Thursday, January 28, 2021

Book Review: Strange Bedfellows: Adventures in the Science, History, and Surprising Secrets of STDs by Ina Park

This book was compared to Mary Roach and that always gets me simultaneously excited and skeptical. But the subject matter just had too much potential to pass up. So glad I read it! It was much fun!

Dr. Park specializes in sexually transmitted infections, and over the years it's been a constant in her house, so much that her son was excited when he was told the wart on his knee was HPV and he fights with his sibling over who gets to play with the stuffed animal of chlamydia. But Dr. Park noticed very few people actually talk about STIs and she wants to change that. She's certainly got me talking about them! I was thrilled to learn that crabs are pretty much gone (although sadly, she notes, never appeared on the endangered species list.) And thanks to the new vaccine, HPV is quickly on its way from being the most prevalent STI to the least (and taking cervical cancer along with it!) But of course, the fun stuff was what I was here for. Did you know the merkin first appeared around 1450? And if you don't know what a merkin is, picture a toupee, for your nether regions. Over 3000 people go to the ER every year for pubic grooming injuries. That seems overly high. And there's a terrific story about STD contact tracers in the 1970s getting invited to a swingers party, where it was initially difficult for them to do their work of interviewing the participants, until they too discarded their clothes. At the end of their work, they joined the swingers in the hot tub (nude.)

Naturally, the chapters in the middle of the book on antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV were not funny at all. However, sandwiched around those were delightfully amusing anecdotes about the latest version of the female condom, getting a Brazilian in Brazil (along with the fun side topic of vajazzling), douches (the original was Lysol. Yep, you could smell pine fresh!), and a researcher gripping a tank of half-frozen gonorrhea samples between his knees on on a harrowing flight from Manila to Hawaii.

If you like armchair science, aren't too easily grossed out, and think we all could do with more frank talk about sexuality and the medical issues that come along with it, this book is for you! Your friends and family should be prepared for some eye brow-raising fun facts along the way.

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

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Book Review: Finlay Donovan Is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

Finn's life is kind of a disaster. After her cheating husband left, she's had to rent their house from him, which the sales of her books just won't pay for, and more than once she's had to beg him to turn the power back on. He and his girlfriend are seriously threatening to take Finn's two kids away, and her latest book is way overdue. After a disastrous morning during which her daughter cut off her own hair and duct-taped it back on, cutting herself in the process, Finn is late to meet with her literary agent at a nearby Panera (annoyingly, the one she's banned from, so she has this wig/scarf combo she has to wear.)

While discussing her contract, and her ideas for her next mystery novel, a neighboring patron overhears and misunderstands, particularly after she caught a glimpse of Finn's open diaper bag with a bloody burp cloth, knife, and duct tape tucked inside. She leaves a note, asking Finn to kill her husband, as she thinks Finlay is a contract killer.

How absurd! Although, the money would be great. Especially after her husband fired her babysitter that morning. And now that she's looked into him, the husband seems like a very bad dude. But she could never do that! Right? It wouldn't hurt to check him out at the bar she knows he's supposed to go to that night. Right? I mean, what could go wrong, just going to the bar? Finn isn't a killer after all! Isn't she?

This is a hysterical novel that riffs on the harried-mom-can't-hold-it-together subgenre epitomized by I Don't Know How She Does It, but combining it with a hitman storyline is truly original and creative. I enjoyed every minute of it.

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

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Book Review: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

 I attended a virtual event with the author recently and someone asked about the seeming variety of her last three books, and how they all seem so different from each other: The Nightingale, The Great Alone, and now The Four Winds. But then a theme was called out that crosses them all and I loved it as it made them all make sense: they're about women having to find inner strength during difficult times. And what better book to read during the winter of 2021, as we're all hoping for a return to normalcy, but it's not here yet?

Elsa was sick as a child and has been beyond-babied by her family ever since. They won't let her go out or do anything. They think she's incapable of taking care of herself and won't let her try. Once night she makes herself a new dress in the fashionable new styles of the twenties, and sneaks out of the house. She meets a handsome young man and they have a brief love affair. Naturally, she ends up pregnant. Her family kicks her out and so she shows up on the Martinelli doorstep. Despite her being several years older, Rafe makes an honest woman out of her and they even have another child. They seems to have had a pretty good life, living on the family farm with his parents. But as the story jumps ahead to 1934, things are bad as anyone with even a passing understanding of US history would expect. 

In the panhandle of Texas, dust storms are a constant occurrence. Everyone wears a bandanna or scarf around their neck to pull up as a mask as soon as it's needed. The family goes from struggling to keep their crops and animals, to struggling to keep themselves alive. The government promises help, but it's too late and not enough. Then Elsa has to make a decision, and so they pack up and try their luck in California. 

