A Recap of My Reading in 2021

I previously posted about the books I read for prompts in Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge. In reading a total of 51 titles in 2021, I only managed to meet three of the prompts for that year’s challenge. I think instead of detailing those here, I’ll write about my 4 and 5 star reads of the year. I am just going to copy and paste the reviews I wrote for these books over on Goodreads and The StoryGraph, so some are much more thorough and detailed than others. Buckle up!

…my work pursuits are much more modest: neurons and proteins and mammals. I’m no longer interested in other worlds or spiritual planes. I have seen enough in a mouse to understand transcendence, holiness, redemption. In people, I’ve seen even more.

Gifty is a PhD candidate in neuroscience researching the neural mechanisms involved in reward-seeking behavior using optogenetics in mice. We learn about her childhood in Alabama as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, how her brother died of a heroin overdose, and how her mother has been sunk low by depression in waves ever since. We see how a turbulent history with her religion has shaped how she approaches the world today.

Gifty struggled when she first had to devise a project for her thesis. “Though I had never been an addict, addiction, and the avoidance of it, had been running my life, and I didn’t want to give it even one more second of my time. But of course, there it was. The thing I really wanted to know. Can an animal restrain itself from pursuing a reward, especially when there is risk involved?” Parse out the technical language in her proposal, and it boils down to

Could this science work on the people who need it most? Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?

Beyond looking for a way to help people, we learn that Gifty’s research is also partially driven by a history of incompatible passions and self-loathing, inherited as part of growing up as a black girl in the southern United States. Her church, such a huge part of her early life, went from ecstatically praying for the success of the local star high school athlete to gossiping about addiction being more common in “his kind”.

Nana is the reason I began this work, but not in a wholesome, made-for-TED Talk kind of way. Instead, this science is a way for me to challenge myself, to do something truly hard, and in doing so to work through all of my misunderstandings about his addiction and all of my shame. Because I still have so much shame. I’m full to the brim with it; I’m spilling over. I can look at my data again and again. I can look at scan after scan of drug-addicted brains shot through with holes, Swiss-cheesed, atrophied, irreparable. I can watch that blue light flash through the brain of a mouse and note the behavioral changes that take place because of it, and know how many years of difficult, arduous science went into those tiny changes, and still, still think, Why didn’t Nana stop? Why didn’t he get better for us? For me?

In addition to telling us about Gifty’s brother, her upbringing, her religion, and her research, this story is also largely about her relationship with her mother. Their shared grief has in fact driven a wedge between them. Losing Nana has changed both irrevocably, but is it possible for them to find the way back to one another?

Gyasi’s writing is sublime. I realize this review is quote-heavy, but so much of it is eminently quotable. So allow me one last quote to wrap this thing up!

When I watched the limping mouse refuse the lever, I was reminded yet again of what it means to be reborn, made new, saved, which is just another way of saying, of needing those outstretched hands of your fellows and the grace of God. That saving grace, amazing grace, is a hand and a touch, a fiber-optic implant and a lever and a refusal, and how sweet, how sweet it is.

Very well written and sucks the reader in completely, as with French’s other novels I have read. Only, as her works are largely murder mysteries, don’t expect anything very uplifting.

A very interesting read about schizophrenia and the Galvin family.

As their twelve children passed through adolescence, Mimi and Don Galvin watched helplessly as six of them became psychotic. The author does a superb job balancing writing about the family with what is known about schizophrenia, including current research as well as the history of how it has been understood and treated over the centuries. Learning about the family members’ motivations and how their lives were turned upside down really added to the human interest side of things.

There’s a story of me and Violet that goes through my head sometimes. That story goes like this: …I am not a monster, and neither is she.

NOT a feel good book, that’s for sure, but The Push is a page-turning psychological drama that broke my heart. Seriously, I finished it in two sittings and cried two or three times. Maybe you have to be a parent yourself for it to hit you in the feels as much as it did for me, but still, full of riveting tension.

“…some parts of us are shaped by what we see. And how we’re treated by other people. How we’re made to feel…I don’t want you learning to be like me. But I don’t know how to teach you to be anyone different.”

She left us the next day.

I enjoy Gothic tales to begin with. Throw in an absolutely wonderful main character (Noemi has a sense of personal agency and seems like such a realistic, fully fleshed-out character) in a setting different from the usual (the mountains of Mexico instead of the moors of Europe) to shake things up a bit and add another level of interest, and this book was an all around winner.

After Noemi’s cousin marries someone her family knows little about and moves off to his ancestral home, she isn’t in touch very much. Until she sends a letter claiming her husband is poisoning her and there are voices in the walls. Virgil Doyle, the accused spouse, assures Noemi’s father that his wife is being well looked after by the family doctor in light of her troubling state of mind, but Noemi is sent to investigate whether or not they should insist her cousin be removed to the city to see a psychiatrist.

