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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Book Review: Love Is for Losers by Wibke Brueggemann

Phoebe's best friend Polly has started dating a really stupid, gross boy, and never even wished Phoebe a happy new year, so Phoebe is done with her. Which is just as well as her whole life has deteriorated. Her mother, a doctor with Doctors Without Borders, has gone overseas again, abandoning Phoebe with her godmother, Kate. And then Phoebe has accidentally let Kate's prize-winning purebred cats out of the house and one has come back pregnant, so Phoebe now owes Kate the breeding fee Kate can't get for the cat. Which is how Phoebe ends up volunteering (working off the money she's owed) at the thrift shop Kate manages.

While there, almost against her will, Phoebe makes friends. Emma, who is her age, and a variety of other people at the shop, who range in ages and abilities (including Alex who has Down Syndrome, and elderly couple, and a middle aged woman who seems to hate her.) While it would be good if Phoebe were to make up with Polly (but I'm not giving that away), it's also very good that she stretches herself and makes new friends, and particularly that she makes friends across generations and almost none of them are people she would have chosen. Phoebe is very sure of herself, knows exactly what she likes (and hates), has extremely strong (and sarcastic) opinions, and yet against her will she grows and learns about life. And love. And kittens.

This book is published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux Books for Young Readers, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Book Review: Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Daunis has just graduated from high school but because of family issues, she's taking a year off before college. Her half-bother (who isn't even 9 months younger than her--so you can guess her parents aren't still together) has asked Daunis to befriend a new student who is on his hockey team, and introduce him to the town and maybe work out with him. Jamie is unaware of his own indigenous heritage so Daunis also introduces him to a lot of the traditions of the reservation and her tribe. 

At a party one night, something absolutely horrible happens to someone Daunis loves, and she finds out that there is an undercover FBI agent in their midst. Daunis knew there was a meth epidemic hitting her community, but when it hits that close to home, she's willing to get involved--although she's also conflicted. If she helps the feds, is she betraying her people? But she's trying to help save her people. But what if that means lying to her friends and family and betraying trust? Is that worth it if it saves lives? And the federal government hasn't exactly proven themselves to be trustworthy in the past, with Ojibwe or other tribes. Are they telling the truth?

It's like 21 Jump Street set in an indigenous community. It's exciting, a thrilling ride, with twists and turns, and some good red herrings that threw me off. Meanwhile, as a white reader I learned a lot about the Ojibwe nation, this particular tribe in Michigan, and issues surrounding being biracial (Daunis's mother is white) in this community. I learned interesting things about living so close to the Canadian border, hockey, and native medicine. It's a fantastic read, great for both teens and adults, and very much an adrenaline rush at the end. 

This book is published by Henry Holt BYR, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Book Review: We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper (audiobook)

When Becky was a student at Harvard, she heard a story about a student from 1969 who was murdered by a professor she'd been having an affair with--and he was never caught and was still teaching. That chilled her to the bone. She had to look it up and she found Jane Britton, a graduate archaeology student. She was murdered. It was still unsolved.

This began several years of obsession on Becky's behalf with this case. She tracked down everyone possible, filed freedom of information act requests, and even went on a dig herself. She looked at several possible suspects, including the professor originally implicated by campus gossip. She looking into the sexism in the department and on campus, she looked into alleged police misconduct, and she investigated every possible lead. 

She insinuated herself into the story. I don't use the word obsession lightly here. She let it affect her relationships, her job, and her living situations. She took things personally. At times she was nervous or even scared around people. She let her feelings get enmeshed in the case and the outcome. I understand that's often the impetus that leads strangers to take on cold cases like Michelle McNamara does in I'll Be Gone in the Dark, but this felt different, like she didn't even try for any objectivity, and I did find myself rolling my eyes at points. Do I care if Becky's feet skimmed over the floor at the airport? What does that even mean? 

However, the saving grace is that she's a great writer. And also, unlike a lot of disappointing true crime I've read/listened to/watched lately, this one does have an ending. But I'm starting to wonder about this whole genre for me. The endings are a problem. Is the whole point truly the path there? I thought the point was whodunit. Without definitive answers, unless these are classified more as "Unsolved Mysteries," I'm getting frustrated. Because even though this case purports to have an ending, there are still some questions at the end (which Ms. Cooper not only acknowledges but helpfully enumerates.) 

Also, boy, Harvard just feels like an asshole. The whole institution. I detest Lawrence Summers and I think he was the perfect Harvard president in how he embodied the corporation. (At one point Ms. Cooper compares Harvard to a corporation but it is in fact one, and I think it should be called out as such.) The cover-ups and the just rampant, blatant sexism that still goes on today is unforgivable. 

Still, if you're into true crime and the involvement of the author/investigator doesn't both you, this is a great read. It's compelling and hard to put down. The author read the audiobook herself and I thought she did a fine job. 

I borrowed this digital audiobook from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Book Review: The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister

I'd heard a lot of good things about this book so I was glad when my book club picked it, plus I love a good historical novel. 

Virginia Reeve has been leading groups of settlers through the Sierra Mountains on the California Trail out west. Thanks to a newspaper article, she is contacted by a wealthy benefactor and paid to come to Boston for a project. Once there she discovers the woman is Mrs. Jane Franklin, the wife of the missing Arctic explorer. He's been gone for a couple of years so most people have given up hope, but Mrs. Franklin wants to know what happened once and for all. And after multiple expeditions of men have failed, she decides to secretly fund an expedition of women to go. She thinks women have different strengths and might be the difference in getting there. Secret because if it fails, that will set back women's rights (or at least that's the story.) 

