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Six Months Later, Part I

It’s been almost six months to the day since my last entry, when I completed The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. You might be pleased (surprised?) to learn I have enjoyed so many books since then. So many! I have finished fourteen books in the last six months, which — if you have followed this blog for any length of time — is a lot for me.

Audiobooks are pretty much my main jam these days, what with busy, painty, charcoal-smudged fingers and lots of driving being fairly big components of my life, but it’s all good. (Did you know that your brain recognizes content gathered via listening comprehension and reading comprehension the same way?)

Since I have so many books to review, and since I have Certain Feelings about so many of them, I am going to break this up into several entries, for my sake and yours.

Let’s get to the books!

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#3. The Fireman by Joe Hill

I received a signed copy of this in hardback novel form from my husband, Joe. It is proudly displayed on a bookshelf in my office, but I was nervous to carry it around town, so I downloaded the audiobook version of this on Overdrive and occasionally read some passages out of the book. It’s a doozy of a story: a wild epidemic sweeps across the United States, perhaps the whole world, which causes people to break out into “Dragonscale” markings all over their body. When agitated or panicked, the sufferer bursts into flame.

We see this epidemic through the eyes of Harper Grayson, a school nurse obsessed with Mary Poppins and expecting her first child in the midst of what looks like the apocalypse. The first third of the book is riveting and epic, as we see how people are reacting to Dragonscale as it spreads. Apartment buildings burn to ash every other day, the Internet goes deep underground, and rabid radio hosts declare Dragonscale a biblical act of world-cleansing. Harper tries to stave off her own terror by caring for the infected as a nurse and humming cheerful songs to herself while her husband becomes unhinged with paranoia and dread. One night during a shift at the overwhelmed local hospital, Harper meets a man dressed as a fireman caring for a shy young boy. He seems to know more about the deadly spore causing the spontaneous combustion than he lets on, but nobody can survive its blaze…right?

This story then pivots pretty sharply into what I will describe here as an unusual refugee camp for Dragonscale sufferers who have not yet burst into flame. There is A LOT more to it than that, but as the story of Dragonscale tightens in geographical proximity, it sprawls out with conspiracy and good old-fashioned “People Are the Real Apocalypse” character arcs very reminiscent of Hill’s father. It remains compelling but for different reasons than the threat of self-immolation. Which…says a lot.

Rating: 4 out of 5 cartons of summer camp apple juice.

4

#4. Fellside by M.R. Carey

Joe and I listened to this audiobook on a road trip to a college friend’s wedding in Iowa. It is an incredibly even-paced story about memory, redemption, and ghosts. Yes, ghosts. (It’s M.R. Carey, it’s going to be good-weird.) Sent to the infamously cruel women’s prison, Fellside, for her potential role in a child’s murder, Jess Moulson is a heroin addict trying to remember the last days of her life before she woke up in a hospital as an arson suspect. Her dark feelings and fragmented memories lead her to a strange, dream-like place where she meets a lonely spirit who doesn’t remember who they are. Could this be the young boy for whose murder she’s being charged? Can he help her remember the events of his death?

In the midst of all of this, can she survive Fellside itself? It’s an ominous place led by the ruthless inmate Harriet Grace and her numerous cronies, with several people in positions of power also caught in her web of violence. There are a lot of things working against Jess, most of all her own sense of guilt and confusion.

I really loved this book, it felt like a fairy tale hidden inside a mystery/crime novel. It is very different than The Girl with All the Gifts, so I am sure some fans of that probably didn’t connect to this one in the same way. But I thought it was wonderfully written, and it’s a must-read for the adventurous genre-surfer.

Rating: 5 out of 5 mugs of black coffee.

5

#5. The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber

This one was recommended by a friend of mine, and it was a great rec indeed! First and foremost, the absolute avalanche of research and investigation in this book is so impressive. It’s a true crime story that encompasses so many different players over such a a long period of time: hospital staff, family members, detectives, whistle-blowers, etc. This book does its homework and then goes back for extra credit, and it never feels dry or unnecessary.

