Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Book Review: Unearthly Things by Michelle Gagnon

I admit, I didn't like Jane Eyre when I first tried to read it when I was about 11. So then I didn't read it until I was about 25, when I absolutely loved it. Another thing I love: retellings of classics. So this retelling of Jane Eyre for the YA audience was right up my alley!

Janie has to move from Hawaii to San Francisco after her parents are killed in a car accident. She's never heard of this family, the Rochesters, that she's moving in with (the lawyer explained people often forget to update their will many years later when circumstances have changed.) They're insanely wealthy which makes Janie feel even more like a charity case. She's immediately shipped off  to a fancy prep school along with the daughter who is her age. But things don't go well there as it's soon clear she's a mean girl. Back at the house, the little brother, Nicholas, keeps telling Janie things his twin sister, who died last year, is telling him to do. Creepy. And then there are the noises coming from the attic...

It is a thoroughly modern story with texting and smart phones and surfing and the like, but it has an eerie gothic feel totally in keeping with the original. Ms. Gagnon changes up just enough so that those familiar with the story won't know exactly how it will end. And the ending is scary! In fact, I must recommend not reading the end right before going to bed, like I did, as it's hard to sleep after!

I liked this book so much that I actually gave it away, twice, while I was reading it (luckily it is published by Soho Press, my employer, so I was always able to get another copy at work the next day.) I kept telling people about it and how great it was! Janie is a completely relatable teenager who feels real and three-dimensional. She's a little impulsive but that works. It's a zippy, fast read that will suck you in and it's certainly the first time that I wished my train on my morning commute would get stuck and be delayed. It's not out until April though, so you'll have to put it on your wish list for now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Book Review: The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America's Game by Edward Achorn

I have moved back to the land of baseball. Last time I lived up here (2000-2004 I lived in Astoria, Queens), I read a half-dozen baseball books including the enormous and exhaustive book Baseball by Geoffrey C. Ward which accompanied the Ken Burns PBS documentary. And so on my return (New Jersey this time but still), it was time to remind myself about the game that the South pretty much ignores. (I did go to a couple of minor league Charlotte Knights games but it's a second-class sport there, along with hockey.)

Well, it turns out, if it wasn't for Chris Von der Ahe in St. Louis in 1883, baseball might have died in the nineteenth century and been a historical footnote. It was considered an unsportsman game, controlled by mobsters with players throwing games, not to mention too dangerous and rowdy for women and children. Attendance was low and dropping. When Von der Ahe, a self-made St. Louis success and a German immigrant with a thick accent, bought the St. Louis Browns and co-founded the American Association (no, not the American League. This predates that.) In the American Association, Midwestern German-Americans made the controversial and scandalous decisions to allow games on Sundays, and alcohol sales at games. Those decisions saved the sport.

Personally, I was looking for more of the economics and social history behind those decisions. I did like hearing about a lot of the personalities, but I did not need an inning-by-inning blow-by-blow of what felt like every game in the Browns' season. Therefore, I liked the beginning of the book more, when Von der Ahe and others were doing the organizing, were arguing and negotiating with the National League, and eventually getting them to capitulate. The stealing of players and occasional banning and poahcing was also very entertaining. And like all the fans, I really enjoyed the young pitcher known as Jumping Jack who literally jumped with both legs off the ground and both arms outspread with every fast pitch (it's not that his pitching was so effective--what with him completely telegraphing every fast ball--it's that he was so distracting!) But I did find it dragged a bit at the end. I did enjoy it overall, and I look forward to going to a Mets game again sometime.

I bought this book at Literati Bookstore, the independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides

I have been trying in the last few years to learn more about the Civil Rights movement, which unfortunately we never got to in any of my history classes in school (they all seemed to hit WWII right at the end of the school year.) And assassinations are always fascinating. I mean, who thinks that's a solution to anything? What is the assassin thinking? With today's violence, that's more intriguing than ever.

