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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Book Review: The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs by Janet Peery

I love contemporary family stories by the likes of Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley, and this book falls squarely in that arena. Its' the author's second novel, twenty-five years after her first one (which was a National Book Award finalist.) And it's a story most everyone can relate to (or if you can't, just look at your parents' lives, or just wait): adult children dealing with their aging parents. It's something I've seen my own parents deal with in the previous decade, which certainly has made me think about when that stage will come for me and my siblings. In fact, we've already more or less divvied up our parents in terms of who gets primary responsibility for each one. And that's not a terrible idea as five disparate siblings trying to agree on tactics in Ms. Peery's book, does not go well.

It doesn't help that all of the siblings are also dealing with their own issues, and most of them have an addiction problem or two (it does tend to run in families after all.) This family has a lot of the usual stereotypes: the one who went to college and escaped the midwest for Boston, the flamboyant gay one with AIDS, the troubled son who's been in and out of jail, and so on. We see the story from the different perspectives of these three of the five siblings, as well as from their mother's. We go through roughly a year, with medical, emotional, mental, physical, and financial troubles along the way. On the one hand, not a lot happens. On the other hand, it's a very accurate portrayal of real life, with flawed characters that can hit close to home.

I got this book for free from my work because it is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Review: The Hunting Accident: A True Story of Crime and Poetry by David Carlson, illustrations by Landis Blair

This reads like a memoir and it is nonfiction, but it took me a while to figure out how the authors were related to the story--The main character, Charlie, is a friend of the author's, and told him this crazy story about his father, and Mr. Carlson ran with it and did a lot of research to find out the truth behind it all.

Charlie's mother died and he had to move in with his father in Chicago. His grandmother had always told him is father was no good but, aside from being blind, his father actually seemed like a pretty good guy. It was a little time-consuming for Charlie to have to read to his father the types manuscripts of his stories for proofreading, but in all, so not bad, that Charlie started to wonder why his mother took him and left so suddenly, and why his grandmother hated his father so much. When Charlie gets into trouble after hanging out with some hoodlums, his father finally breaks down and tells him why he really wants Charlie to straighten up his life--he doesn't want Charlie to go through what he did, when he served several years in prison for armed robbery.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg of this story. When Matt, Charlie's Dad, went to prison as a newly-blind teenager, he had special housing. And the other prisoner at Statesville Prison in special housing, and therefore his cellmate, was Nathan Leopold. Of Leopold & Loeb. Of the murderers who tried to commit the perfect crime! (It was one of the many "crimes of the century" in the 20th century and worth looking up if you don't know about it. They explain enough that you don't need to know for reading the book, but it's still fascinating.) Leopold initially wasn't at all happy with having to babysit Matt, but eventually, he took it upon himself to educate Matt. By assigning him to read The Divine Comedy by Dante.

Are you still not intrigued? You are hopeless and I give up. For those of you who are intrigued, the illustrations really lend weight to the story, the stark pen and ink images giving a real sense of the bleakness of prison and also help with understanding Matt's blindness. It is a riveting story which I read in one day, and will stay with me for a while to come.

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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Book Review: Bored and Brilliant: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Spacing Out by Manoush Zomorodi

This book grew out of the podcast, "Notes to Self" from WNYC. T here are essentially two premises: we no longer allow ourselves to be bored which means we are losing our creativity, and a corollary of that, we need to be much more aware of how much we're using our electronic devices. Personally, I found the corollary more interesting than the main point.

Now, that might be because I don't work in a creative job myself (although it is very much creative-adjacent.) Although one crucial aspect of creativity for everyone includes creative problem-solving, which is harder when your brain has no time to rest,

I did find it fascinating that when I started reading this book, my sister commented that her job as a guard at the Cleveland Museum of Art actually is super-boring and that she and her fellow guards (most of whom are artists) all carry notepads because of the great ideas they get at work. (Two chapters after she mentioned this, museum guards were given as an example, in the book! Weird.)

In order to be more bored, we've got to put down our iPhones, laptops, and iPads. Of course, that's a heck of a lot harder to do than say. And Ms. Zomorodi has a series of tactics or exercises which can open your eyes about how much, how often, how long, and how unproductively our phone use might actually be. And knowledge is power as, after doing these exercises, pretty much everyone reduces their screen time (albeit, not by much.) She also points out the inherent irony of parents limiting their kids' screen time while playing Candy Crush all day themselves. The irony isn't the problem of course—it's the behavior modelling.

So if either of these are issues that concern you--the growing lack of creativity in our lives, or the ever-presence of electronic devices, this book is for you. It won't fix the problem, but awareness is the first step.

I got this book for free from the publisher, my employer, Macmillan.

Friday, September 1, 2017

My Month in Review: August

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star.

I have crossed the 100 books mark! I've only done that a couple of times in my life and NEVER in August, always in December. So how high will I go? It's kind of daunting/scary to think about it. Who knew that I could read this many books? Granted, I am reading a lot of YA and Middle grade (and in fact, I'm even reading a lot of Early Readers and Picture books, but I'm not counting those in my number.) But I've always read some children's books. And the number of audiobooks (also already a new record) is additionally upping my overall number. I had a goal this season that between May-Aug I would read 75 books on my Winter 2018 list (and that number does include both picture books and early readers) and I DID IT!

