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Mirkat Always Reading

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

Currently reading

The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults
Frances E. Jensen, Amy Ellis Nutt, Tavia Gilbert
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Audio)
David Eagleman


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan  Cain, Kathe Mazur Everyone should read this book. Including my mom! (More on that later.) As the book demonstrates, extroverts and introverts can and should learn to play to one another's strengths, to reach compromises that allow them to accommodate one another's preferences and social styles. In doing so, they can truly complement one another, yin-and-yang style. Introversion is not a flaw that needs to be fixed, yet many introverts living in western cultures such as the U.S. are treated as if it is. My mother is one of those extroverts who thought of my introversion as something she needed to fix. If only I would "make an effort," I would make more friends, which would be desirable because it would give me more people to "rely on." The author at one point describes an extrovert urging an introvert to just "make an effort." It was me and my mom all over again... The book makes the point that introverts do enjoy socializing, but in their own way and on their own terms. They tend to enjoy talking one-on-one or in small groups, delving into deeper topics rather than dwelling on small talk. Educators and business recruiters tend to favor the traits of extroversion; however, they would be wise to learn to work with introverts and nurture their unique strengths. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, you will benefit if you read this book. Whichever you are, you will learn strategies to help you with people like and unlike yourself.

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty


I haven't seen the show.  I want to and I will, but I don't have cable, so that will have to wait until it's out on DVD and available at my library.  I've heard that the setting has been changed from Australia to California. [No spoilers, please!  Though I guess I pretty much know from having just completed this book.]


So the book.  The focus is a group of "kindy mums" at Pirriwee Public, in a cushy, suburban beachside community in Australia. The multiple points of view belong to Madeline, Jane, and Celeste, although other perspectives are included through interview snippets.  Madeline's kindergartner is her youngest, Chloe.  Teenage Abigail is from her first husband, Nathan--who is now married to Bonnie, mother of Skye, who is in the same kindergarten class as Chloe.  Madeline and second husband Ed also have a son, seven-year-old Fred, also enrolled at Pirriwee.  Celeste is married to the wealthy and charming Perry.  They seem to have a picture-perfect life with their twin boys Josh and Max, in their sprawling beachside home.  Newcomer Jane is a young single mother with a son named Ziggy. 


The three women bond on the day of kindergarten orientation, after Jane rescues Madeline, who has twisted her ankle and taken a spill in the street leading up to the school.  But soon things become complicated for Jane when one of the boys in the class hurts a girl named Amabella, and Amabella points to Ziggy as the perpetrator. And because Jane believes him when he denies it, she doesn't force him to apologize.  And next thing anyone knows, parents are taking sides.


The book is structured to reveal bit by bit events leading up to an ill-fated trivia night at the school.  Someone dies during the event, but the reader does not find out who dies until the narrative gets there (Chapter 2 is "Six months Before the Trivia Night").  This isn't your typical mystery; in a way, the mystery is more about why it's a mystery....  I won't say more, beyond noting that "things are often not as they seem" is an important theme in the narrative.  I really enjoyed he narrative style and characterization.  I'll definitely seek out more Liane Moriarty books (this is my second, after The Husband's Secret).

Nordic Theory

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life - Anu Partanen, Abby Craden

The author, a journalist and a transplant from Finland to the United States, is in a unique position to explore distinctions between her adopted country and Nordic countries, including the one she left behind.  She focuses on education, health care, parental-leave policies, elder care, business, and taxation.  Taking on the widespread perception in the US that Nordic countries are "nanny states" that foster dependence through their social programs, she contends that knowing their government programs have their backs when it comes to health, education, and the social safety net actually does the opposite and encourages freedom.  In contrast, the US system tends to lead to different dependencies--such as children's prolonged dependence on their parents (college tuition being so high) and employees on their employers (health insurance, etc.).  And when parents age, the dependencies flip, as adult children struggle to care for elderly parents.


The book is not one-sided, as the author acknowledges positive traits about the US and posits that the US and the Nordic countries can learn from one another.  However, there are ways, as she points out, that life in the US could be "so much better," and it's worthwhile to examine how the Nordic countries built the structures as they did.


Vanishing Girls

Vanishing Girls - Lauren Oliver, Justice Folding, Saskia Maarleveld, Joel Richards, Elizabeth Evans, Dan Bittner, Tavia Gilbert




I guessed the twist (mostly) and wanted to be wrong.  I don't remember the exact moment that it hit me, but it was like, "Is Dara dead?  She's dead.  I don't want her to be dead.  If she's dead, I am NOT going be able to give this book a high rating.  There were certain tells, of course.  Why did the mother not seem to have any dealings with Dara?  When the police officer arrived with Nicole's hoodie to bust her for the party the night before, why did the mother not investigate whether Dara might have been the one?


I didn't guess the psychotic break--Nick assuming Dara's identity.  So I didn't quite know what to do with the Dara-narrated chapters.


I feel bad for having a negative response.  I normally enjoy the heck out of Lauren Oliver's books, and it feels as though it just wasn't the right moment for me to read this book.  Like other books prepared me to make the guess and spoil the story for myself.  The writing is otherwise lovely, and there were character interactions that I found compelling.  But the twist that I predicted and didn't want soured me on this one.  I don't want to give it a low rating OR a high one, so I am skipping the star ratings altogether.