This book is as close to getting inside the mind of James Earl Ray as any book will ever get. Although he is called Eric Galt pretty much throughout the book (the alias he was using at the time), you know where the book is going to end up, and it's disturbing to sit by calmly and watch as Galt methodically and without much emotion plans and executes his murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. And I was utterly shocked to discover he escaped and was even travelling abroad, trying to completely get away (he wanted to go to South Africa, where he thought he'd be embraced) for two months afterwards! Many years ago I had also been shocked when I read in Manhunt how John Wilkes Booth was on the lam for two weeks, but this time span was unimaginable.

It meant that the FBI, lead by J. Edgar Hoover who utterly detested King, had to conduct the largest manhunt ever. It was captivating, how meticulously this was investigated. They went so far as to discover the manufacturer of a label maker used by a laundry service Galt had used, and tracked down every single one of the machines. The manhunt was almost more interesting than the preamble, as Galt/Ray was a sad, awkward misfit who was difficult to understand. The hardest to understand was his racism, which apparently was substantial, and yet there was little record of. He wasn't a member of the KKK and he didn't write or say hardly anything publicly ever about his feelings about African-Americans. It is incongruous that someone racist enough to commit this act, wasn't louder about his opinions. He also seemed very sane. And yet he committed an insane act.

As for King, he never expected to live long, and he often spoke of how he expected his life to end this way. He knew what he was doing was dangerous, but he also knew it must be done. He was in Memphis to support and lead a protest on behalf of local striking garbagemen. Garbagemen in Memphis were so below consideration that a couple of garbage trucks killed workers and no one really seemed to care. The protest signs poignantly read "I am a man," as even the very basic human right of life wasn't being respected for these African-Americans. To me, I can hear that echo in "Black lives matter," today.

The immediate aftermath was also interesting as Jesse Jackson rubbed blood on his shirt (he was at the hotel but not immediately at the scene of the assassination) and took many opportunities to increase his media presence. And those who took the reins of the SCLC could never begin to fill Dr. King;s shoes, and the massive protest in Washington D.C. of the impoverished, floundered without his vision and guidance.

Well-written, exhaustively researched, and a subject matter I needed to know more about, this book was well worth reading, and most Americans should pick it up, if you don't know the story. It will enlighten you.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Book review: The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood

I read a review of this book and realized that even though I owned it, I had no idea what it was about. and the review really intrigued me, so I decided that night when I got home, to dive into it immediately. and I lost myself in this book. that first night, after midnight, I sat for a moment considering if I wanted to maybe just stay up until 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. and finish the whole thing. I didn't. But just thinking that thought made me happy. 

Ava has had a rough year. Her husband has left her for an old girlfriend, a "yarn bomber" who lives up the street. Both her children are abroad, her son studying elephants and pursuing his life's dream, while her daughter if in Florence, hopefully away from all the bad influences that have lead her to make some really unfortunate decisions. But her best friend's book club has finally had an opening after years of no openings, and Ava needs the camaraderie. Not to mention, she remembers how, when she was a child and her sister died in an accident, followed a year later by her mother's suicide, a book meant everything to her and got her through that year. She hasn't read much since and wants desperately to get back to reading, which might help save her again.

The first night at book club, Ava realizes she wasn't paying attention to the theme of the coming year, which is "The Book That Matters Most." Each member is to pick their most important book and that's what the book club will read for the year. Unprepared, Ava blurts out the name of that book from her childhood, even though it is out of print and no one has heard of it. To convince the other book club members to go with it, Ava says she'll get the author to come speak at the meeting, even though she has no idea how she's going to do that. 

Obviously, books are a vital and consistent theme throughout this book (although the discussions aren't like any book club I've ever been in--more like a college seminar.) Narrators shift throughout, giving us the story from the perspectives of Ava's daughter, her mother, even the cop who investigated Ava's sister's death all those years ago. While Ava's husband's cheating and desertion brings up those old feelings of loss and abandonment and fear from decades ago, it also means that Ava finally has the time and space to process what happened. And hopefully her healing will not be the only healing in her family. More than one person in this book is in need of understanding and forgiveness. 