What Noemi finds is the reliably Gothic setting of a neglected old house inhabited by an exceedingly unusual family who do not welcome her presence. As she works at figuring out what is happening to her cousin, she begins to experience strange things herself. Most notably the nightmares that seem so real.

Noemi finds one potential ally in the patriarch’s nephew, the one family member who isn’t either openly hostile toward her or else leering at her lasciviously. Can she convince him to help her understand the truth about his family, what is really going on at High Place, and whether or not it is too late for her cousin to avoid the fate that awaits her as the newest Doyle?

Hints that began subtly enough were dropped about what the final reveal was going to be, but only enough that I entertained it as a possible component of the answer. There was no way I would have guessed the entirety of how it all came together, keeping me hanging on until the last.

Atmospheric, deliciously creepy up until it becomes outright horrifying, and with a hint of romance, this book only took me two sittings to devour. Delightful!

I found this book to be incredibly interesting. I enjoyed learning about HeLa cells – what makes them so unique, as well as all the scientific discoveries and medical advances that came around in part because of them. Learning about Henrietta and her family really lent to the human interest part of the story.

The book talks about the history of informed consent and ethics in research with human subjects. It was crazy to hear about some of the research done before there were federal laws and IRBs to protect people, like the physician who injected live cancer cells into people without telling them what it was (including cancer patients, prison inmates, and anyone who had gynecological surgery done at Sloan Kettering)!

The second part of the book deals more with Henrietta’s children and grandchildren learning that her cells were still alive in massive quantities 20+ years after her death, and being used in all sorts of research. Her children did not have many opportunities for education, and their health literacy was pretty much zilch. So when they learned that half of HeLa’s DNA was combined with half plant DNA to make a hybrid cell, they believed there was a creature in a lab that was half plant and half their mother. When a scientist in London used HeLa in his cloning research, her family legit believed there were clones of their mother living in London. Even years later, when other medical professionals asked to draw the family members’ blood, the consent was not at all informed – they thought their blood was being tested to see if they had the same cancer that killed their mother, and had no idea their DNA was being used for research.

Then there’s the question of who “owns” and has rights in regards to tissue taken from patients (in Henrietta’s case, without her knowledge). All of the HeLa cells that have existed since they were taken from Henrietta’s cervix in 1951 would probably add up to weigh more than 50 million metric tons, according to one scientist’s estimate made 10 years ago when this book was published. HeLa cells are still sold, often at prices of $100-300 per vial at the time of publication. So how fair is it that Henrietta Lacks’s children and grandchildren can’t afford even health insurance?

And there is a brief foray looking into the horrible things that likely happened to Henrietta’s eldest daughter at an institution for “the negro insane”. I don’t recall the second experiment they said she was likely subjected to her before her death there at the age of 15, but learning about the pneumoencephalographs they performed on residents was bad enough.

A very interesting read, with some really interesting facts reported in the Afterword as far as what rights people have over their own tissues today. Since the book is now 10 years old, I do wonder if anything has changed since then, and plan on looking into it myself.

The Blogess’s newest book is as immensely amusing as her others. If you’ve read her prior works, you’ll know just what to expect.

Lawson addresses health issues and makes points about why it’s okay to be “broken”, but interspersed with the real talk are her usual hilarious takes on stories from her life. Some of these are things she tweeted about when they happened, and as a follower of hers, there were few times throughout this book when I thought, “I remember when that happened!”

I listened to the audiobook, narrated wonderfully by the author herself. I would listen through ear buds while going on long walks around my neighborhood, and many times found myself laughing out loud and then looking around to see if anyone had witnessed it.

Needless to say, Jenny Lawson has become an auto buy for me.

Matt is an openly gay teen (well, open to everyone but his mother, as far as he knows) whose world was turned upside down when his sister took off without so much as a goodbye. In the course of trying to understand what drove her away, Matt realizes that starving himself gives him extraordinary powers. This YA book tackles family dynamics, first romance, and eating disorders/mental health, all while maintaining a very droll tone. A good book for teens, but just as interesting for adults.

SPOILER ALERT! UPCOMING SPOILER! AVERT YOUR EYES, ALL YE WHO WISH TO AVOID A SPOILING!

I do think it was an odd choice to reveal at the end of the book that Matt’s powers were real after all, and not tied to his mental health. An interesting twist, but I think it makes the story’s message less powerful.

