcoming).


Update:  It's a duo.  I read the second book and reviewed it here.  The review contains spoilers for the first book but not the second.  Do read these books, but make sure you have them both so that you can jump right into the second the moment you finish the first.


The Leftovers - Tom Perrotta, Dennis Boutsikaris



Before becoming aware of this book, I checked out the DVD of the first season of the HBO TV adaptation.  While I found the premise intriguing, for some reason, I just couldn't get into it, and I ended up bailing after a couple-few episodes.  But I was still intrigued enough that when I came across the downloadable audiobook in my library's e-collection, I grabbed it.  I will probably give the show another try, even though I've seen a book review indicating that the show and book are quite different from one another.  Having adjusted to the differences between the Bones TV series and the books that inspired it, I think I can probably handle that.


The Leftovers is set in a small suburban town called Mapleton.  Its populace has been adjusting (or failing to adjust) to an event known as "The Sudden Departure," or alternately "The Rapture" or simply "October 14."  A segment of the population simply disappeared, leaving those who remain to grieve, puzzle, and struggle to go on.  The primary focus of the novel is the Garvey family.  Its patriarch Kevin became mayor after October 14th, and early in the narrative, he is organizing a three-year anniversary event, "the first annual Departed Heroes' Day of Remembrance and Reflection." 


Although Kevin's immediate family was technically left intact three years before, its members have come undone in other ways.  Laurie Garvey, Kevin's wife, walked away from their family to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant. The members of the GR live in a compound, take a vow of silence, and wander the town in pairs, wearing white clothing, smoking cigarettes (a gesture meant to acknowledge their limited time left on Earth), and silently judging various members of the community.  The Garveys' son Tom dropped out of Syracuse University to follow a self-styled religious leader known as Holy Wayne.  Teenage daughter Jill, having been in the same room when her friend Jen Sussman vanished, has gone from a straight-A student to being on the brink of flunking out during her senior year.  Meanwhile, Kevin has found himself drawn to Nora Durst, a woman whose husband and two young children were among the departed.


The narrative takes the reader through multiple points of view:  Kevin, Laurie, Tom, Jill, and Nora.  Each struggles to figure out their place in their new world and to interpret what exactly happened three years before.  The characters' stories held my interest, and the author did a good job of intertwining serious drama with moments of humor and levity.  My one complaint is that this book has one of those endings that is more of a "stopping."  Don't expect closure.  I would have appreciated a few more chapters wrapping things us more definitively, but arguably this is what life is like:  episodic and open-ended.