The book is a little light, and the book club reads nothing unpredictable (I understand the author, Ms. Hood, polled friends and acquaintances for a couple of years on this topic, what book matters most to you, and went with those books, but she wasn't forced to use those. she could have thrown in one book that was more interesting, more obscure.) The ending, while twisty, was also in some ways predictable. But that doesn't mean this wasn't an enjoyable book. It was emotional with moments of tension and worry, interspersed with refreshingly intelligent discussions of great fiction. Any book lover will love this book. Should be a must-read for book clubs. 

I got this copy, provided free by the publisher, at Winter Institute.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell

Like most people, when I'm not in a good place, I reach right for comfort food, or comfort authors. Sarah Vowell is an old reliable, and just as I was moving, the used bookstore found a copy of this, her first book, a collection of essays.

Naturally, it's not as polished as her later books, And it feels somewhat random with no narrative arc or even common theme. The essays were all still enjoyable and Sarah's distinctive voice certainly shined through. But a few pieces felt quite dated. And I didn't need two essays about Sinatra. I loved though the essays with her family. Her father and her twin sister are both great characters in their own rights. I really enjoyed the essay when Sarah went with her father to shoot cannonballs. He's a gunsmith and very right-wing, she's anti-gun and very left-wing, but their interests cross over with American history.

I had hoped I would like the book more, but as her first book, it's not too surprising that it's a little uneven and less polished. If I'd read her books in order I likely would have found this one pretty hilarious. But she's now set such a high bar, that my expectations were unrealistic. Still a good one, but slight and rough around the edges.

I bought this book at The Book Rack, the used bookstore in Charlotte, NC.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Book Review: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I adored the movie made from this book, and then I sought out the book. It didn't hurt that I was moving back to the New York region at that time, (to New Jersey, not to Brooklyn, but still) and I could very much identify with Eilis's loss and confusion and loneliness. As always, the book expanded on the movie, bring out nuances and detail.

Eilis lives with her mother and older sister in Ireland in a small town. She gets a job at a local shop one day a week, but jobs are hard to come by. Her sister has a good job at a factory as a bookkeeper, and that and their father's pension are just enough to get by, but no more. So her sister arranges through their priest and a priest friend of his in America, for Eilis to emigrate. She lives in a boarding house in Brooklyn with other young women, mostly Irish, and has a job at a department store. She is depressed at first, but when she goes to the priest and tell him, he enrolls her in night classes for accounting, which helps, and then at a local dance one night she meets a young Italian-American man, which helps even more. Eventually, she starts to feel like she belong here, and she and her American boyfriend decide to marry. Then, suddenly, her sister dies. Eilis has to go back to Ireland, and despite her ties in Brooklyn, finds it hard to leave. Reading the book,  was glad I already knew what she decided in the end, because that decision tore at me. I was rooting for her to come back to America, but I wasn't really sure if she would. I do find it fascinating that Mr. Tóibín has said he was inspired to write this novel by Jane Austen and he wanted to write about a young woman coming into herself as an individual and making her own decisions. Eilis certainly goes through a slow, subtle transformation from letting things happen to her, to finally taking agency for her own decisions and for the direction of her life. She seems like she's not always on board with it--of course we all at times would prefer if someone else would just make all the decisions for us, and it is so gratifying when she doesn't give in to inertia and instead does take her life in her hands, even if her decisions are only life changing to her and a couple of other people. Like Jane Austen, Mr. Tóibín here has created a microcosm of the world, where Eilis's decisions are everything, and her life is the whole world, as she is Everywoman. Don't get me wrong--she's a fully-developed three-dimensional character, but at the same time, she is very much representational and at least for me, it was so easy to slip into her shoes, feel her feelings, see life through her eyes. I am not an Irish immigrant in the 1950s, but I've been new to New York and I've felt how a city so large can also be so small, and how you can never be as alone as you are surrounded by millions who don't care. This book was beautiful and exquisite and I wish I could read it again and again and yet have each time be like the first time. It's probably one of the best books I've ever read.

