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Mirkat Always Reading

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

Currently reading

The Magicians (The Magicians, #1)
Mark Bramhall, Lev Grossman

Lost Landscape

The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age - Joyce Carol Oates, Cassandra Campbell



Although I have read quite a few of Joyce Carol Oates's works, since she is so prolific, I think I've just barely scraped the surface.  One of the things I admire about her is her eclecticism.  She doesn't confine herself to any one genre nor fall back on any sort of a formula.


Probably the first book of hers that I read was Them.  I recall it was on my parents' bookshelf.  My dad was in her graduating class at Syracuse University, and he used to tell me with some pride that he and she were both on the school paper, The Daily Orange.  While I was a PhD student in the 1990s, she gave a talk at my university, and I was lucky to be chosen to attend the post-talk dinner.  She couldn't have been a more gracious dinner companion.  And no, she didn't remember my dad, but I didn't necessarily expect her to!


I enjoyed this memoir, and it made me realize how little I knew about Oates's personal life.  One of the things I enjoyed was the afterword, in which she makes a distinction between "memoir" and "autobiography" and explains which elements and details she had changed in order to protect the privacy of some of the people she wrote about.  She also described some of the people and events she did not include and explained why she made that choice.  Ever the teacher, she teaches her readers about the text they have just read.


The narrator of the audiobook has a very pleasant voice, though it often struck me how unlike the author's voice it is.  Like the word "demure."  I recall at the talk she gave at my university, Oates sharing with incredulity that people are always expecting her to be demure.  And her pronunciation of the word, in her Western New York accent, sounds quite different from the narrator's rendition.  Still a good reading, though.

Leaving Time

Leaving Time: A Novel - Jodi Picoult, Abigail Revasch, Rebecca Lowman, Mark Deakins, Kathe Mazur



I have fallen in love with this book.  To think, on a few different occasions when deciding which audiobook to download from my library's site, I read the description of this book and passed on it.  But this time I decided to give it a try, and I was quickly hooked.


Jenna Metcalf wants to find out what happened to her mother Alice 10 years before, when Jenna was three.  At the time, Alice and her husband Thomas operated an elephant sanctuary in Boone, New Hampshire, along with sanctuary employees Nevvie Ruehl, Nevvie's daughter Grace Cartwright, and Grace's husband Gabriel Cartwright.  Police had been called in to the sanctuary, where they found Nevvie dead and Alice unconscious within one of the elephant enclosures.  Alice, having been brought to the hospital while unconscious, checked herself out early the next morning, before police were able to question her, and was not seen since.  Thomas Metcalf, since shortly after the accident, has been in a mental-health facility, inhabiting his own separate reality.


To help her discover what happened to Alice, Jenna enlists two unlikely allies:  Serenity Jones, formerly a celebrity psychic, whose reputation was destroyed when she made a botched prediction in a high-profile missing-child case, and Virgil Stanhope, who had been the police officer who took an unconscious Alice to the hospital, but who apparently left the force shortly afterward and became a private investigator.


There are four first-person narrators in this book:  Alice, Jenna, Serenity, and Virgil.  The audiobook has four separate narrators--one for each POV character--and this works extremely well.  Alice's chapters share her research into elephant mourning, meeting Thomas while working on a preserve in Africa, falling in love with him when she realizes he is as devoted to elephants as she is, coming out to New Hampshire to join the sanctuary family, and the events that lead to the fateful night of the accident. 


This book has a twist I did not see coming.  One of those twists that knocks the wind out of you.  I don't want to say anything else about it, lest  I spoil anything. There is a supernatural element (as you might have guessed from the presence of a psychic), but this component was executed in a non-woo, non-annoying way.


As a side note--I already loved elephants, but this book made me love them even more.  At the very end is an author's note providing more information on the non-fiction sources used to inform Alice's informative sections, as well as resources readers can use to support elephant sanctuaries and anti-poaching initiatives.

Behind Closed Doors

Behind Closed Doors - B. A. Paris, Georgia Maguire



The title, blurb, and first chapter of this book plainly lay out the situation its protagonist, Grace Angel, is in.  As far as the guests of Jack and Grace Angel's dinner party can tell, they are witnessing the perfect couple entertaining in the perfect house, serving perfect food and sharing stories about their perfect relationship.  Jack, an attorney with movie-star good looks, specializes in representing women suffering from domestic abuse.  He even shares he is eager for the day Millie, Grace's younger sister who has Down Syndrome*, turns 18, leaves her school, and moves into the house with Jack and Grace.  Grace seems dedicated to being the ultimate housewife and hostess, cooking flawless gourmet meals, painting, and gardening.  But from Grace's narration, it is clear that the perfection is a facade and that something else is going on below the surface.