Not only was it interesting to learn about the course of Shetty’s life and his time living at the ashram, but this book is also full of practical suggestions for how to “think like a monk”. Topics include detaching oneself from external influences, living a meaningful life through service, cultivating healthy relationships, and more. I listened to the audio version of the book, and the author does a very good job – of course, he is used to sharing insight through the use of his voice, as he is the host of the world’s number one health podcast.

If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, meditation, and learning how to apply these and other pieces of monk wisdom, this is definitely a book you don’t want to miss.

(It seems I never wrote a review for this one after reading it. Sorry. Think “contemporary murder mystery thriller in Ireland”.)

(Hmm, no review for this, either. I remember I selected it for the October pick for my workplace book club–shout out to Liberty!–because it’s a sort of paranormal horror story. Apparently there are tie ins with Mitchell’s other works, such as The Bone Clocks, but those would have gone over my head, as this was the first book of his I had read.)

(I didn’t write a review for Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience, and technically I didn’t read this short story, I listened to Levar Burton read it to me, which was just lovely.)

I really appreciate Rae as a character and the themes of this story. I did enjoy reading it but for two things for which I am partially to blame: I failed to read the author’s comments here on Goodreads, so went into this having no idea it wasn’t going to be a complete story in and of itself, with a cliffhanger ending; and I think it would have been a good idea for me to have reread the companion novel, Thorn, (and even the companion short story, The Bone Knife) before diving into this one. You don’t need to read those first to understand this book, but I had managed to forget some plot details that would have been helpful to know. But mostly, I remember being really into the idea of a romance with a certain thief after reading Thorn, and it turns out I should have rekindled that before jumping in, because here I was just not that into it. A reminder of why I had wanted to see that happen might have helped.

Looking forward to the next part of Rae’s story!

A fun read about some people you’d actually want to be friends with playing a risqué game, and the relationships they develop as a result.

There is certainly explicit sex here, but the majority of these scenes just wind up glossed over. Which is actually probably okay, as there is quite a lot of sex happening, and it would surely get repetitive after a while of reading about it over and over again!

Although I APPRECIATE the way the main characters spoke and thought, I did find it highly unlikely that there might be four high school students who are all that reasonable, intelligent, and mature. I don’t know how likely it is that there are even four adults all in one place who think and speak like this.

The middle of the book dragged a bit for me, but I enjoyed it over all.

Note: Karan K Anders is a pseudonym for self-published author Andrea K Host (I’m finding I’m not able to type an ‘o’ with an umlaut here?), but since her other works only feature “fade to black” romance scenes, she differentiated this one with a different pen name.

This book had me in tears, but it was well worth it because Chika’s life deserves to be recognized. I enjoyed learning about this little girl with a big personality. There are also inspirational notes about parenting/family/love. I did not agree with everything pertaining to the Alboms’ thoughts and feelings about Chika’s medical providers, but these things were always treated in a respectful way in this book, with the acknowledgement that no one in these situations knows the “right” thing to do.

Thank you, Mr. Albom, for sharing Chika and her story with us.

WHY IS THIS IMAGE SO MUCH LARGER THAN THE OTHERS OMG WHY

I think he must be a good man. But nobody is only one thing.

Inti and her team have released wolves back into Scotland in an attempt to rewild it and mitigate some of the damages that go hand in hand with climate change. The locals are not pleased.

Eventually we are treated to a murder mystery in an isolated rural area, where everyone seems to know each other’s secrets and outsiders may not be much more welcome than the new predators threatening the livestock. In the midst of all this are Inti and her twin sister, their own history and the damages it wrought, and the wild that can still be found inside some people as well as in the forest.

Very emotional at times, with a romance that was pretty flat but an engaging plot and some intriguing characters. And wolves, which is always a bonus.

Another lovely installment in the Murderbot Diaries!

Minus one star just because some of SecUnit’s funny lines seemed a little too forced this time, but there were still plenty that made me grin. It was another engaging plot, and I love MurderBot as much as ever.

AGAIN, AHHH

My favorite of all mythology retellings I’ve read to date. This book is not fast paced, but it is emotional – I definitely cried, SEVERAL times, mostly when it came to the bonds between parents and their children that were so beautifully depicted here.

The author does a spectacular job of making gods and other characters of myth all sympathetic and relatable, which I think is not such an easy thing to do. I loved this book!

(Definitely not a Bore Ragnarok, eh, Call Me Kevin fans?

I’m So Excited and I Just Can’t Hide It

The 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards are here!!!