We don't see the beginning of the Depression in this novel, nor the end. But I think a whole lot more people now understand the Depression than did just two years ago. Elsa never wanted to be in these situations and this wasn't the life she saw for herself. But she does the best she can with the hand she's dealt, over and over. She's a thin woman who was once sickly, and she has a deep well of inner strength she never even knew she had. During our own troubled times, it's nice to see another story of strength during hardship. 

Personally, in the past I've found Ms. Hannah's endings to be too pat for me, too tied up in a bow, but this one was not. I think she's achieved a new level in her writing. I'm glad I read this. It gave me hope.

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

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Book Review: My Brilliant Life by Kim Ae-ran, translated by Chi-Young Kim

Boy, this book is really hard to describe, so this will be a short review.

Areum has the opposite of the Benjamin Button disease. He's one of those little kids you see who looks like a tiny, really old man. Because essentially, he is. His body is aging at an astonishing rate, causing stress and havoc on his whole family. His parents, who are very young and had fewer resources and experience when they had him, have had to grow up fast and muster help. 

He decides to give his parents the ultimate gift: he is writing their love story as a novel, even though their young pregnancy with him was not a welcome event. But he is shifting the focus of the story to their love for each other.

Then his family's story is filmed and shown on a national show that solicits donations for families in need. Through that exposure, Areum makes a new friend online who seems to truly understand him. And since he likely will never meet her in person, she's not put off by his sickliness and appearance. 

Even though there is no magic in this book, it had a very magical, unreal feel to it. It's about family and unconditional love. It's about sacrifice and responsibility. It's about facing down uncomfortable truths you can't avoid. It is beautiful and tragic. It was a unique reading experience. 

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Book Review: Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner's Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule

Ty Seidule was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia where his only goal in life was to grow up to be a good Virginia gentleman, like his hero, Robert E. Lee. After graduating from a segregation academy (a private school founded with the explicit purpose of letting white children continue to go to an unsegregated school), he went on to Washington & Lee University and then joined the army. When he joined the faculty of West Point, he was temporarily housed in Lee Barracks on Lee Drive. 

Recently he quit the military so he can speak his mind. This history professor wants to explain to everyone about the three causes of the Civil War:
slavery, slavery, and slavery.

He has gone back to the sources, he has done the research. He had looked into the naming of every one of these army bases that are named after Confederates. None of them were done to honor the Civil War. All of them were done to slow the progress of human rights and to intimidate African-Americans. He has the paperwork. He can prove it. And in that paperwork, he also disproves the notion that Lee joined the Confederacy solely because he felt it his duty as a Virginian to defend his state. That's bunk. And Lee said so in letters to his family. He joined because of slavery. (Also there were other Southern colonels at West Point when the Civil War broke out and he's the only one who defected to the traitors.)

In his quest to tell this story, Col. Seidule goes back and shows how he was taught to be a racist by his elders and his school system (he even finds the Virginia state history books he was taught from in school). And he explains how we have to get past these issues to move forward in this country. 

If you have someone in your life who might hear this message better from an older, white, military man, this is the most perfect book. But I, who thought myself pretty well-educated in this area, had my eyes opened in a couple of ways. For example, I am striving to change from saying "plantation" and instead calling them what they are: enslaved labor farms. I also never before realized that the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s... was exactly 100 years after the Civil War. Coincidence? 

This read was utterly fascinating and I learned a lot. You will too. 

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

Monday, January 18, 2021

Book Review: I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom (audiobook)

While I rarely read a memoir by a TV/movie star where I haven't seen at least some of their shows, this book was the exception! I've never seen Crazy Ex-Girlfriend but I still enjoyed this book. I had seen Rachel Bloom in a discussion with another funny author (Jenny Lawson) and they both were so great that I immediately added this book to my TBR. 

I'm glad I listened to it on audio as she did a lot of funny voices and occasionally sung. I did miss out on the amusement park map, but she described it which was also fun. If you purchase the audio book you should also get a PDF of the images. 

About half of the book is about Rachel's childhood and teen years which were rather traumatic. There's not a Bad Thing that happens and her parents seem nice, but she just had a ton of trouble fitting in and finding her tribe, and she was unpopular and yet couldn't manage to fly under the radar like a couple of her friends did. So most people can identify with that. But even the parts about when her show was nominated for an award and when she had to fly to NYC for the Up Fronts, were very relatable as she had to sleep on a friend's sofa the night before the WB's paid hotel room kicked in, and she wore borrowed clothes (not borrowed from a designer, but from a friend's mom) and she was asked if she could change into something darker and... that fit better. 

