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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Review: An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman

It takes a lot for me to read a book off-season. I just finished selling the fall season and am now reading for Winter 2019. But the editor of this book made a really compelling pitch and I was already intrigued by the book before that. I figured I'd just give it a try and see. Well, I couldn't put it down.

Mikita lives in a condo in the Belvedere, which used to be the fanciest, biggest hotel in Baltimore. It was the tallest building in the city when it was built, just over 100 years ago. And it was a financial disaster right from the beginning. It went into bankruptcy before it ever opened and changed hands three times in its first 10 years. And here's something you don't know about hotels--a lot of people go to them to commit suicide. And this hotel is very near a large, prestigious mental health facility, making it perhaps even more of a draw than most.

One day she notices a missing sign on a light post while walking her dog. It's a a young, successful-looking man who was married and had a job and doesn't seem like the usual type to go missing. A few days later, his body is found in her building. He seems to have jumped/been pushed/fallen off the roof down to a much lower roof over the former swimming pool. He went through that roof into an unused office below and wasn't found for some time. Mikita watched the police officers gathering up his cell phone and flip flops from the pool roof. And as she's always been curious about crime and is a professional writer, she starts to look into this further. And what she finds is both surprising and yet not surprising. Was it suicide? Murder? An accident? Why are the police so cagey? Why is his former boss refusing to talk to anyone?

Along the way, Mikita looks into dozens of suicides (and a few possible accidents/murders) in the Belvedere over the decades. There's something about this book I can't put my finger on, but it's haunting, and there's something universal in this story even if you haven't been touched by death in this way in your life. It's also a love story to Baltimore, which she obviously loves even with its warts, in fact,partly because of them. She goes to the shady parts of town and feels badly for the poisoned rats. As a quiet but extremely thoughtful look at death and decline, she finds the human in the story that is often played off as voyeuristic gossip. I'll be thinking about this book for a long time.

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

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Book Review: Attucks!: Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City by Phillip Hoose

I have been trying to brush up on my understanding and knowledge of the history of blacks in America over the last many years, and I'm finding more and more that children's nonfiction books are the way to go. They are robust, they often can cover lesser-known incidents due to their shorter length, and they do it in a very easy to understand and accessible way.

Turns out I didn't even know the history of Crispus Attucks, which this all-black high school in Indiana was named for. He was a freed slave who was the first person killed at the Boston Massacre, therefore also the first person killed in the American Revolution. When Indianapolis decided to build a single high school for all the African-Americans in town,  they wanted to name it after Thomas Jefferson or some other president, but the African-Americans refused to do that and instead named it for this prominent and impressive young man. (And really, after a president who owned slaves? Come on.)

In the 1950s, a teacher and coach came to Attucks high school who understood that the students needed to start playing basketball younger, and that fundamentals, while important, were not everything, and if you found an outstanding player of impressive talent, you shouldn't try to force him into a model of who you think a good basketball player should be--let him be himself. For years Attucks was not allowed to play the other (white) Indianapolis high schools. They had to travel all around the state to fill their game roster, playing tiny rural schools and a lots of Catholic schools (also prohibited from playing public schools). And they really had to travel as they did not have a home court where they could play games. Eventually, after many years of persuading and pushing, Attucks finally got permission to play in the Indianapolis state-wide high school championship. As you may remember from the movie Hoosiers which also takes place in the 1950s and is based on a real story, for many decades, Indiana was proud that its state championship was the only one in the country which let everyone play on a level playing field. They did not separate out schools based on size. So a tiny rural school with barely enough players to field a team could play a huge urban school with thousands of students.

From the first year they were allowed to play in the championship, Attucks went very far in the playoffs to the semifinals. The next couple of years they also came close. And then finally, a young man by the name of Oscar Robinson was playing for them, and they won the whole thing. They were the first all-black school to do so (also the first school from Indianapolis). That's a feat in and of itself. A number of the players got college scholarships or went on to play in the Harlem Globetrotters or NBA including Oscar. But there was an interesting outcome to this game. When African-Americans started really dominating basketball, the coaches from the white schools started recruiting them. Thanks to Brown versus Board of Education, the law had changed (even though reality had not) and African-American students were now allowed to attend high schools other than Attucks. And so coaches wanted some of these players on their teams, at other schools. So they started desegregating, by themselves, without a court order, because they wanted to. Granted, it was in a pretty small way, but that was really cool. For the first time ever, African-American students were wanted. So this might be a blip in the Civil Rights movement, but it's still a really amazing story.