(show spoiler)


Stalking Jack the Ripper

Stalking Jack the Ripper - Kerri Maniscalco, Nicola Barber



I was in the YA section of my local library looking for something else entirely, when this Playaway audiobook caught my eye.  I read the description and was intrigued.  It wasn't until later that I discovered that this is the first installment of a planned trilogy.  Having learned that, I was worried that the mystery would be spread out over three books, but it is actually resolved in this one.  This book works as a stand-alone, though I guess the others will follow the main character on future adventures.


The protagonist, Audrey Rose Wadsworth, won me over with her refusal to settle for the rules that proper young Victorian ladies were expected to follow.  She is determined to pursue her interest in forensic science, even if it means sneaking to her uncle's classes and laboratory behind the back of her hyper-protective widower father.


Audrey Rose, her Uncle Jonathan, and Jonathan's student and apprentice Thomas Cresswell are determined to solve the case of the notorious Jack the Ripper, who has been murdering women in London's East End.


As noted above, the mystery does get resolved.  I confess I'm somewhat disappointed in the identity and motives of the killer, only because I have trouble believing the profile is plausible.  Still, I would be interested in reading more works by Kerri Maniscalco and to follow Audrey Rose's next installments.

Gathering Blue

Gathering Blue - Lois Lowry, Katherine Borowitz



Back in 2014, when I read and reviewed The Giver, I erroneously thought that book was the first in a trilogy, where the second book would pick up where the first left off.  I soon learned that there is a quartet of books, and that Gathering Blue, the second installment, while in the same "universe" as The Giver, has none of the same characters and takes place in a different community.  Jonas and Gabe from the first book apparently reappear in a later one (from some poking while trying to avoid spoilers, it appears this will happen in The Son, which is the fourth book).  After finding out all this, I wasn't sure whether I'd continue with the series.  But Gathering Blue came up in a search in my library's e-collection for available mystery audiobooks, so I decided to give it a try.  (Funny that I note in my review of the first book that it ended at mile six when I was doing a ten-mile run.  Gathering Blue ended at mile 10 if a 20-miler.)


I found that I liked this book better than the first, though I will say that I also found the community the characters live in implausible.  Why are people so callous about young children?  Somehow everyone is impatient with and cruel to "tykes."  One even casually comments that it would be no big deal if one of them died, because there are "too many of them."


Kira is a young girl with a talent for stitching elaborate needle-point type work.  Her father had died before Kira was born, reportedly "taken by beasts," and her mother recently died of illness.  Because of the illness, the cot that they shared is burnt, and a brutal neighboring woman declares that Kira should be put out in the field because she has a bad leg and the cot-space is needed to build a pen to keep in the tykes (!).  (The dead, dying and lame are put "in the field" to decompose, die, or be taken by beasts.)  Because of her talent, Kira is given a special task--she will be in charge of repairing and completing the Singer's Robe, and she is kept in comfortable quarters and given fine meals.  She soon meets other talented children in the same compound--Thomas the carver and Jo the singer (Jo is barely out of toddlerhood and therefore only has a one-syllable name; syllables come with age). 


So of course things are not as they seem, and one of the questions is how special, talented children come to be orphans given special jobs related to their gifts.  What stories about their past are not quite true?  What changes might they be able to effect for the future?


Again, the implausibilities take me out of the story somewhat--but I will probably seek out the audiobooks of the other two books, The Messenger and The Son.

Sandra Brown is Not a Runner

Mean Streak - Sandra Brown, Jonathan Davis

This post is inspired by a comment someone made in a review of Mean Streak on Goodreads.  The reviewer noted that Sandra Brown is obviously not a runner, because she had her female protagonist doing a 20-mile training run when she was only nine days out from a marathon.  I hadn't thought about this while reading, but it's true.  The character should have been tapering!  She would most likely have done her last 20-miler when the race was three weeks away.  The usual strategy is to drop training volume the last couple-few weeks before race day to ensure fresh legs.  Also, the character decided it was a good idea to do this 20-miler on remote trails in the mountains of North Carolina without a running buddy.  And she is supposed to be smart.


Near the end of the book, the character crosses the finish line of a marathon, and she is cheered, since she is the organizer and chief fundraiser of the charity race in question.  But the author leaves out details any runner would want to know:  What was her time?  Was it a PR (personal record)?  If so, by how much?  Was it a BQ (Boston qualifying)?  The important things!

Mean Streak

Mean Streak - Sandra Brown, Jonathan Davis



Plot-driven story with some clunky writing and characters behaving in ways that actual humans probably would not. Two stars instead of one because the plot did hold my interest so that I wanted to find out how the story resolved itself. There were some twists I did not see coming.


I am not a "romance" kind of reader, and when I realized there's a romance angle in the plot, I braced myself. I find most sex scenes in novels to be cringe-worthy, laughable, or both. I did find myself cringe-laughing at some of the sex in this book. I am not making up this phrase: "The arrogant jut of his penis." A penis can have an arrogant jut? Also, the author does something I detest: referring to characters' genitalia as "his sex" or "her sex."

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....