I bought this book at The Book Rack, the used bookstore in Charlotte, NC.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: Never Look an American in the Eye: A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American by Okey Ndibe

I love memoirs! They take me to places and into situations where I would never be, they're honest, and they encourage empathy. I haven't read much in the way of fish out of water/international memoirs but I thought this one looked good (what a great title!) and it is a book published by my new company and I will be with the author at NEIBA this fall, so I figured I'd better give it a shot! And it was quite enjoyable.

Okey has a wonderful sense of humor. I doubt I'd have been able to take half the things that happened to him in such stride and with such goodwill as he does. But I'm sure his positive outlook is a big part of what has taken him so far in life. For me, I particularly liked the first half of the book, when he is growing up in Nigeria, and his first few weeks in America. He comes here in order to start up a magazine for Africans and Nigerians specifically, founded by his friend Chinua Achebe. The funding is iffy from the very beginning and once again, his humor and positivity prove a boon as he negotiates with vendors and pleads with writers with long-outstanding invoices. Eventually it does fold, but by then he's gotten a toe-hold in Boston and a friend greases the path for him to enter into a prestigious MFA program right away.

I wasn't as crazy about the rest of the book which was more episodic and not as linear as the first two-thirds. I wish he'd told us how he met his wife and kept along with the "making of a Nigerian-American" theme of him coping with homesickness and culture clashes. He does tell funny stories about misunderstandings (several related to how his first name sounds exactly like "Okay" and therefore mix-ups occur, such as when his ride at a conference asks a stranger, "Are you Okey?" and he hears "Are you okay?" and says yes, when he is not Okey Ndibe.) These were endearing and charming, but lost the narrative thread. That said, he gives a great idea of what it's like to move from Nigeria and land in New York City in January without a coat (his family back home found the concept of "cold" as a weather description so foreign, the only way he could explain it was that it felt like living inside a refrigerator.) And I adored him talking about his first night at a mutual friend's apartment, where he used every single soap and shampoo that he found in the guest bathroom, repeatedly. It felt so gloriously decadent! This was an amusing tale that could have been fraught with terror and horror stories (he was rounded up by police from a bus station his very first week in America because he "fit the description" of a bank robber) but instead, Okey accepts his adopted country with its faults and strengths, and cheerfully gathers up more funny stories for his next cocktail party, and presumably for his next book as well.

This book is published by Soho Press, my employer.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year by Neil Hayward

As I've mentioned, things have been rough the last few months. Moving across the country, settling in to a new town, starting a new job, these things are all highly stressful. As usual, books have been a solace for me. But it has highly affected what books I gravitate towards right now. I think one thing I'm currently finding comforting is similar to schadenfreude: I appreciate seeing other people who are going through bad things (often worse things) and eventually coming out on the other side. It's not really schadenfreude because I am not reveling in their misfortune--instead I am empathizing.

Neil is depressed. He worked at one job for his entire adult life which he mostly disliked as it got further and further away from his natural strengths and instead became more and more the parts he didn't like, mostly dealing with people. Luckily, it was a tech start-up which went big and he was able to quit his job at 39 with a substantial savings and just be able to basically do nothing for a year or so (he does some consulting work but who knows how little of that he might do. It must be fairly little given what he's about to set out on.) He's in a new relationship, but he hates relationships because from day one, he's always worried about how and when they're going to end and how much he will hurt. His one consolation through all this is birding. He's been a serious birder since he was a teenager, first in England, his home country, and then in Boston, where he's lived his entire adult life. As he struggles with restlessness, lack of direction, and ennui, he keeps denying that he'd even consider doing A Big Year. That's when a birder decides to try to see all the birds he/she can in a designated area in a single year. You can do a Big Year in your county or state, but most people do their country. Most people (including me) know about this from the book and the movie of the same name: The Big Year. But in the spring, round about March, Neil finally gives in and admits what he'd been noodling all along: he would like to do a Big Year and this is the perfect time to do it. But yikes, he's already behind!

