Saturday, October 26, 2019

Book Review: Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks

For the last three falls, Josiah and Deja work together in the Succotash hut of the local (and bonkers crazy in the best way) pumpkin patch. They're best friends... while they work together, but they don't see each other the rest of the year. On the last day of work--Halloween, natch--on their senior years, Deja is determined to make it important. Josiah has had a crush on a girl working in the Fudge Shoppe the whole time and has never spoken to her, so that become their (possibly just Deja's, but Josiah will do pretty much whatever she asks) goal, even though it means Josiah won't win employee of the month for the 3rd consecutive time. Along the way, they eat a lot of snacks (I really want to try both a twice-dipped candy apple and a pumpkin bomb, very much. And a Freetos pie. And fresh made kettle corn. Even Succotash. Really everything in this book.), Deja is tortured by a little kid, they get lost in the corn maze, and they talk about why they're only friends at the pumpkin patch. Will Josiah ever talk to the Fudge Shoppe girl? Will Deja eat all of the snacks (and run into all of her exes)? Will anyone capture the crazy escaped goat? Will something even more interesting happen?

This YA graphic novel was light and fun and Deja and Josiah have such a terrific friendship. I both desperately want now to go to a pumpkin patch, but I also want to be friends with these two. It's kind of a perfect story, with the only caveat that it's a bit short. Yes, it takes place in one night, but I could have used a lot more of them.

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Book Review: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, narrated by Jenna Lamia (audiobook)

I knew a little about Zelda Fitzgerald I thought but it turns out--not actually much. Back one summer in college, I had a book of short stories written by both F. Scott and Zelda. I don't remember much, but I remember not being able to really tell them apart, which says a lot for her caliber of writing, considering how much less famous she was.

Zelda was a debutante and the daughter of a judge back in Montgomery, Alabama. Towards the end of WWI, she met some young men stationed nearby in the army. Scott was captivated by her immediately, and courted her hard, despite being a Yankee (!), older, and without great career goals. The war ended moments before he was due to be shipped out, and Scott worked feverishly to finish and sell his first novel so he could prove he could support Zelda as a writer. They married, she moved to New York, and they came to define the Flapper lifestyle. They drank, had stylish and famous friends, wore amazing fashions, lived in Europe, got involved in scandals, had amazing fights, and drank some more. Scott's income was never solid so their move to Europe was actually an economic move although it didn't help a whole lot in that arena. In France they met other writers, a couple already famous, some who would be later. Most importantly, Scott became friends with a young upstate named Ernest Hemingway and introduced him to Scott's agent and editor. Hemingway, with his colossal ego and streak of evilness, then went on to undermine Scott's self-esteem, disparage him to their mutual friends, hit on Zelda, and drag him off on expensive misadventures. While Scott's drinking was already taking a heavy toll on his health before Hemingway's appearance, I do wonder how he would have fared in the long run if he'd never met Hemingway at all. I already thought Hemingway was a giant jerk for his behavior toward Fitzgerald before reading this, and I think even more poorly of him now.

Zelda for her part explored a lot of artistic endeavors, with ballet being the one she most excelled at and loved the most. But in the end, even though she was offered a professional position, it didn't work out. She ended up doing some writing, a lot of which was published under Scott's name or theirs together (as his named garnered much more money.) They had a daughter who was along for the crazy ride. But she really was a truly modern woman. She always expected to work if she wanted and to be able to pursue her own interests. Sometimes she and Scott fought about those things but mostly things worked out. They just got by a lot of the time, on credit, advances, and friends' goodwill. Also Scott occasionally worked himself to the bone to get them out of debt. Zelda eventually found things to be too much, and Scott had her committed to an asylum. He was his most productive (in terms of number of stories written, not quality) the year she was away, but that may also have been the result of less socializing meaning less drinking.

Then, as we know, Scott died terribly young. The Depression didn't affect them much as they had no savings to lose, and magazines and Hollywood kept paying during those lean years. But his health was no match for his lifestyle and he died of a heart attack at 44 in 1940. Zelda didn't live a whole lot longer, but she did outlive him, only to die a tragic death herself under terrible circumstances.