I did a bit better in reading the right books to be able to vote this year – I’ve read 5 of the first round nominees, as opposed to last year’s 2. Plenty more of the nominees are on my To Be Read list, and one I’ve actually already been on the waiting list to receive from the library. I’ll be doing my best to fit in reading other nominees over the next few weeks so that I can be better prepared to vote. (FYI, opening round of voting is Nov. 1-6, semifinal round is Nov. 8-13, and the final round is Nov. 15-27)

In the meantime, I wanted to share this year’s releases by a few of the indie authors I follow. Each of these is the second installment in a series or duology.

The Sleeping Life (Eferum #2) by Andrea K. Host, sequel to Stained Glass Monsters

the-sleeping-life

 

Memories of Ash (The Sunbolt Chronicles #2) by Intisar Khanani, sequel to the novella Sunbolt

memories-of-ash

 

And lastly, Nightingale Girl by M.R. Pritchard, sequel to Sparrow Man

nightingale-girl

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have quite a bit of reading to do before casting my final votes!

 

Puppies and Good Causes

First order of business –  revision is coming along on The Prophecy, and I’ve been devoting more time to it lately. I have finished with the video games (at least until the next episodes come out in another 6 weeks or so), although I am still dealing with this adorable time-suck:

Someone's got her big girl ears!
Someone’s got her big girl ears!

I’m learning that training a German Shepherd Dog requires a ton of commitment and work, but can be incredibly rewarding.

Secondly, science fiction and fantasy indie author Intisar Khanani is having a really special sale going on right now. Through April 7th you can download her eBook Thorn, a fun fairytale retelling, for $0.99 from amazon. All proceeds from the sale will go to helping a friend of the author’s adopt young brothers with special needs. Check out more at Khanani’s website: http://booksbyintisar.com/thorn-flash-sale/

ThornWhat’s not to love?!

Indie Idols

I’d like to tell you about two indie authors who have consistently blown me away with their work. Not only are their books amazing fun, but their writing shares a few other admirable attributes. Let me explain.

Andrea K. Host (who has come up on this blog previously) and Intisar Khanani both write a lot of fantasy, but each manages to break the mold of what we have come to expect of the worlds inside the pages of today’s usual fantasy fare. The stories both authors write are incredibly engaging. More than that, though, they both bring a lot of originality to their work, finding fresh and new ways to spin the compelling tales they have to tell. Host and Khanani avoid many of the tropes we see in other fantasy books. They are talented writers who tell wonderful stories in an utterly REFRESHING manner!

For instance, who says all fantasy has to be set in a world mirroring Medieval Europe? Why do the creatures and villains of the land all have to be from the same standard set we see elsewhere? Does a young adult have to be an orphan or otherwise severed of all family ties before he or she can have adventures of their own? In these books, you will usually find well-defined female protagonists of various ethnicities, each with their own unique strong sense of agency. (I struggled with how to word that last sentence. Does it sound like a single character varies her ethnicity throughout a book? That’s not what I meant…although, that might be cool to read about, too…)

One of my favorite facets appearing in these books has to do with romance. I admit, I really enjoy a good romance in my books. Much of what floods the indie market these days has the unfortunate tendency to display cases of “instalove.” Two characters falls for each other as soon as they meet, for no good reason the reader can see other than that they are physically attracted to one another. It’s hard to buy it when they are professing their undying love 50 pages in.

Host and Khanani write romances (or, in some cases, just the potential for romance in future installments) that are unique, believable, and totally swoon-worthy. These are more of a slow-burn kind of thing, which ends up making them incredibly hot!

(I just had to rewrite the last few paragraphs, as this diabolical machine of mine ate the original version and refused to spit it back out. I feel like the writing was more eloquent the first time around, but now I am frustrated and grumpy and am going to just focus on wrapping up this post so that I can then go comfort myself with chocolate and coffee.)

Needless to say, I highly recommend reading the works of these two authors. I think you might just love them!

 

Sunbolt

 

 I just finished reading Sunbolt (Book One of the Sunbolt Chronicles) last night. This is actually a novella, and Khanani says there are six planned altogether.  The second installment is slated to come out sometime in 2015. And I NEED IT! Keep an eye out for its release on the author’s website at http://booksbyintisar.com/

Thorn

Thorn was the first book I read by this author. She plans a companion trilogy set in the same world, but featuring a different protagonist – one who is introduced in her short story, The Bone Knife, which is available to download for free through Amazon.com.

touchstone

I know I’ve already sung the praises of Host’s Touchstone Trilogy before, but just know that I still love the heck out of it and think you should read it, too. Like, now. There is also the Gratuitous Epilogue, which I believe is free to download through the author’s website at http://www.andreakhost.com/

Medair

I also just recently read her Medair duology and super duper loved it. A lot. Now I have three more of Host’s novels downloaded, just waiting for me…calling to me…summoning me…

Gotta go! Happy reading!