Sunday, July 12, 2020

Book Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

I hadn't read a book club book in a while and I'd heard really good things about this one so I was excited to read it. But it was nothing like I expected.

It's set on this obscure peninsula in far, far Western Russia, past Siberia. Two young girls go missing and are missing for a long time. The story is told from multiple points of view, never returning to the same narrator again, some directly involved in the crime, and some only tangential. It takes quite a ways into the story before you start seeing overlaps and connections between the characters. The story is described as a mystery, but it's really not. In that there's no detective who solves anything, and there are no real clues until one at the very end. It's more just the story of a region which is affected by a terrible crime and how that plays out. Oh, and there was another girl, an Indigenous teenager, who went missing a couple of years ago, but the police assume she ran away (impossible in this remote area--no one can get in our out without leaving a trace as you'd have to go through a checkpoint, an airport, or a port.) so they don't look for her. Did she not run away? Is it related?

The book is a fascinating look at cultures we're very unfamiliar with, and yet in other ways it seems like exactly what we know. It's a mash-up of cultures in a way we often don't see in the United States. The various Indigenous peoples and the way they do or don't mesh with the surrounding Russians, provided an extra layer of intrigue and interest.

It was slow going at first, and at middle, and it read like a series of short stories (which I personally don't like) but in the end, I'm glad I read it.

I bought this book from Bookmarks, an independent bookstore in Winston-Salem, NC.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Book Review: Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Greene

Kate majored in Chemistry and got a Master's in Physics. She applied to NASA and got turned down, so she became a science journalist instead. Years later, she saw a notice about this experiment that needed volunteers, applied, and was selected. She became one of five "astronauts" who went to Hawaii for five months and lived in a geodesic dome.

Their primary goal was to study food and eating. It's a big problem in space. On the International Space Station, after the first month, most astronauts basically stop eating. The most coveted item on the ISS is hot sauce. This is troublesome in and of itself as it has a serious impact on the health of our astronauts and needs to be solved if we truly want to have long-term space programs. And speaking of long-term space programs, food is also an issue there because if you think about something like a mission to Mars, food will be the biggest weight, biggest mass, and biggest expense for the trip. Can we let astronauts cook? On the ISS they actually grow a few foods--can that be improved on?

In addition to this study, each of the "astronauts" have their own studies they're responsible for and Kate's is about sleep. Others are studying things like isolation and group dynamics and leadership. Even though she never left the planet (except presumably to fly to Hawaii but she was still within the atmosphere), she will greatly help the future of space travel.

Interestingly, this experience also changed her life. She was not the same woman coming out of this experiment as she was going in. She writes about everything so beautifully, so poetically, you forget you're reading about science. And it's styled as individual essays so even though they certainly come together into a cohesive whole, you don't have to read it all through at once.

It's a fascinating, thoughtful, and unexpectedly lovely essay collection covering Ms. Greene's experience as a pretend astronaut, performing scientific experiments for the future of the space program.

This book is published by St. Martin's Publishing Group, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Book Review: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

This book gives a surprising angle on where we are today with black incarceration and police relationships. It focuses on DC where there's no surrounding state to sway statistics, but where the neighboring other-state counties can provide contrast, and also it's a majority-black city so issues tend to stand out in relief.

And in going back to the beginning, to the 1930s when police forces really started being a thing and when Jim Crow was in full force, and when illegal drugs first popped up, Mr. Forman finds something utterly fascinating: initially, African-Americans were on board with more police presence and actually argued for harsher drug laws.

Obviously you need to understand the full context for this, but before this time there was essentially NO police presence in black neighborhoods, as they were only protecting whites, and no one was responding to any crimes that happened to black people. Separately, when drugs started to really affect black neighborhoods, black leaders often thought (mistakenly but they had no way of knowing it at the time) that harsher drug laws would prevent black youths from getting involved with drugs, and therefore would protect black families and black neighborhoods. Obviously, that drastically backfired. The book then follows these policies up through now, showing the consequences. Very important read today. Oh also, this book won the Pulitzer Prize.