Occasionally you have to kind of give her a pass with some of the singing and the (blessedly short) chapter told from her dog's POV about her award win (she is not impressed. Also she thinks of Rachel as her step-dad.) Overall it's delightful fun and if you're also a fan of the show, I'm sure it's even more amazing. I might check out the show now even though the musical interludes might not work for me. We'll see.

I borrowed this digital audiobook from Libby/Overdrive.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Book Review: A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (And Know Nothing About) by Spike Carlsen (audio)

I like to walk. And I love random facts. This book was made for me.

Spike goes for a walk around the block and along the way, he wonders about the composition and cost of sidewalks, where the water goes down the drainage grates, and why there's a metal number on telephone poles and what it means. You'll find out the answers to all of these and much more in this book! Where does the water coming into your house come from? When and how were road surfaces invented and developed? 

Some facts: squirrels chew on your house not to be assholes, but because if they don't wear down their teeth, they will grow too long for squirrels to be able to eat. Their teeth continue growing throughout their life.

Also: there is water in your concrete. It binds with the cement in the mixture and while it "dries" (it's not drying), it's forming crystals through chemical reactions. So even "dry" concrete still has about 10% water. And yes, you can add way too much water and no, it won't just take longer to "dry"--it will be terrible concrete that is weak and not functional.

You'll learn about the different types of electrical poles. I was fascinated that the highest wires, which are the ones with the most high power, aren't insulted. That would cause the wires to be enormous, heavy, and expensive--in ways that just won't work. So they're super duper dangerous if they were to come down. Which is why they're so high. Also the reason birds can sit on wires and not be electrocuted is because A) they're so little that they're not very useful to electricity as a conductor and B) they'd need to be touching something other than the wire for the electricity to go through them. Electricity just go into things that touch it--it travels through things to get somewhere. While Mr. Carlsen doesn't state it specifically, the implication is that humans also could sit on a wire and be safe--if they don't touch anything else. 

What do you wonder about when you go on a walk? Would you like a fun walk companion who will tell you all sorts of trivia? Invite Mr. Carlsen along. He's an excellent walking companion.

I downloaded this digital audiobook from Libby/Overdrive.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Book Review: The Comeback: A Figure Skating Novel by E.L. Shen

Maxine's family moved to way upstate New York, to Lake Placid, where she's the only Chinese-American kid at her school, and where there are multiple world-class level skating facilities and instructors, thanks to Lake Placid having hosted the Winter Olympics way before Maxine was born. Maxine practices hard every day and she's determined to master the next trick in her skating repertoire. 

She and her best friend have grown apart, but that's not presented as a tragedy which is nice. A new girl at the rink, Hollie, at first seems like fierce competition for Maxine, but eventually they become friends. The titular comeback in question is what Maxine should say to this horrid boy at school next time he makes a racist remark to her. The book's description describes the events as "micro-aggressions" but there's nothing micro about these--they're pretty obvious. So Maxine and Hollie come up with some harsh but true comebacks, and next time she's bullied, she's prepared and attacks right back. The bully, naturally, is shocked by this turn of events and Maxine standing up for herself.

You don't have to know anything about skating to enjoy this book. I really liked the friendship between Maxine and Hollie, who is relatively shy and homeschooled, so not a traditional school-based friendship like you normally see at this age. And it's a great message about clapping back and not just accepting being bullied. I wish at her age someone had helped me come up with a comeback or two instead of just spouting off the useless advice to "ignore them and they'll stop" (NO THEY WON'T.) It also just would have been nice to have an approach that was proactive instead of just defensive. I hope Maxine grows up to be a strong young woman mentally as well as physically. 

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

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Book Review: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff (audio)

I wasn't sure if I'd ever like an audiobook with multiple narrators. But an oral history is the natural book for that audio format. I've been reading more oral histories the last few years and liking them, although thus far they've mostly been about pop culture (TV shows and movies). This was my first serious one. And boy, how serious! I also wasn't sure if I should listen to a book about September 11th. I was in New York on that day and I don't especially like hearing other people's stories much, plus I strongly think that abbreviations like "9/11" are disrespectful, and even though I myself was in NYC, I dislike how many accounts ignore the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA. A college friend's brother died in Shanksville.

But this won the Audie award for best audiobook in 2020 and the reviews were fantastic and it kept showing as available in my library system, so I finally decided to give it a try. If I didn't like it I could stop. It also was much longer than I usually prefer, but it was over the holiday break so I had a good chance at finishing it before my 2 weeks were up. 