Charlie Cullen, later dubbed “The Angel of Death,” was a nurse who worked for sixteen years across Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It is almost impossible to estimate how many people he killed by intentional overdose and excessive medical intervention. His motives have always been equally hard to nail down: he was delivering neither mercy nor vengeance in his action, and all of his victims appear to be random. While the questions surrounding Cullen are disturbing, perhaps more disturbing is that many hospital staff members suspected Cullen of foul play over the years, but little more was done than transfer him on to other hospitals. Graeber goes in depth to explore not just how Cullen committed his crimes, but why he was allowed so much continued access to patients in spite of red flag after red flag.

Rating: 5 out of 5 cups of ice chips brought in by an overly helpful night nurse. Actually, um, can maybe someone else bring me something?

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#6. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This book was…fine. It reminded me a lot of Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood, which I read last year and didn’t love. We have an unreliable narrator in Rachel, a troubled woman who spends lots of time riding trains. She enjoys seeing a young couple in one of the neighborhoods she passes going about their life — a happy-looking wife out in the garden during the day, the wife and her husband eating dinner together in the evening. One night, she sees something incredibly out of the ordinary and shortly thereafter, the young woman goes missing. Rachel immediately dives into investigating her disappearance, as it seems the only thing driving her forward in a life that has been marked by recent misery.

This story is told by three different women in an overlapping timeline: Rachel, our train-riding sleuth; her ex-husband’s new(ish) wife Anna, who lives near the couple; and Megan, the woman who goes missing. I liked this device, that it focused on the women’s perspectives and revealed the mystery in parts through each of them.

What I did not care for immensely was Rachel’s part in everything. Though we are given a reason why Rachel feels so fiercely connected to everything going on, her motivation still feels very flimsy. Rachel explains fairly early on that she has become an alcoholic, and that she is a profoundly unhappy person following a heartbreaking divorce. She also used to live in the same neighborhood as the couple. So looking into Megan’s disappearance gives her something to do, and to feel useful…but she goes SO FAR into this, you guys. SO FAR. And I just didn’t entirely understand it, except that Hawkins wanted to give us an, “A-HA!” moment at some point where her story bumped up against the other women, who seemed so put-together in comparison but had secrets all their own.

Something nice that came out of this was that I spent an afternoon in the park eating tacos and listening to a large portion of this, which was fun. But that has less to do with the novel and more to do with the sunshine…and tacos.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 gin & tonics.

2

#7. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

This was a paperback book that I read, for real and for true. I bought it toward the end of 2016 and actually started it around Christmastime, but got sidetracked and read the bulk of it in April. Some of it during a very chill beach house weekend:

I really loved this book. It was a departure from all the…you know, terrifying and gruesome stuff I read most of the time. It’s a story about Lotto and Mathilde during the course of their marriage. The title, Fates and Furies, describes not only the deep belief Otto holds that the gods and the stars have brought them to one another, but also the ebb and flow of joy and despair during their time together. The structure is impressive, moving through the time and space of the characters but also their deep emotional states and their personal histories. There are parts that take on the dramatic, operatic style of Lotto and the quieter, keenly aware style of Mathilde. It paints a beautiful, strange portrait of a life shared and of two lives individually experienced. This one is a must-read.

Rating: 5 out of 5 glasses of wine at yet another dinner party with old friends.


Keep an eye out for Part II (and maybe Part III) in the next week or two. I may actually hit my target of 25 books in 2017, that would be pretty great! Happy reading and/or listening!

What books have you been reading? Do you prefer audiobooks, ebooks, or traditional books?

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Auld Lang Syne, Already!