I had previously heard unflattering stories about Zelda, that she was crazy, that she held Scott back, but of course none of that is true. She may have not been the most supportive wife, if by that you mean someone who devotes their every waking moment to his care, like Hemingway's first wife (not that it did her any good.) But for a modern woman, she really was, and she was no more crazy than any of us. Who among us wouldn't mind going away to a sanatorium for a few months' rest if we could possibly afford it and manage the time? Ms. Fowler really manages to get inside her head and give us full insight into this complex, creative, and relatable woman. I really enjoyed my time with Zelda and kind of think I should go back and reread some of her stories.

This book is published by St. Martins Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Book Review: The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves

Annika is awkward and doesn't have many friends. She meets Jonathan at the chess club in college and they hit it off immediately. Others are surprised as he's not a fellow awkward person, but they connect and he appreciates her way of thinking while she appreciates his willingness to work with her quirkiness. They get into a serious relationship pretty fast. And as they're both seniors, graduating soon, they start planning their post-college lives together: moving to New York City and starting careers.

Then something bad happens. And neither of them handle the fallout of it very well. And that's the end of their relationship.

Ten years later, they run into each other in a grocery store in Chicago, where they most now live. They are still attracted to each other, and both of them seem to have improved a bit in the ensuing years. Can they rekindle their old relationship? Or will circumstances tear them apart again?

I really did like this story being mostly told from the POV of a character on the autism spectrum. It gave a unique perspective. And it addresses some serious subjects like how in depression a person can run off their friends who are trying to help. I wasn't crazy about the ending which felt a bit contrived, but I went with it. And I really liked the dual narrators--although I preferred the woman (is that because Annika is a bigger character than Jonathan in the book? I don't know. I don't often like fiction on audio but this one worked for me. Not a lot of characters to keep track of and even though the narration jumps back and forth in time (not linearly like I've retold the plot here), that was easy enough to follow.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer. But I listened to the audiobook from my local library via Overdrive/Libby.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Book Review: Give and Take by Elly Swartz

Maggie's beloved grandmother recently died after a bout with dementia. And now her family is fostering a pre-adoption baby, Izzie. Maggie already was dealing with her anxiety by hoarding, but the knowledge that this tiny baby she loves so much is going to leave and won't remember her, is too much for Maggie. Terrified that she will start to forget things as well, her hoarding kicks into overdrive. After a scary day when she screams at her mother for touching a box of her things, her parents bring her to a therapist who helps her deal with her feelings and with her not-good coping method.

Meanwhile, her all-girls trap shooting team gets a new member: a boy, Mason, and loses one of her friends, which throws Maggie for a further loop, even though it means the team is better. When her pet turtle goes missing in her grandfather's yard, will it be more than Maggie can cope with?

The hoarding is portrayed realistically (along with the defensive thinking that as long as she doesn't look like an episode of Hoarders and can still walk through her room, there's no problem here.) In fact, I think most of us will think back to a box in the closet filled with old birthday cards and movie ticket stubs and other mementos. Where do you draw the line?

Her family is lovingly portrayed, Maggie as the middle sister between two brothers has a lot of emotions on her back, and the issue of very-short-term infant fostering is an interesting and new one to me. As is the hobby of trap shooting. I really appreciated the author's creativity and research in not going with the usual suspects in both issues and after-school activities. There's an explanation at the end of research she did and further resources for anxiety and hoarding in children.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

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

Friday, October 11, 2019

Book Review: The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols: Adapted from the Journals of John H. Watson, M.D. by Nicholas Meyer

As a young teen, I read all the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. My mom got me into the Mystery! Theater adaptations starring Jeremy Brett (who will forever and always be Holmes to me) so it was a delight to read a "newly found" Holmes story.

Ostensibly, this was found among the manuscripts and papers of Dr. Watson in the form of a diary, and he never published it for good reason. Because it was "never published," it includes some details Watson would normally leave out of his accounts, such as Holmes's romance with the Russian woman who is helping them. The story goes, Holmes's brother Mycroft asks Holmes (and be default, Watson, as he knows they are a package deal) to look into a mysterious manuscript that one of the secret service agents was killed over. Watson, newly married, and settled into a routine, asks his sister-in-law who translates Russian literature, for help. They discover it is a bizarre, obvious fraudulent supposed transcript from a meeting of Jews who want to take over the world. Then they are off! On an adventure to prove the fraudulence so this screed, which they come to call The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, won't gain traction and become widespread. On a trip across Europe including on the Orient Express, they, with the help of a stunning beautiful Russian woman, are followed by Russian spies while they try to uncover and expose the truth.