So there's a motley group of thirteen women with a variety of skills (medical, cartography, journalism, financial) who need to be corralled by Virginia into a solid crew of explorers, to head into the deep Arctic unknown. 

Meanwhile, in alternating chapters we know that Virginia is on trial for murder of one of her crew. The woman on her team with whom she butted heads the most did not come home (and she's not the only one), and her parents want someone--Virginia--to pay. Also we get some flashbacks to Virginia's days in California, and her childhood when her family made that same fateful journey West. 

There were excellent discussion topics throughout the book. However, a lot of us in the book club found the book less than compelling. With so many characters, it was hard to get to know many of them well, and while the multiple POVs and timelines were not too confusing, it did seem to lend an element of contrivance to the structure that seemed unnecessary. I felt the trial chapters were drawn out to equal up with the exploring chapters in a way that overly balanced the book. But the exploring chapters had more meat to them and heft. I often felt like I was just getting through the trial chapters to get back to the main action. And the payoff didn't feel worth all the hype--I guessed most of the "twists." That said, I still found it entertaining to imagine a group of women explorers in the 1850s and I did finish it (I had not finished it before the discussion so I certainly could have stopped then.) But I'd say it was good, not great.

I bought this book from Main Street Books in Davidson, NC, my local independent bookstore.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Book Review: Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks & Scones by Ngozi Ukazu

 So a weird thing happened with my reading of this book. At first, I could only read half! I downloaded it at work and I was horrified when it ended after Bitty's Junior year of college, knowing that certainly couldn't be the end (plus it was kind of a cliffhanger) and so I had to wait until the book was published to read the whole thing. And when it was published, I was distracted by pandemics and moving multiple times, so then it actually took like a year and a half for me to finish, which means I had to go back to the beginning and restart. Which wasn't an issue as this is a delightful book. 

The first Check, Please! book takes up through Eric "Bitty" Bittle's first two years as Samwell University and on their hockey team. In his last two years, he and his NHL boyfriend go public (in fact, very, very public) and come out to their parents and he is voted captain of his team and he bakes A LOT of pies. Some old faces resurface (love that Shitty keeps coming back. Yes, that's his nickname--no one even knows his real first name until the last page of the book.) and you get to know new freshmen and Jack's teammates, too. 

I love this super idealized university that is wildly diverse and tolerant and kind. I wish I could live there. I also love Bitty who's so full of energy and verve and jam, and only 20-something athletes could eat this much baked goods and keep it off. It's a fun conclusion to the story that pulls together all the earlier stories and will make you want to watch some hockey!

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

Friday, February 12, 2021

Book Review: Spin with Me by Ami Polonsky


Essie moves from St. Louis to North Carolina with her dad while he has a temporary teaching gig at the university. It's weird to be away from her mom and her friends and she's counting down the days, but she quickly makes friends, including Ollie, who is non-binary. And she develops a crush on Ollie, which she thinks might be reciprocated, but things are even more confusing than usual. One of her friends back home is kind of ghosting her, and she comes up with the idea to make a big art piece. 

Then the narrative switches to Ollie, and their life at home and their burgeoning crush on the new girl, Essie. But Ollie also isn't sure if Essie feels the same way about them. As they work together preparing for an upcoming parade, they get close, bumble things, and nervously navigate their way through complicated feelings.

This is a thoughtful book exploring a lot of themes involving relationships, gender, sexual identity, and more. I did enjoy it, and I think it'll be really useful to some kids who are curious about these issues or dealing with them themselves, but these kids are insanely mature and respectful to the point where it's more than a little hard to believe. That said, it's an easy flaw to overlook, and all it means as that they're mostly acting exactly as we all wish we would if we didn't have things like tempers, miscommunication, and knee-jerk reactions. It's pretty lovely living in a world where those really aren't issues. And it's a very supportive book, that helps explain and normalize some more complicated concerns.

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

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Book Review: A Shot at Normal by Marisa Reichardt

Juniper Jade has been homeschooled her whole life and she's extra annoyed at the beginning of 11th grade when her family has moved across the street from the local high school. But she couldn't go even if her parents would allow it (they won't) because she doesn't have any vaccinations. Her parents won't allow that either. Her parents are hippies who went to the second Woodstock and make their own shampoo and deodorant. Her mother sells bundles of herbs at the farmer's market and Juniper has no hope of having a normal teenage experience. Everything she's read and heard about--proms, football games, even cafeterias--remains tantalizingly out of reach.

One day after working with her mom at the farmer's market, she feels sick. It turns out she has the measles. It's very bad and she ends up at the hospital with pneumonia. Her younger siblings get it as well but they don't have it quite as bad. And it seems like things are getting back to normal as she is recovered and makes her way to the library. There, she finds out someone else also died of the measles--an infant who she saw at the farmer's market and whose fingers she disentangled from her hair. Suddenly Juniper knows--she killed that baby. Or, well, her parents' decision to not vaccinate her did. And now she wants to get her vaccinations. But in California, that means she'd have to sue her parents. How would she even begin?

Meanwhile the town has figured out who it was who brought the measles and her family is outed and ostracized. But she's also met a nice boy at the library who invites her to the high school's film club night. How will she manage first love amidst the raging crises in the town and in her own home?

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