Happy 2016, book lovers and other ne’er-do-wells! Another year, another post about how quickly each year seems to go, etc. Last I checked in with the book blog, I had just completed and reviewed Sharp Objects as the summer started to wind down. A lot has happened since then! This past fall I started taking art classes at a local community college. I also did my first makers’ fair downtown and my first gallery showing (the same week, to boot!). I recently got a promotion at work, too, so I have been making a few preparations for that. 2015 ended on a high note for me, though I know it was a hard one for many. Love and light to everyone in this brand new year, I hope it is kind to each of you. ♥

I managed to complete ~12 books this year! What with all the drawings and night classes and side hustles, I think that’s actually rather good. Here are the last ~6 books I read in 2015, and a few notes on each one:

#7. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: I did not think I liked Lena Dunham after my annoyance with Tiny Furniture at SXSW several years back, but this book is very good. I feel like she has grown a lot as a person since that film’s premiere, and she talks about that in the memoir. I listened to this book via Overdrive (of course!), which was extra enjoyable, as she narrates her own life story with earnest humor and warmth. Dunham weaves personal vignettes together to create a surprisingly universal understanding of girlhood, womanhood, and the in-between spaces of awkwardness and hope.

#8. Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple: This book’s format is quite inventive! Constructed out of seemingly unrelated emails, advertisements, and newspaper clippings, the story highlights one young girl’s attempts to locate her mother after she disappears from a cruise ship bound for Antarctica.

#9. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: My favorite fiction novel of the year! Above all else, it is a very affecting love story, and if you’re into that kind of thing I recommend you stop what you are doing to read and/or listen to it at once. (Again, Overdrive.)

#10. Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan: A nonfiction memoir based on medical research, family and friend accounts, and her own bizarre writings from the period of time Cahalan was in the throes of undiagnosed Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. The disease caused drastic system upheavals, hallucinations, violent outbursts, and memory loss. The book details the process of her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

#11. Tampa by Alissa Nutting: One of the reviews of this book is that it is “sly and salacious storytelling” and it certainly is. A young English teacher is way too into her prepubescent male students. Chaos ensues.

#12. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo: This is my favorite nonfiction book of the year, and probably the one that has truly affected my life the most. The #KonMari Method has changed the way I do laundry, buy goods, clean house, and value the things I own. It has affected my views on pretty much everything material about my life! The basic premise is this: only keep things in your home that bring you joy. Make the most of your space by making sure you actually love the things surrounding you. It is amazing how much stuff we hold onto that has already gone well beyond serving its purpose. My husband Joe has embraced the method alongside me, and I can tell you that our closets, cupboards, and shelves have never been in better shape. The tidying has had obvious physical benefits — yay, fewer daily chores! — but it has also had an influence on our spirits. We have felt much lighter and freer, depending less on our possessions. It is an excellent little book to have at your side if you have ever felt overwhelmed by clutter.

Honorable Mention: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by  Alan Bradley. I almost finished this one by the end of 2015. (I seriously have less than 2 hours on the audiobook!) It’s a fun little period piece, a postwar British murder mystery as told by a poison-obsessed eleven-year-old.

May this year bring you great stories and plenty of piping hot tea!

reading into 2016

xo – Sarah

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#6. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Greetings once again, book and beverage lovers! I had grand schemes to write another round-up for the end of the summer, but at this point that would be a *huge* post and I realized it would be better to break it up. Since reading Book #5 (Feed) I have gone on to complete five more books, with several more that I will finish by the end of the month. Whew! I must once again sing the praises of the Overdrive program, which I have really embraced while working on my drawings the past few weeks. It has been great especially for detail work, to have something to concentrate on besides the repetition of dots, lines, and large color sections.

sharp-objects

The first audiobook of the season to review is Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Flynn’s debut novel follows a young journalist named Camille on a hesitant journey back home to her family’s estate in rural Missouri. A middle schooler named Natalie Keene has disappeared in Camille’s hometown of Wind Gap, months after another local girl disappeared and was found murdered in the forest.

It is hard for her to be around her family while she investigates the mysterious cases. Camille is over a decade older than her teenage sister Amma, a wild-child town bully who caters to her mother’s creepy whims to dress her in babyish clothes and coddle her as though she were incredibly frail. Being home also causes her to experience painful recollections of the sister she lost in childhood, Marian. Their mother Adora is a cold, strange woman who simultaneously exudes Southern hospitality and martyred hostility as she sees to the various goings-on around town and in the lives of her daughters.

As Camille learns more about the preteens who went missing in Wind Gap, she must confront hard truths about her own childhood in the town and the uneasy relationships she has with those she grew up with. As weeks pass and the possibilities narrow, she realizes she may very well be in danger herself.