Books completed this month:
Come Sundown by Nora Roberts
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer (audio) *
It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan by Tristan Donovan
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
Hazy Bloom and the Tomorrow Power by Jennifer Hamburg
The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (audio) *
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton
The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling (audio) *

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller *
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan (audio) *

What I acquired this month (non-work books): 
It's a little ironic that when I finally got a decent job, and when I spend half my working days in bookstores, I no longer need to buy books. Of course that's mostly because I no longer have time to read non-work books and I can get any book I want from the 5th largest publisher for free. But I think in a year or so I'll go back to supporting bookstores better.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Book Review: Sourdough by Robin Sloan

In this quirky and sweet second novel by the author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, we meet Lois, a computer programmer, who moves from Detroit to San Francisco to work programming robot arms. However, she doesn't find this life to be fulfilling or interesting. It's just completely filled to the brim with work. One night, she orders take-out, and the man who delivers the soup and sourdough bread really makes her sit up and pay attention. As does the food. She's never eaten anything so nourishing, so delicious. She orders it every day for weeks. And then one day, the brothers who make the food have to move away. They did not get their visa renewals and they are not American (they are members of a country-less seemingly Eastern-European group that lives permanently abroad.) They bestow their sourdough starter on Lois and leave.

So Lois makes bread. And more bread. It's amazing bread. It might have a face in it. The starter might sing. And Lois applies to be part of a new food market opening up where technology is embraced instead of the trendy 18th-century ways of the other farmer's markets around town. Lois brings a robot arm with her to stir her dough.

Who is the mysterious benefactor behind the new food market? Is the sourdough starter magical? Where did it really come from? Will the brother bakers ever return? What will Lois do with her life?

This delightful book answers all these questions and more. It's a feel-good, sweet, but creative and fun story that takes unexpected twists and turns to get to its amusing conclusion. I felt like in Mr. Penumbra, the plot got a little away from Mr. Sloan, and this time around, he's simplified, very much for the better. It's a tighter story, with concise plotting, a shorter list of characters, but once again his trademark blending of new technology with artisinal products. If you're looking for a cheery book without any great trauma, this is perfect. And the cover glows in the dark.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Book Review: Come Sundown by Nora Roberts

So, as any regular readers of my reviews can guess, I am not a big fan of romance novels, or genre novels in general. I normally skip over the Nora Roberts books in my path, even though she's a huge seller. But this one intrigued me when it was named an Indie Next pick by independent bookstores, as they normally pick fairly highbrow books. I figured this was the one to check out.

It's set at a ranch in Montana, which over the years has turned most of itself into a dude ranch and spa sort of vacation spot, although the Bodine/Longbow family have also kept part of it as a working ranch. Bodine Longbow, the great-granddaughter, runs the resort, where an old family friend has recently been hired, Cal, who's not only a good horseman but also looks good doing it (Sundown is his horse.) Her brother has his eye on her new events coordinator, and baby brother likes the looks of the assistant, and everyone seems ready to pair off and live happily ever after. Which would be light on plot even for a romance novel. But there's a completely different side to this novel as well.

Back in the 1970s, Alice ran away from home after her sister Maureen's wedding, long before Maureen's daughter Bodine was born. The family first was angry, then worried, and finally mostly resigned. But what they don't know is that after a couple of years away, Alice was on her way home, in fact was very close to home, when she took a ride from a stranger that went horribly, horribly wrong. The very bad man who picked her up thought she'd make a good wife for breeding, and he kidnaps her and holds her prisoner.

Naturally, these two storylines eventually come together, and it really makes for an interesting dual-plot to have one side be rather sunny and happy, and the other story be very dark and even sadistic. It's a nice relief from the dark storyline, and honestly life does go on and people do fall in love even when horrible things are happening elsewhere. It's not an easy balance, but Ms. Roberts does pull it off. If you like a romance with a little more meat on the bones, this is a great book, and if you're skeptical of romances in general, this is a good meld of genres that shows how the romance side can bring optimism and sunshine to an otherwise potentially depressing story.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Book Review: Thornhill by Pam Smy

This book starts off with two stories, one in contemporaneous, set in 2007, and is told entirely through pictures. The other is set in the 1980s and is told through diary entries from Mary, one of the last orphans to live at Thornhill, before it is to be torn down to make way for a new development. But we can see in 2007 that never happened, as Ella moves in behind Thornhill after her mother dies, and her bedroom looks into the abandoned, boarded-up old mansion. Ella sees a girl her age over there from time to time. And she starts to find these old dolls, which turn out to be marionettes, which she fixes up. We learn those were originally made by Mary, more than 30 years ago.

The other girls go away, one by one, as they find other placements or even foster homes. Eventually Mary is left with the bully of Thornhill, who has been tormenting her for years. When it's just the two of them and almost no staff left, things go very south very quickly. And 30+ years later, Ella is drawn to the desolate and lonely girl she sees in that foreboding landscape. Has she found a new friend?

This book is pretty dark. Not scary, but certainly not for the faint of heart or for younger kids at all. It's definitely for teens. The format is clever, the story is compelling, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Sometimes it's fun to read a dark, creepy book with an ending that makes you go "Whoa!"

I got this book for free from the publisher, my employer, Macmillan.