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 & Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Book Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper (audio), narrated by Stephen Shanahan

I am a sucker for all things Australian, and with Ms. Harper's first Aaron Falk novel, The Dry, I decided I really love them on audio, as Mr. Shanahan's Australian accent sucks me in and I never for a moment forget where these books are taking place. Not that you can. Like in The Dry, the Australian landscape is a major figure in this thriller. But this one isn't in the arid outback, but in a wild and deeply forested area called the Girlang Ranges. A group of five women from a financial firm went into the woods on a corporate retreat, and only four came out. The one who is missing called Aaron Falk right before she disappeared, left a cryptic message, and also happens to be the key witness in a case against the firm that Aaron and his partner, Carmen, have been preparing. Of course she hadn't gotten them the last, crucial piece of evidence before this trip. Aaron and Carmen infiltrate the investigation even though they're financial investigators, not homicide or missing persons. Oh, and did I mention that years ago a serial killer was operating in this area? And his son might still be around somewhere?

As you can imagine, this is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Every other chapter is a flashback to just three days earlier when the retreat began, and then to "now" with the police investigation. Unlike in the first book, this one doesn't have half as much to do with Falk's personal life (which is fine. It would be weird if every book did.) Although it does turn out that Falk's father had hiked a lot (and annotated his maps) in this region when Aaron was a teen, refusing to go with his dad. All of the women on the retreat have secrets and motives to hide. All have strained relationships with the others. I was worried I'd have trouble keeping them straight in an audiobook (especially one with a male narrator--while Aaron is male of course, with all the female protagonists, I was concerned it would be weird, but it was not.) but it was fine. I am really looking forward to Ms. Harper's next book!

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

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Book Review: A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler

I grew up surrounded by Vanderbilt, as my father is now a retired professor at the University. While no actual Vanderbilt family member ever visited the school (at least during its founding era, I'm not saying ever), I still have always had a great affinity towards the Robber Barons in general and the Vanderbilts in particular (although a while ago I did realize that people who works with Robber Barons blanch at that term and prefer to refer to them as "Gilded Age." Which yes, is nicer, but perhaps less accurate?)

So this is a novel about Alva Vanderbilt. She grew up poor but dignified, and they got poorer as both of her parents' health failed. After her mother's death, shortly before her father's, she decided that either she had to marry well, or she and her three sisters would have to get jobs, which women in their family just did not do, and which would permanently change their class. With the help of her best friend, Alva snags W.K. Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius aka The Commodore (it was a nickname not a military position.) Now this was not just a poor girl marrying a rich boy to better her family. It was certainly a mutual arrangement. For all the Vanderbilts' money (or perhaps, almost because of it), they were shunned by New York Society. Whereas Alva Smith was accepted, coming from a family that dated themselves back to the 1600s in American, and which had always been respectable. So the quid pro quo was that Alva would get all the money in the world, and she would work to finagle the Vanderbilts into Society and rehabilitate the family name and varnish it with some class. All of this is accomplished, although not without some bumps. Along the way, she has several children, W.K. buys a couple of yachts, some older Vanderbilts die, Alva builds an impressive house on Fifth Avenue and then a more impressive one in Newport, Rhode Island. As the Gilded Age ticks along, she begins to feel ennui--is this all there is? Yachting and parties and making sure her daughter made a good marriage. Was this the purpose to her life? Or is there more?

Suffice it to say, yes, but you'll have to read the book to find out how she makes changes and what sorts of changes those are, to make her life more meaningful and happier. This book feels spot-on with the details of the era. I looked up some things like photos of the Fifth Avenue house and it's impressive. I wish there'd been more about her sisters--I get the impression that her older sister might be gay, and much later it's mentioned that at least one of her younger sisters made a good marriage, but they just vanish more or less. It seems they are in the city as well and even if she didn't hang out with them regularly, surely she saw them on rare occasions. Oh well. Her relationship with her African-American ladies maid was nice--and fascinating that the wealthy people in that time would not have any people of color as servants. Because Alva's family had until recently been Southern slave-holders, they were actually more comfortable with African-Americans. That's something my mother mentioned to me decades ago as she also lived in both regions growing up--she felt that racism was more subtle but more pervasive in the North in certain ways, and she thought unfamiliarity with African-Americans was the primary cause. Ms. Fowler seems to have come to the same conclusion.