It is amazing like everyone says. An oral history was perfect for multiple narrators (and no, that one guy who sounds like Rainn Wilson isn't. There is a listing at the end of all the narrators. Although they don't seem to be listed anywhere else, particularly not in any of the publisher's websites or materials, which I thought was kind of crappy.) I do wish at least a couple of famous people --Rudy Guiliani, Katie Couric--could have recorded their own parts, especially because they were not very long overall. The accounts of people who were trapped in the World Trade Center buildings that day were particularly harrowing, of course. And the firefighters and other first responders brought a different perspective. They didn't have a lot of perspectives of regular office workers uptown like me who only had to walk several miles and be out of work for a couple of days. I wish the chapter on children's responses had been half the length. It was interesting hearing about kids whose schools were in the Financial District and Battery Park City, who were in danger themselves and who often had parents who worked in the buildings. But there were too many kids from all across the country. That though is the book's only flaw. I was amazed that people went back to work in the Pentagon the next day, even though parts of it were still on fire! 

If you experienced that day in those places and know what it was like, this book is respectful and conscientious and thorough. If you didn't, it will give you a real insight into what it was like. And for all of us, it was fascinating to learn about how the president being shuttled around the country from Florida in the days before technology was where it needed to be, meant those aboard Air Force One knew less about what was going on than pretty much anyone else in the country. They occasionally could get a local news channel for about 20 minutes as they traveled over a major city. Hearing about the responses within government that day was pretty eye-opening.

There were a few moments where the recordings were tough, but you knew everyone on the recordings had survived by the nature of the project (not everyone they were speaking to, though.) I really appreciated having the actual recordings from air traffic control and George Bush's speech. 

If you kind of what to read/listen to this but are worried you'll be sobbing throughout--I wasn't. I had one little moment where I teared up for a second, but I was fine. I wouldn't recommend listening/reading before bed. Pick a sunny day.

I listened to this digital audio book through Libby/Overdrive.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Book Review: The Lost Manuscript: A Novel by Cathy Bonidan

While on vacation in Brittany, Anne-Lise finds a manuscript in her bedside table and reads it. And loves it. The novel touches her deeply, and she's determined to find the author. 
She quickly tracks him down. And the mystery deepens incredibly. He lost the manuscript on a plane twenty years earlier. And at that time, it was unfinished. It is no longer.
In this fun epistolary novel, we hopscotch across France, a few times to the UK and Canada, as Anne-Lise enlists the help of her best friend, and everyone she runs across along the way. She picks up strays and befriends everyone who has loved this novel in a rare way that feels both entirely open and genuine at the same time. The manuscript took a varied and curious trip as it meandered its way from the author to Anne-Lise. At first it's odd that Anne-Lise would go to so much effort on this quest but even that makes sense in the end. 
I do appreciate that unlike a lot of epistolary novels, there's no recapping of events the recipient of the letter attended, for the same of telling the reader. That means some things are skipped over and occasionally you have to figure out what happened through deduction or a little later. The one contrived part is the use of actual snail mail. Anne-Lise's best friend has eschewed all modern technology, not owning a phone (at all--landline or cell!) which is the primary excuse, but it's flimsy. This all could have just as easily been on email and it wouldn't be any the worse for wear, in my opinion. But it's charming and light and a real treat for writers.
This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Book Review: Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen

The beloved and bestselling author of Hatchet has a new memoir out that explains a lot. Little Gary, almost still a toddler, was exploited by his young partying mom who would bring him to bars and get him to sing and dance as other patrons would then buy her drinks. It didn't pay the rent nor put food in Gary's mouth, so Gary's grandmother stepped in and got him shipped off to his aunt and uncle's. (The story of the five-year-old traveling by train alone--complete with a transfer!--across multiple states is a shocking tale that could NEVER happen now!)

His aunt and uncle are fantastic. They put him to work right away, but not song-and-dance work. He learns how to fish and how to clean and gut the fish. He learns how to feed the chickens and how to get water from the well, and he spends a lot of time outside, with animals and nature, learning homesteading skills. I wished he could have stayed with them forever, as that part of the book read like the best of the Little House books, but 60 years later. This, you could tell, was where he learned a lot of the skills that Brian later used in the Hatchet series of books. 

However, his parents show back up and take him back. His father has returned which isn't a great thing. They spend a couple of years in the Philippines where his parents drink and fight and he stays away as much as possible. They return to the US where his parents drink and fight more. Eventually Gary takes to basically camping out in the basement of their apartment building where there's an old lounge chair near the furnace. He does lots of odd jobs and occasionally steals for food. 

Just when he seems to be going completely off the rails with school, two things happen. He's introduced to a special program at school where if he comes every day, he can learn how to fix televisions (which are new and fascinating) and graduate early. And he goes into a library to get warm, and meets the best kind of librarian. He's worried she's going to kick him out or make him pay something or just be snotty and obnoxious, but she mostly leaves him alone, eventually starts recommending books for him to read, and one day she gives him his very first blank notebook, and the first new pencil he's ever owned. He starts writing and never looks back.