This novel has a great gothic feel, portraying the town and the old house as eerie places full of restless young girls, darkness, and deep secrets. It had some twists that I was genuinely not expecting, which kept me listening late into the night as I tried to figure out the hidden motivations of not just whoever hurt the missing girls, but of Camille, her family, and those aiding her in her research.

If you enjoyed Dark Places, I suspect this would be a compelling book to check out!

Caffeinated Accompaniment: A large glass of iced tea with mint is a perfect drink to pair with this story about muggy nights in a small Missouri town. Drink it on the lawn as the sun sets, but leave your porch lights blaring: you never know who may be out there among the trees.

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#12. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor and parkEleanor and Park is an unlikely love story about two misfits in the mid-80s who find out they fit with each other. Though that sounds like the plot summary for a lot of YA books about young relationships (minus the 1980s, probably), Rowell really has a gift for putting you inside the heads of our titular protagonists. The chapters are divided between the two POVs. Many shared moments are expanded for the reader, as they first read how Eleanor experienced something, then read how Park perceived the same event. Other chapters are internal revelations exclusive to that character; hard, secret truths about sincerity, identity, sex, family dysfunction, and abuse. I listened to this book on Overdrive, and the two voice actors reading as Eleanor and Park did a wonderful job.

Eleanor is the new girl on the school bus, a curvy girl with wild red hair and bright, unusual clothing like mens’ Hawaiian print shirts and scarves tied all around her arms. Park is a Korean-American teen who’s into punk rock and getting a driver’s license. When he gruffly tells her she can sit next to him on the bus that first awkward day, he sets off a chain of interactions that will bring them closer and closer together until they can’t bear to be apart. Sharing comic books and mix tapes, they are two bright, hopeful blossoms on the incredibly bleak landscape of their drab neighborhood, which Eleanor refers to as The Flats. Eleanor challenges Park and confuses him, in love with him but unable to fully trust the intentions of anyone around her. Park wants to love Eleanor forever, though at 16 years old, she skeptically remarks several times that they are no Romeo and Juliet.

It’s a real, raw story about falling in love for the first time, facing your demons, and listening to The Smiths on the way to school. I would highly recommend it.

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#11. The Giver by Lois Lowry

giverI have to begin this post by expressing my satisfaction with Overdrive, a library lending app that allows you to borrow eBooks and Audiobooks from your local library right to your devices. It is wonderful. I am actually a bit disappointed that I have not used it until now, but I intend on utilizing it quite a bit from now on.

I used to listen to Audiobooks quite a bit when I was living in Iowa City. I walked, biked, or took the bus wherever I needed to go, and I had ample time to listen to stories on my 20 minute walks to work, or on a solo bus ride to Coralville. One summer I listened to probably 10 full novels, since I had picked up hours working at the library removing old RFID tags from our entire collection of media. Well, this past month I have taken up walking and running once or twice a week, and remembered how much I used to enjoy Audiobooks. Browsing Overdrive, I saw that The Giver was available. A beloved elementary school classic, it was a title I had often seen but never picked up for myself.

The Giver is a science fiction tale of Sameness. In the Community where Jonas has grown up, all the dwellings are the same. All the people are ultimately the same, a certain number of each young age group with the same tunics and hairstyles and bicycles. But to Jonas and his friends, it is a secure world. It is very safe and ordered in the Community, with simple family units expressing their feelings each evening and doing their Community-assigned jobs. There is no pain in his world, no confusion. But Jonas feels a little different than the other children in his Age 11 group. He can see things in ordinary objects that other people cannot, perceive small changes in things like apples or strands of hair. He doesn’t understand these odd visions until he receives his job assignment and meets The Giver. Through him, Jonas learns to question the rules and order of his Community, and even the people he cares for the most. And after he has received what The Giver has shared with him, he knows he can never go back to living the way he did before.

This is an excellent dystopian novel, and although it was written as a children’s book, its deceptively simple language and dark themes make it just as compelling for adult reading.

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