This book is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Book Review: The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

I worried about writing a review for a book later in a series without giving away spoilers. Luckily this book runs parallel to Book 2, The Fated Sky, so it's not as spoilery as I had worried. (That said, you should read them in order as a couple of major twists in Book 2 are necessarily revealed in Book 3.)

Nicole Wargin is the main character here. She was another of the original Astronettes alongside Elma York. She's a former debutante and the wife of the Governor of Kansas (remember, Kansas City is now the capitol of the U.S.) A lot of people don't know that in WWII she was also a spy. Luckily, her time at a Swiss Finishing School helped in that, as it did later as the First Lady of Kansas. And she has no idea how helpful it will be in her next trip to the moon. As the Earth Firsters are gaining in strength, confidence, and destructiveness. And it seems there is a saboteur on the moon. The latter 75% of the book reads like a mystery or a spy novel with lots of twists and turns, clues, and investigation. It's impressive how Kowal can shift between genres effortlessly.

I didn’t want it to end. I was reading it for a week which is incredibly long for me and completely threw off my book count for the year, and I didn't care. Kowal is amazing. Her characters are so real, and what happens to them is so real—including injuring and occasionally even killing important people who in the course of humanity would probably die, but who other authors wouldn’t have the guts to kill. This one didn’t make me cry like Book 2 did. But I just want to live in this world forever. If there were 10 more books of 700  pages, I would read them all. Waiting so hard for Book 4.

This book is published by Tor, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Book Review: Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah Strycker

I love stunt memoirs. You know, like Julie & Julia or The Year of Living Biblically--those people who'd go off and do a nutty thing for a year. It's a memoir, my favorite genre, and you know nothing can go too horribly wrong or else they wouldn't have gotten through the year and there'd be no book. So it's memoir with a purpose and it's emotionally on the lighter side, sometimes even funny. Perfect. And yet, there are almost none of these left. I read all the decent ones back in their heyday in the mid-2000s. But we've run out of crazy-thing-for-a-year ideas. All the good ones are done. So alas, my absolute favorite subgenre has been moribund for a decade or so.

But then I found this book! Several years ago I read The Big Year and I watched the movie, which I recently rewatched (it's decent. Not amazing, but a good watch and moderately entertaining with nothing offensive.) I looked the book up on Goodreads to see when I read it and Goodreads suggested this book to me--which was recent and has an even better rating! Woo hoo! This rocketed to the top of my TBR list.

Noah is a big birder. He even works at Birding magazine. And he decides to take his 29th year and do an International Big Year. Most big years are geographically limited which means if you do a Big Year for your state or for North America, when a bird has gotten off track and is in the wrong place, you have to jump in your car or on a plane and race off, otherwise you're limited by the birds native to your area, and that isn't the way to make a record. But Noah's year was different. If he was in one place and there was a sighting of an unusual bird halfway across the country, he didn't care. He'd probably go to that bird's natural habitat and see it there. Instead, his goal in each stop was to see the birds endemic to that place--the ones never seen elsewhere at all. So it's the opposite theory--he really wants to see all the native Sri Lankan birds when he's there and all the Costa Rican birds while in that country. He's able to become more immersed in the local habitats and environments, because his focus is much more on what's supposed to be there, not on the outliers.

He does spend the entire year on the road except for a few days in May when he does hit his home of Oregon, on the US part of his trip. He starts in Antarctica, hitting all seven continents, a few of them twice. There are over 10,000 known species of birds (according to the guidebook he uses. There's a different one that has a larger number, and recently scientists have way upped the number to over 14K using genetics.) A few years ago a couple got over 4500 birds on a world Big Year.  Noah plans to pass them and his goal is 5000--to see half the known species. Along the way he meets loads of people. While he's traveling alone, he never is alone--he meets up with locals he finds through a birding app and occasionally friends meet up with him for brief stints. The birds seem fascinating--I did have to look up a couple of them that are just bizarre. I keep being tempted to start birding and yet, I can't possibly keep even 1000 birds straight, let alone ten times that, so I'm content to just observe the ones in my own backyard.

