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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!