His childhood is pretty awful. I really hated his parents and wondered where CPS was (although I've heard equally awful stories about CPS care so maybe Gary did best by himself.) And it just goes to show how one person can have a massive influence on a child's life, even when what they did doesn't seem like much. Could that librarian have ever imagined that her pretty simple gift would lead to a Newbery Honor Medal? This is very readable and shows kids that they are hardy, resilient, and can go places despite not-great beginnings.

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

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Book Review: The Other Mother by Matthew Dicks

Matthew Dicks climbs up my Favorite Authors list with each new book. In this one we have Michael, a young teen, who one day over breakfast looks at his mother, and has the horrible realization that while she looks like his mother and sounds like his mother, that woman or that creature in front of him, is not actually his mother.

And that's by far from his only problem that he has to deal with. His little sister has invited their next door neighbor, one of the prettiest and most popular girls at school, to go fishing with them. His jerk of a step-father is still a jerk. He has to check in with the counselor at school twice a day. He has a big secret about his father's death that he hasn't told his mother. He regrets having agreed to help a friend at school get revenge on a teacher. And his little brother is... well, a little brother. And yet every time he comes home, he hopes his mother will have returned and this faux-mother will have disappeared to wherever she came from.

Michael is dealing with a lot of crap. And his brain which already was on overload and already had learning differences going on and maybe some depression, kind of goes on the fritz when it comes to his mother. There is an actual condition that is like this, but that's not the point. The point is whether or not that's resolved, Michael has too much on his shoulders, and not enough workable coping skills.

While this is an adult book, I think it's perfect for teens too. And in a way, everyone will be able to identify with Michael. Hopefully none of us has all this on our plates, but we've all felt overwhelmed and like life is just too much, and you'll see a bit of yourself in this story. And you'll come away with some hope.

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

Friday, January 1, 2021

2020: The Year in Review

In 2010 I got this meme, I think from Boston Bibliophile. It was a fun way to summarize the year, so I now do it every year. Last year I added a couple of new categories (how many books for work and how many different publishers). 

How many books read in 2020? 120

How many fiction and non fiction? 53 fiction, 67 nonfiction. I'm usually really even here but I've said before that my book club reading probably pulls my fiction reading up and... I haven't done much book club reading this year! Proving my theory!

Male/Female author ratio? 35 men, 87 women. Whoa! Two years in a row of really unbalanced, in women's favor, without trying!

Favorite book of 2020? Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) by Martha Wells

Least favorite? This is really hard to come up with this year. I went through a few periods of near-reading-slump which I fought off by not reading anything that seemed the least bit iffy, by reading the first few pages of a dozen books that I didn't continue with, and by actively going with more sure-things and fewer risks. That said, I do have one and it's not one you'd expect because everyone else loved it but I think the problem for me was the format. I listened to it on audio and I think that just wasn't the right way to go on this book. Nothing against the narrator, but I had no idea that this book consisted of hundreds of super-short chapters and that's something very hard to discern verbally, so it felt very choppy and disjointed when read aloud. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. I didn't hate it, I just didn't at all love it. I think also my expectations were high.

Any that you simply couldn't finish and why? Not every book works in audio for me, so those are ones I sometimes don't finish. Some of these authors I absolutely love so it's no indictment on the book:
Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld
If Then by Jill Lepore
The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher (not audio)
Sweet Taste of Liberty by W. Caleb McDaniel
Too Much by Rachel Vorona Cote
Had I Known by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

Oldest book read?  The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe 1979
Newest? Two coming out on August 17, 2021: Big Apple Diaries by Alyssa Bermudez and A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next by Tom Standage

Longest and shortest book titles? (not including subtitles)
Longest: Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits by Eiko 42 characters
Shortest: Money by Jacob Goldstein 5 characters

Longest and shortest books?
Longest: One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway -- and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad 544 pages
Shortest: History Comics: The Roanoke Colony: America's First Mystery by Chris Schweizer, 128 pages 

How many books from the library? 23. All the audiobooks except one.

How many audiobooks? 24

How many graphic books? 14 plus a few children's too short to count.

Any translated books? Three. One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway -- and Its Aftermath
by Åsne Seierstad (from Norwegian) My Brilliant Life by Kim Ae-ran, translated by Chi-Young Kim (from Korean) and To Hold Up the Sky by Liu Cixin (from Chinese)

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author? Martha Wells, 6 novels/novellas and one short story.

Any re-reads? Nope.