The first-person narrative alternates between "Present" and "Past" chapters.  The "Past" installments reach back 18 months to when Grace first met Jack, while the "Present" ones carry forward from the night of the dinner party.  It becomes clear that the perfect house is a gilded cage.  Grace, upon accepting Jack's marriage proposal 18 months before, agreed to leave her job as a buyer for Harrod's, and "now" she is either in the house or, if she is out and about, she is constantly accompanied by her ever-attentive husband.  She doesn't have a cell phone or her own email account, and anyone calling for her on the house phone is usually told that she is unavailable.  Invitations for lunches either end up with sudden excuses not to show ("migraine") or Jack crashes the lunch.


My feelings about this book were all over the place; at times I felt I would give it a very low rating, while at others my opinion swung the other way.  The narrative propelled me forward so I "needed" to see how things unfolded.  Certain elements of characterization strained credulity for me (i.e. cardboard character-type character).  There were moments where I cringed at some over-explaining ("'I'm sorry,' I apologized.").  If this were a movie, it would be an old-school "woman in jeopardy" Lifetime movie (and I see that others have drawn that comparison in reviews).  Or if it were made into a feature film in the 1990s, Julia Roberts would have played Grace.


One of the things I found interesting was that there were elements in the opening chapter that did not make full sense until later in the narrative, so I found myself going back and rereading the opening after I was done.  I also read the closing chapter twice.  The fact that I wanted to do that increased my estimation of the novel somewhat.


As others have pointed out, this book is not another Gone Girl or Girl on the Train.  It is much too cards-on-the table for that type of comparison.  It is compulsively readable/listenable. (Although I primarily listened to the audiobook, I also checked out the print book to review parts I'd listened to, and I ended up reading the last 10% or so in print.)


*The book keeps referring to this as "Down's Syndrome."

Added this book... As [nearly] always

Behind Closed Doors - B. A. Paris, Georgia Maguire



I'm about to sound peevish.  I am listening to this audiobook.  I downloaded it from my library's electronic collection, as an mp3 audiobook.  When I entered the ISBN number into Booklikes, the edition didn't exist here yet.  So I added the edition.  I like to shelf the actual edition that I am listening to or reading.  I access this particular format very often.  And it seems as though at least 95% of the time, this means I need to add the edition myself.  I am just a bit weary of it.  It would be so nice if I could just enter the ISBN, and it would be the other way around--and needing to add the edition myself would be the small exception.

Not My Father's Son

Not My Father's Son: A Memoir (Audio) - Alan Cumming




I mostly knew Alan Cumming from his role as Eli Gold on The Good Wife, though also from assorted other roles, such as Sandy Frink in Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion. Listening to his self-narrated audiobook, I realized I didn't remember ever hearing him speak in his native Scottish accent.  It took me a moment to adjust--in a good way.


In 2010, Cumming was invited to be on the show Who Do You Think You Are?  He agreed, and the family mystery they chose to investigate was the fate Tom Darling, Cumming's maternal grandfather.  After having served in Japan in WWII, Darling had never come home.  He ultimately died under mysterious circumstances in Malaysia.  As he was going through preparations with the producers of the show, Cumming's father dropped a bombshell on him--something Cumming wasn't sure whether to believe.


The narrative alternates between "then" and "now."  The chapters that are set in the past convey memories of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Cumming's brutal father.  Those memories lay dormant for some time, coming to a head when Cumming and his then-wife were trying to become parents. 


The mystery explored via the show Who Do You Think You Are? is interwoven in the narrative with another mystery related to the bombshell Cumming's father drops on him.  Whether the claim is true or not, it will have ramifications that affect the entire family.


Cumming tells his story simply and movingly.  Recommended.

Disney Book Group: NO GALLEY FOR *YOU*!

I have too many books in my to-be-read queue.  Always.  Many of these books are ARC galleys from Netgalley.  I generally limit myself to "Read Now" titles, and even then, I make a point of only choosing books I am certain I actually want to read.  I haven't always been great about following through on the reading and reviewing because...  too many books, too little time.


Sometimes I do request books, though.  Again, I make a point of only choosing books I am interested in reading.  I went on a bit of a requesting spree back in February, and mostly my requests were accepted.  I don't feel entitled to having my requests accepted--there are too many books, and I'm fine with not reading every single book in my request universe.


But here is something that has been sticking in my craw, almost two months later.  I don't even recall which book I'd requested, but I received this "rejection" email:


Request notification from Disney Book Group.