Meanwhile, I was so grateful, in this time of uncertainty and weirdness, to find one last stunt memoir, to lighten my days.

I bought this book from Quail Ridge Books, an independent bookstore.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Stuck Inside Recommendations 81-90: Graphic Novels and Sci Fi!

On Facebook I started recommending a book a day for those stuck inside and looking for something good to read. I'm trying to alternate between books published by Macmillan (my employer) and not. (Simply, because the vast majority of my reading is Macmillan books, it's really hard for me to not have this unbalance in any list I put together.) And I thought I'd pull together those recommendations every 10 days here, for people who I'm not Facebook friends with. These 10 books are all mysteries, as requested!

Please buy books from independent bookstores! You can find your nearby indies here, or you can buy from bookshop.org or you can get audiobooks from Libro.fm. Those last two you either can get to through the website of an indie, and have part of your purchase go to that indie directly, or if you really don't know of one, any purchases made on those sites, even unaffiliated ones, will indirectly support independent bookstores. Bookstores are really struggling right now, from chains on down to the little guys, and right now, you have a lot of time to read! Seems like two great things that go great together.

Now, on with the list! While these are numbered, they are not ranked. I've starred the non-Macmillan books, and if I reviewed them, I'll link to the review. Every one of these books got a 5-star rating from me! 

81. Thornhill by Pam Smy

82. Best Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham 

83. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Mattias Ripa

84. Kiss Number 8 by Colleen A.F. Venable, illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw

85. The Hunting Accident: A True Story of Crime and Poetry by David L. Carlson, illustrated by Landis Blair

86. The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

87. The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

88. Mort(e) by Robert Repino*

89. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy*

90. The Martian by Andy Weir*

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Book Review: Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center

I read two of Ms. Center's recent books, Things You Save in a Fire and How to Walk Away, and really enjoyed them, so when I saw this book will be reissued later this year, I figured I'd give it a read too, and see if her recent success means her writing has changed or improved. I'm happy to report I liked this one as much as those!

Now Ms. Center's books tend to be more solidly commercial women's fiction than I usually read, but I do think they're a step above the average in that category. And I do find them to be compelling reads.

Helen got divorced last year, after her husband became an alcoholic and didn't want to fix that. She's 32, an elementary school teacher, and feels like her life is stagnant. In an effort to rediscover herself, she signs up to do a strenuous 3-week hiking/camping course. While attempting (and failing) to drop off her dog with her 10-year-younger brother, she finds out to her dismay that his roommate, Jake, is going on the same trip. She'd really wanted to go alone. (Of course there are others on the trip, but without anyone she knows.) She agrees to drive him from Boston to Wyoming but then they're going to pretend like they don't know each other. Which becomes infinitely more difficult when he confesses he's been in love with her since the minute he saw her (awkwardly, at her wedding).

Now, she's not outdoorsy. She's only been car camping. She's about 10 years older than everyone else on the trip, bright young college students, and the leader looks to be 15 (he's obviously not but it doesn't help her confidence.) She's one of the slowest hikers. But she's bound and determined that she's going to get one of the 3 coveted certificates awarded at the end to the three best participants (measured more by effort). But Jake is so distracting, especially as he flirts with the beautiful, kind, and smart Windy (not a typo.) On this trip, Helen will reach deep inside herself to discover her own limits and depths, and she will come out the other side a changed woman.

This book reminded me a lot of Wild, albeit with a less crazy background, if it had mixed with a book club book. It didn't make we want to go camping or hiking, but it did serve as a great reminder that we are each of us in control of our own happiness, especially in our reaction to others. And it's a good idea every day to think of at least 3 good things that happened that day. And to address blisters as soon as you feel a hot spot forming--don't wait!

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.