Favorite character of the year? ART from Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading? England, Norway, Australia (Tasmania), China, Canada, Syria, Turkey, Russia, Greece, France (Brittany), Korea, Antarctica, Ireland, Scotland, and Iceland.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation? The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor, first recommended by Pete at McIntyre's Fine Books in Pittsboro, NC but then later recommended by a colleague, Sage. Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford, recommended by a former colleague, Patty. Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century: Unabridged Selections by Alice Wong was raved about by a friend, Elaine Ruth. The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary was pushed on me by Hannah at Doylestown Bookshop in PA. American Hippo by Sarah Gailey was recommended by Tony at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC. All Systems Red by Martha Wells and the whole Murderbot Diaries series was recommended by a dozen people but none louder or more often than my friend Jessica. Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller had an amazing review in Quail Ridge Books' newsletter. Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley was recommended by Cecilia at East City Books in DC. One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway -- and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad was recommended by Mark at Politics & Prose in DC. It's funny how only 3 of these are not Macmillan books (Notes, Disability, and Fish). It's not shocking to have work books recommended by work colleagues, but it's interesting to have them recommended by my buyers (I'm supposed to be pitching Macmillan books to them, not the other way around) or even friends (they generally aren't aware it's a Macmillan book--that's just kind of luck.)

Which author was new to you in 2020 that you now want to read the entire works of? Martha Wells, and I did it! At least all of her Murderbot books.

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read? None. I have literally hundreds of books I'd like to read one day but I don't feel any anxiety about having to read any of them NOW. I'll get to them or I won't. 

How many books did you read for work? This was a hard number to hit on this year because I read a huge number of Macmillan backlist titles, which I don't normally do. So I read 66 frontlist (pre-pub or reissue books I am currently selling) and 24 backlist (books already out). The grand total is 90 but it's a little misleading as a few of the backlist books are actually going to be helpful for my sales (The Right Stuff) and others are too obscure.

How many different publishers (not imprints) did you read? 8. As usual since I've been a field rep for Macmillan, this number is smallish. 

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read? This question is vague but I take it to mean you've been meaning to read something for more than a year. I'm going to say 6 as the following have either been on my radar or my shelf for that long. A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage; The Dirty Girls Social Club by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez; Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.; When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams; The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein; The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

2020 TOP FOUR Book Events in Carin’s Book Life (this used to be 8 but that was always very difficult to do, and is more so since I have a steady job and am no longer on the WNBA board):
1. Got through 2020!
2. Got through 2020 healthy and employed! 
3. Moved twice and I don't think I lost any books. 
4. I think I'm past my doldrums of almost-reading-slump.
That's all we can expect from 2020 and I consider those really great accomplishments this year!

2021 Reading Challenges!

What challenges to do for 2021? I really like to do reading challenges but they're hard with my job. On the other hand, some I've been doing in recent years like the one for reading as many books as possible published this year, aren't really a challenge at all (and the next level up from where I've been participating is impossible without stretching the rules.) So I'm having a think about what to pick for 2021. This first one, European Reading, is easy to decide to do again because it's always a slight challenge. Last year I read two extra, but that was the only time that has happened. I think I'll stick with the Audiobook challenge but go down a level. And also stick with the diversity challenge but change it up a bit this year. And I'm dropping the reading as many books as possible in favor of a challenge on Facebook from a friend. It's got 52 categories this year (last year it was 26) and on that one I'm hoping to hit 40 of the 52. I can't post it yet (it's not up yet) but I will soon.


The 2021 European Reading Challenge! 

January 1, 2020 to January 31, 2021

Please join us for the Grand Tour or Europe through books! 2021 is the 9th year of the European Reading Challenge, which has been going steadily along since 2012. Participants choose their own level of commitment to complete the challenge and there is a prize for the person who visits the most countries between the covers. 

Thank you to those loyal readers who have joined in since the beginning! A warm welcome to those joining us for the first time or those who are coming back after some time off.

THE GIST: The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – fiction, nonfiction, novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, whatever. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country – it's supposed to be a tour. (See note about the UK, below.)

WHAT COUNTS AS "EUROPE"?: We stick with the standard list of 50 sovereign states that fall (at least partially) within the geographic territory of the continent of Europe and/or enjoy membership in international European organizations such as the Council of Europe. This list includes the obvious (the UK, France, Germany, and Italy), the really huge Russia, the tiny Vatican City, and the mixed bag of Baltic, Balkan, and former Soviet states.
Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.
NOTE: Even with Brexit, the United Kingdom is still one country, part of Europe, that includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. One book from any one of these four counts as your one book for the United Kingdom. I'm not going to bust your chops about it because challenges should be about fun not about rules. However, when it comes to winning the Jet Setter prize, only one book from one of the UK countries counts.