You recently requested to view a title from NetGalley's Public Catalog. Unfortunately, we have declined your request for access to the title at this time. Please check to make sure your profile meets our request criteria before requesting a title again or contacting us directly. Please note that while we do accept requests from bloggers, we cannot approve everyone.


What?!?  No.  I am not going into "request criteria" for every single title that is available for request on Netgalley, to make sure I am suitable.  You know what, Disney Book Group?  You need people to read and review your galleys more than I need galleys to read and review.  When your books are for-realsies released, I can get them from the library and give them any-shit review I want to.  (Not that I'm inclined to take this out on the author--again, I don't even recall which book this was.)


If a publisher like Disney Book Group only wants reviewers who meet some s00per-speshul "request criteria" to BOTHER them with requests?  Then work something out with Netgalley so that apparent riff-raff, unsuitable reader-reviewers like me never receive the promotional emails encouraging us to click the "REQUEST IT" button.  And?  Screw you.

I Crawl Through It

I Crawl Through It - A.S. King, A. S. King



Like the character in this book who calls herself Stanzi (her real name is never revealed), I am feeling a bit like a tetragametic chimera ("Somewhere in there you used to be fraternal twins.  And you blended.  Two into one.")  Stanzi often refers to having two conflicting halves that want to do opposing things.


Half of me wants to give this book two stars, and half of me wants to give it four.  So I am averaging the score to three.  Half of me, despite loving weird, feels this book is too weird.   The other loves how weird it is.  Half of me feels guilty that after requesting the ARC of this book from Netgalley--in 2015--and being accepted, I didn't get to it until now, long after it's been released in multiple forms, including audio (supplemented by the Kindle ARC I have).  Part of me is glad I listened/read AFTER I listened to/read Still Life With Tornado, which is also weird, but in a different way.  I may have needed to read that one first.


If you already love A.S. King and are in the mood for some very weird weird, you could enjoy this book.  But be in the right mood.

Still Life With Tornado

Still Life with Tornado - A.S. King, Karissa Vacker



Sixteen-year old high-school sophomore Sarah has wanted to be an artist since she made a ceramic owl in first grade.  But something shifts in her when her art teacher, Miss Smith, tells the class that there is no such thing as an original idea.  Everything has been done before.  Nothing new ever happens.  Suddenly, Sarah finds herself unable to draw the pear she has set up for herself for an in-class "still life" assignment.  Handing in a blank piece of paper, she declares, "I have lost the will to participate."  Miss Smith thinks she is only referring to the assignment, but Sarah means it much more globally.


Sarah stops going to school.  Going to school is not original.  Neither is skipping school and risking expulsion, but that's where her new-found apathy leads her.  She takes random buses, pretends an abandoned school building is her "new school," follows a homeless artist named Earl around town, and encounters and interacts with versions of herself from the past and future:  ten-year-old Sarah, age-23 Sarah, and age-40 Sarah.


Early in the book, I was impatient with Sarah, not understanding her reactions to the declarations of the art teacher.  But as it turns out, there is much more going on.  Something has happened.  It's something that Sarah finds devastating, but Miss Smith and Sarah's fellow members of the art club behave as if it's nothing.  Sarah is expected to just "let it go."  And what has happened is just the latest thing.  As Sarah explains much later in the narrative, she "tells the truth slowly."


Something happened six years before, when Sarah was still age-ten Sarah.  Certain things that happened are missing from present-day Sarah's memory, and her ten-year-old self helps her remember, having just experienced it all a month ago.  The things that happened led to Sarah's nine-years-older brother Bruce to move away.  Something is not right with her parents, Helen and Chet, but they try to present a united front.  Sarah's behavior becomes more understandable as she unravels what happened before and what is bubbling just below the surface.


Side note:  Sarah lives in Center City Philadelphia.  I am a Philly expat who hasn't lived there since 1995, and I loved the references to city streets and landmarks.


A.S. King has become a great voice in Y.A.  She doesn't insult the intelligence of teenagers--the ones in her books or, by implications, the ones in her target audience.   Once I got into this book, I wanted to crawl into it and not leave until I was finished.  Then I was, and I missed it.  But I quickly downloaded another A.S. King book.  More on that soon....

Whisperer War

The Walking Dead Volume 27: The Whisperer War - Robert Kirkman



I love me some Walking Dead, but I am wondering if this is going to be Days of Our Lives with zombies:  a soap opera not designed to ever end.  A new threat comes along, conflict occurs, resolution happens, but there are other threats on the horizon.  I enjoyed this installment and will read the next, but at a certain point--I hope there will be an end, with a satisfying resolution. 


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.