It's a fun, short read. Although the subject matter isn't fun at all, and is irritatingly familiar as antisemitism seems to be on the rise (along with all kind of white supremacy). It's both refreshing and sad to see that after more than a century, we are no more advanced in society. But it's still good to feel that frustration in the company of Sherlock Holmes. No better company.

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Book Review: The Man That Got Away: A Constable Twitten Mystery 2 by Lynne Truss

God I love this mystery series! They are so funny and witty and full of word play and twisty turns and just hilarious. Constable Twitten is not feeling much more like he fit in to Brighton than he did in the first book (this one takes place shortly after the first one so that makes sense.) And neither Sergeant Brunswick nor Inspector Steine has gotten a clue in the meantime either. When Twitten accompanies Steine to the local wax museum, which is going to make a terrible replica of their famous Inspector, he overhears a young couple talking about a murder among other things (they mistake him for a wax figure and talk about their plans right in front of him!) He must of course look into this case, with a body and a missing head. And then there is a man going about town claiming to be a local lord trying to get people to buy gold bars from him for cheap (a brilliantly funny play on modern internet scams). And what does this have to do with the local nightclub (where Brunswick goes undercover as a trumpet player--and is nearly too good) or the police's char-lady's former love, or the man found on the beach with his throat cut, or the strange smells emanating from manholes? Trust that in time, with some luck, some help (not from his colleagues!), and some puzzling-out, Twitten will save the day.

Like the very best, most twisty, and most fun Agatha Christie novels, these mysteries are a true bright spot of beach reading.

This book is published by Bloomsbury, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Book Review: Twenty-one Truths About Love: A Novel by Matthew Dicks

I liked my first Matthew Dicks novel, Something Missing. I loved loved loved the second Matthew Dicks novel I read, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. So when I saw he had a new novel coming out from my own company, I jumped on it. Even though it's written in a gimmicky style. The entire novel comprises of lists.

Normally a novel with a convoluted, contrived structure and/or format screams "MFA thesis!" at me and I run away screaming. Normally. The exception proves the rule.

Things I hate in a novel:

  • unnamed narrators 
  • lack of quotation marks 
  • second person 
  • a "chorus" 
  • sudden and complete narrative changes halfway through the book. 

You have to be a MASTER to pull that shit off. You've made the bar a million times higher and I'm going into your novel expecting to hate it. Is that what you want? Don't flout convention simply to flout it. You MUST have a VERY GOOD reason. And you must be able to write at the caliber of Ian McEwan to pull off the "Oh wait--you've been reading a novel written by one of the main characters! Now let's get to the real story." (And he does pull it off, but others don't.) Have I liked books with these ridiculous contrivances? Yes. But as I say, I hold them to a much, much higher standard and go in with a bad attitude. (And I have recently even read a Pulitzer Prize-nominee who pulled this crap and I hated her novel.) Luckily, this book is one of the beloved exceptions.

Things I loved about Twenty-One Truths About Love:

  1. Lists (which are the best).
  2. Actually had a plot. (Which I wasn't sure about going into a novel written in lists.)
  3. Was funny.
  4. Was touching.
  5. Hinted throughout at an outlandish crazy thing that might happen. Which I never thought would. But then, HE WENT THERE!
  6. Made me think maybe I could also start journaling if I did it as lists.
  7. Made me wonder what I would do for my spouse, or my child (if I had one).
  8. Made me think about what it would be like if my spouse had a first wife who'd died, and how that would change everything. It's hard to compete with a ghost.
  9. Loved the friendship with the older vet.
  10. Features an independent bookstore!
If I haven't sold you on the book, well, your loss. It's a warm, quick read with humor and angst and crises and it felt very real. And I kind of really, really want to try bullet journaling now. Who knows--maybe I'll end up writing a story.