The book is filled with fabulous gowns and trips to Europe and amazing architecture, so if you love all this, this book has it in droves. But it is deeper than that--Alva is not gilded. She is actual gold (or maybe silver but she's an actual precious metal, not a superficial imitation of one.) A fascinating and multi-layered story of a woman who lived in an interesting time with interesting people and who made some interesting decisions. A fun read for us history lovers.

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

Monday, October 1, 2018

My Month in Review: September

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date. I did not read many books this month! VERY heavy travel month. I was home for 6 days this month, which was supposed to be five (had a cancellation), and that includes weekends! Many appointments for work, a trade show, and an out of town baby shower for my cousin.

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

Books completed this month:
You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson* (audio)
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin*
Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America by Kyle Swenson
The Widows: A Novel by Jess Montgomery
Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca, narrated by David Bendena* (audio)

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Ask a Manager: Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and Other Work Conversations Made Easy by Alison Green*
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk W. Johnson, narrated by MacLeod Andrews* (audio)
The Macmillan Story: Bringing Authors and Readers Together Since 1843 by Macmillan Publishers

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
I went to SIBA, the Southern Independent Booksellers' Alliance Fall trade show, and there I picked up (for free, from publishers):
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson
A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Book Review: The Chaos of Now by Erin Jade Lange

Last year, a boy who had been teased and bullied committed suicide at school by lighting himself on fire in front of everyone in the cafeteria. This book begins one year later, on the anniversary of his death at a school assembly meant to honor him. But Eli notices quickly that the students coming up and saying nice things about him, didn't even know him, and certainly weren't his friends. Right after, a couple of his actual friends reach out to Eli. The three boys were going to enter a coding competition together (you must have a team of three) and now they want Eli to be their third. He quizzes them on why they didn't stand up for him at the assembly but agrees to be on the team, overlooking some read flags, as he loves to code, and he wants to get out of his house, where his father's very young, very hot, former stripper girlfriend is always trying to act like his mom.

In the aftermath of the suicide, national laws were passed regarding bullying, particularly as regards social media. Kids are no longer allowed to really have any social media accounts except the most innocuous on heavily-policed (literally) sites. It hasn't really cut down on bullying which has just gone old-school but it has meant that students no longer feel they have any place to vent or to actually call out bullies. So the coding project is that these three boys are going to make a website that is untraceable where students from their high school can post things to out bad people. They start it off with a video of an obnoxious wrestler shooting steroids.

But later, Eli overhears some boys at school talking. It turns out that the wrestler was doing what every wrestler did in order to compete. He didn't want to do it. He's lost his college scholarship which means he can't go to college at all. He was pressured into the steroids, and his life is now destroyed. And Eli starts to realize that even bullies might have more to their story and be real people with their own problems. But by this time, the website has taken down more people, and begins to take on a life of his own. He also starts to realize he doesn't know these two other boys very well and they might have an alternative agenda for this project.

This book really delves into the complications of bullying. How bullies are often themselves bullied at home, how bullies aren't just 100% evil, how even bullied kids can themselves bully others, how we can be bullied by people who we think are friends, and so on. It's thoughtful, multilayered, and really timely, with topics super-relevant today. The book really has stuck with me and I think it's both a great story, and a really important one.

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 Bloomsbury, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Book Review: On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

This was originally published as a webcomic, so you might already be familiar with On a Sunbeam. But even if you read it in that format, this has been edited, polished, condensed a little, and is a more refined piece. In the future, Mia has just joined a crew that travel around the far reaches of the galaxy, putting buildings and planets back together so they can be used again. Her compatriots are also young, 20-somethings (but really, close to 20) except for the captain and her partner. Turns out Mia has joined up because she wants to find her first love, Grace. So throughout we have flashbacks to the boarding school where Grace and Mia met.

This is a captivating world with spaceships that look like koi fish, dangerous planets, and very realistic teens (and just above teens). The relationships all feel very real, and the quest to find Grace again, not to win her back, but just for resolution (which was a nicely mature goal), was a fine plot driver for this fascinating and magical world. There's plenty of content--this was certainly not one of those graphic novels I can finish in just a couple of hours. Graphic novel fans will adore this book, and it has plenty of character development and story for non-graphic novel readers too.

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