Participants can read as many books as they want and are encouraged to visit as many European countries as possible. The Jet Setter Prize will go to the person who reads (and reviews) books from the greatest number of different countries (see below).

Not everyone wants to compete for a prize, review books, or read a lot of books. You can complete the challenge by reading one to five books from different countries.

To participate in the challenge, sign up at the levels below. If you want to go on to compete for the Prize, keep reading!

  • FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries.
From Carin: I always like this one and it keeps me from reading UK-set books over and over (I mean, I still usually end of with several of those, but it encourages me to think outside the box, at least when it comes to Europe. I know, not very diverse, but I've got that covered below.)

Grab your earbuds and join hosts Caffeinated Reviewer and That’s What I’m Talking About for the 2021 Audiobook Challenge! Choose your level and rock your ears off!

We have a new co-host and a new category to achieve! Please welcome Jen from That’ s What I am Talking About.

Use hashtag #2021AudiobookChallenge on social media to alert others of your listens and progress!

Challenge Details

  • Runs January 1, 2021 – December 31, 2021. You can join at any time.
  • The goal is to find a new love for audios or to outdo yourself by listening to more audios in 2020 than you did in 2018.
  • Books must be in audio format (CD, MP3, etc.)
  • ANY genres count.
  • Re-reads and crossovers from other reading challenges are allowed.
  • You do not have to be a book blogger to participate; you can track your progress on Goodreads, Facebook, LibraryThing, etc.
  • If you’re a blogger grab the button and do a quick post about the challenge to help spread the word. If you’re not a blogger you can help by posting on Facebook or Tweet about the challenge.
  • Updates plus a giveaway will be posted twice during the year. The first update will be July 2, 2021, and the last update will take place on December 30, 2021.

Achievement Levels

  • Binge Listener (Why read when someone can do it for you) 20-30
From Carin: I am dropping down a level this year as I expect most of 2021 will still be working from home and not driving to stores, so audiobooks present more of a challenge. I have to intend to listen to them. And every time I try to really ramp up my walking again, my body says no (some kind of pain/injury) so that good walking/listening time is also unlikely. Audiobooks are also good during packing/unpacking for a move but unlike 2020, WE ARE NOT MOVING IN 2021.


We’re back for another year!  This challenge is focused on intentionally reading more diverse books, whether it be diverse characters or diverse authors.  We’ve been hosting it since 2019, when we merged some concepts from the Platypire Diversity Challenge and the 2017 Diverse Reads Book Challenge hosted by Chasing Faerytales and Read.Sleep.Repeat.  There’s the basic challenge of reading as many diverse books as you can, with the added monthly theme mini-challenge, where you can get bonus points for reading towards a theme each month (and by bonus points, we really just mean bragging rights).  It’s a way to challenge yourself, but still reward yourself for just reading diversely altogether.

how do we classify a book as diverse?

The author or the main character – or one of the leads, who preferably has a POV – has to belong to a diverse group. According to the definition of We Need Diverse Books:
“We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.
*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.”


While we’re pretty lax about how you wish to set up this challenge for yourself, we do have a few guidelines to follow.

  • The challenge will run from January 1st, 2021 to December 31st, 2021.  Books must be read during this time frame to count.  Sign up is open from now until December 1st, 2021, so you may join even just for the last month of the year.
  • Any format and length of book counts – print, ebook, audio, ARC, etc.
  • Crossovers from other challenges are totally acceptable!
  • Reviews are not required, but highly encouraged.

how to play:

  • Declare your intentions to participate in this challenge somewhere on the internet!!  You do not need to be a blogger to participate, there are many ways to declare.  You could write a blog post, create a reading challenge page, create a Goodreads shelf containing diverse books you hope to read, post about it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
  • Some things you could include (but that aren’t required):
    • A link to this page so that others may find us and join the fun as well (feel free to download the button at the bottom to use in your posts).
    • The goals you are setting for yourself (number of diverse books you want to read over the year, number of different kinds of diversity you want to explore, and if participating in the mini-challenge, the level you are aiming for).
    • A list of potential diverse books you hope to read for this challenge.
  • Sign up for the challenge using the link up below, and link directly to where you’ve declared your intentions (ie to the specific blog post, the goodreads shelf, the facebook post, etc).
  • We will be posting quarterly link ups for you to add links to your reviews or any wrap-up/overview posts you wish to share.
  • Go forth and READ!!  And have fun!!
  • Use the hashtag #DiversityRC2021 on any social media to keep up with other participants!

mini-challenge (optional):

For those who want to challenge themselves even more, each month has a theme to read towards.  These themes will help you tackle the different kinds of diversity.  On occasion we’ve given multiple themes in a month to give readers options (ie I had a lot of great choices, and I couldn’t decide).