Published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Book Review: Mighty Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Running Revolutionary (Little Mo) by Rachel Swaby, and Kit Fox

Last year I listened to a fascinating podcast about Moe Wilton that really annoyed me when it was over, it was so good. Turns out this editor also did because he reached out to the podcasters who expanded their research and storytelling into this terrific biography of Mighty Moe.

In 1967, Moe was thirteen years old when she broke the world record for the women's marathon. At this time women often had to run surreptitiously (she ran alongside Kathrine Switzer) if we could run at all, for men thought our uteruses would fall out if we ran any distance.

Moe just loved running. She started to keep up with her brothers and despite her height and being younger, she quickly outran them. Her parents were endlessly supportive, finding her a team and a coach and going to great lengths to get her to meets across Canada. Once her coach hired a private plane and her father raced her and other girls across town to fly directly from one meet to another across the country. Moe ran and ran and ran. It was beautiful, impressive, even intimidating. And then she ran herself out. The best runner of her generation was completely burnt out before she was twenty and quit and sport. Decades later, her own daughter asked her grandmother if her mother had ever run. Moe's mother said she'd better ask her herself. Luckily Moe's mother also had kept exhaustive scrapbooks.

What an achievement! And yet for decades afterwards it was unheralded and completely forgotten. And it wasn't an easy race either--there weren't fuel stations and a band every mile. It was around a square, over and over, on a college campus, with giant older men. And yet, she outran all of them. At thirteen. I think this book would be impressive and inspiring for many kids this age showing that diligence and effort pays off. And how often do kids get to read a biography of a kid? Hey, if Moe can do it, anyone can, if they put their mind (and body!) to it.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

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

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Book Review: Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper

Megan grew up in the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. You know, the ones who picket funerals of veterans and others with unconscionably cruel signs? They were all over the news about a decade ago. Well you can guess their politics but you'll only be half right. You'll also only be half right about the religion, and in the end you'll be very surprised and happy that Megan got out.

She was raised in the church and community. They didn't live on some compound out in the wilderness, but did live in a very tight-knit neighborhood where they helped build each others' houses and all lives within a block or two off each other. Megan's grandfather was the minister, and she was related to everyone in the church. She was brought to her first protest when she was about five years old--long before she even understood what the signs she was carrying meant.

I was shocked to find out that her grandfather, mother and aunt were all lawyers. In fact, I was gobsmacked to hear that her grandfather had been a strong civil rights attorney, fighting for the rights of African-Americans. He somehow reconciled this with his later hatred of gays, and I suppose they are two different things, not a continuum, but that's a world view I was unfamiliar with to hold both of those ideas simultaneously. Megan's mother and aunt really ran the church and the family law firm. Another thing that surprised me was that the family was very involved in the outside world and not closed off. Megan and her siblings and cousins went to public school. They obviously has to know what was going on, in order to protest as they did. Usually with such rabidly conservative outside-the-norm views, blinders are necessary. But not so here. In fact, as the internet blew up, Megan became the voice of the church on social media, in particular on Twitter.

Lots of people engaged with her there. Some much more civilly than others. And she thought she had an answer for everything unbelievers could throw at her. But a couple of doubts crept in. Especially after an incident involving her mother and the church, she had a hard time hanging onto her beliefs. And eventually, Megan left. Which didn't just mean leaving the church but also her family.

I don't want to give too much more away, but it's an amazing story of realization, understanding, and forgiveness. Megan is so open to others and to really looking thoroughly into herself and her blame in everything and her beliefs and her culpability, it's refreshing. Especially in this day and age when people are just getting more polarized--to hear about someone who completely changed sides and what accomplished that and how she coped with the radical change, was fascinating.

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

My Month in Review: September

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Nicole at Feed Your Fiction Addiction.

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

Books completed this month:
You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy
Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolution by Andy Warner
Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, narrated by Jenna Lamia (audio)
The Cactus League: A Novel by Emily Nemens
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund (audio)
The Ghost Map: the Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson, narrated by Alan Sklar (audiobook)*

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? And 101 Other Questions about New York City by Jean Ashton*

What I acquired this month (non-work books): 
again, nothing! Being so good! My budget is happy!