JANUARY – diverse folktales/culture/mythology; or diverse retelling; or non-western setting
FEBRUARY – poc: Black/African American
MARCH – #ownvoices; or gender: female authors in male-dominated genres/non-fiction
APRIL – poc: Middle Eastern/South Asian
MAY – poc: East Asian/Southeast Asian/Pacific Islander
JUNE – LGBT+ pride summer: sexuality and gender identity
JULY – LGBT+ pride summer: sexuality and gender identity
AUGUST – mental health/addiction
SEPTEMBER – poc: hispanic/latinx
OCTOBER – physical/sensory/cognitive/intellectual/developmental disabilities
NOVEMBER – poc: Native American
DECEMBER – religious minorities

There’s sort of an extra level to the LGBT+ pride summer in June and July — aim to check off as many letters in LGBTQQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) as possible!

From Carin: last year I made my goal 40 and I read 51. I'm going to stick with an overall goal of 40, but in addition, I'm going to try to hit all the mini challenge topics BUT NOT IN THEIR DESIGNATED MONTHS. I'll read them when I read them. 

Book Review: The New One: Painfully True Stories from a Reluctant Dad by Mike Birbiglia

I was worried that having watched the Netflix special, the book would be ruined. In fact it was kind of the opposite as I think a couple of the jokes probably work better if you can hear Mike's voice, like calling his wife Jen, "Clo." And of course the toy-dropping scene is special to the documentary--you can't do that in a book. But like David Sedaris, Mike Birbiglia's funny voice is a little bit of the joke. And a lot is in his deadpan delivery. So if you can hear his voice in your head while reading, it's much funnier.

Basically, Mike never wanted to have a kid. Jen agreed. At first. Until she didn't anymore. But she promised it wouldn't change anything. 

Not only did Mike not want to have a kid, but he's also really unsure about passing along his genes since he's a lemon. He had cancer at 19. He has a terrifying sleepwalking disorder that has tried to kill him. Midway through this book he's diagnosed with diabetes. I think he does have a good point, here. Not to mention that their lifestyle with his job, being on the road over 200 days a year, isn't super conducive to child raising.

But they make it work! Sort of. Anyone who has ever felt like they were failing at parenting or doing it wrong should read this book. It's amazing how honest he is. He does truly love his daughter Oona (meaning "one"!) but for at least her first year, he doesn't even feel like he's part of the family anymore. I love his analogy that it's like he's the Vice-President, a purely ornamental post.

Sprinkled throughout are poems written by his wife, who apparently also had some mixed feelings at times (not reluctance about motherhood but other things). It's great to see other people being purely human and vulnerable. Even though I don't have any kids, I really identified with a lot of the issues of society telling us to be perfect, of families being weird and messed up, and of having honestly mixed feelings about a major decision. It's so rare to ever hear these admissions, and even rarer to have them presented in a funny way. I'm now going to see if I can figure out how to watch his move Sleepwalk With Me. His piece called that on This American Life is how I first discovered him and it was brilliant and unique. I want to begin this year (2021, writing this on 12/31) with a story of how all humans are weird, and yet things will work out, with laughs. That's generally Mike's whole humor theme.

I bought this book at Main Street Books, an independent bookstore in Davidson, North Carolina.

My Month in Review: December 2020

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:
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein (audiobook)*
Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California's Wildfires by Jaime Lowe
The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor
A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next by Tom Standage
The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness by Susannah Cahalan (audiobook)*
Bad Sister by Charise Mericle Harper, illustrated by Rory Lucey
The Best Worst Summer by Elizabeth Eulberg
The Secret Bridesmaid by Katy Birchall
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty (audiobook)*
Big Apple Diaries by Alyssa Bermudez
Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown
The New One: Painfully True Stories from a Reluctant Dad by Mike Birbiglia*
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff (audio)*

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
A Distant Grave by Sarah Stewart Taylor 
Nice Girls Still Don't Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers by Lois P. Frankel

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
I am given books as gifts so rarely (everyone assumes I already have everything, hahahaha!) But I did get one this year from my husband: 
Christmas at Biltmore: Celebrating at America's Largest Home by The Biltmore Company

I did buy 7 books for various nieces/godchildren but those books never came in my house (the bookstore wrapped and shipped them for me) so I'm not counting those. For more holiday gifts I bought my husband Ready Player Two, and two atlases, one national and one state (he'd specifically requested that last one due to his phone occasionally fritzing out when he's using maps.) I bought everything from Main Street Books in Davidson, North Carolina. Please buy from independent bookstores!