Except he's not really. He'd been birding heavily, being unemployed with plenty of money and all. The only thing he's behind on are trips around the country to catch various bizarre out-of-place birds. That's the only way to get a good number for your Big Year. North America has (I hope I'm remembering this right) around 400 native birds, but the records for Big Year are int he very low 700s. So that's an extra 300 birds he needs to see in North America that don't normally come year. So it's birds who have blown off course from a storm, who have gotten tired and pooped out before making it home, or whose internal compass is backwards. When he hears about a weird bird in New Mexico or Alaska, if he wants to have any chance at the record, he's got to hop on a plane and get there.

Midway through the year, he also begins taking an antidepressant. When his depression starts to lift, he's actually annoyed, and hopes it isn't the pills, because if so, it's something super simple that takes a second or two and he could he resolves it easily ages ago and he's an idiot. He's resolved it's the birding. Although he doesn't stop taking the antidepressants.

Anyway, he's resolved that due to starting so late, he's just going for a personal best, as he has no shot at the record. Or does he?

Yes, you hear a lot about birds in this book. He does make it fascinating (and I could have finished the book faster if I didn't keep looking up to see what birds were on the tree across the yard.) but if that idea gives you the shakes, this book isn't for you. However, if you like nature, but in a contained way, this book is right up your alley. I wish birding appealed to me more as it seems like a lovely hobby, and pretty cheap so long as you don't do a Big Year (or if you do, stick to your county.) But I'd never be able to tell the difference between the subspecies. I can tell a robin from a cardinal, but that's about it.

Anyway, he's moderately amusing, honestly talks about his foibles, and I found the book a pleasant distraction with an ounce of hope for better times to come. It may not have inspired me to buy binoculars, but weeks later, I am still looking at birds much more closely and with more interest. Who knows, maybe I will pick it up one day.

A friend who works at an independent bookstore sent me a free ARC of this book.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Book Review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

I have read every Mary Roach book, even My Planet which is a collection of magazine essays. Boy, she makes learning fun! I've rarely so enjoyed science like I have in her books, and science really isn't my thing normally. I wish she'd write a book every year so I could be so much smarter about science. However, it's not the most useful science. It's just the most interesting.

In Grunt, she starts off by saying she isn't going to be writing about guns, battle, injuries, or war. Instead she writes about diarrhea in battle, hearing loss from explosions, and penis transplants. As usual, Ms. Roach finds the fascinating trivia and bizarre details that make science compelling. And she writes about it in such an accessible and fun way. Not only was this book such an interesting and entertaining read, but it was also a very fast read, which is very unusual for a science book in my opinion. This book also has wide appeal; the minute I was done my husband grabbed it (and he also loved it.) With great respect for the men and women who serve in the armed forces, Ms. Roach really humanizes war and battle and made me understand what it must be like to serve active duty more than any other book I've read on the topic, which is especially unusual given that she doesn't cover the day to day life of a soldier. But in her exploration into all things odd, she hits a lot of the usual along the way. If you're even remotely interested, you must read this book. You will come away with so much respect and admiration for the work of war, and for Ms. Roach's writing. Please, keep 'em coming!

I received this book for free from the publisher through a giveaway. I did not promise anything in return.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Jane and the Waterloo Map by Stephanie Barron

I am a Janeite. While my membership has lapsed (I really should rejoin), I was a longtime member of JASNA. I took a seminar on Jane Austen in college and so yes, I have read all the novels, some a few times. I have seen all the movies from the last 20 years, some scores of times. I am the audience for these books. And what fun this book was!

Jane Austen is visiting her brother in London as he is very ill. She is invited by the Price regent's librarian to his London house, and while there, she stumbles across a dying man in the library, and hears his last words: "Waterloo map." They find this map and also clear signs that he has been poisoned. Concerned for the safety of this map, she tries to find out more, and is bludgeoned in the head for her troubles. She enlists the help of the artist Raphael West and her niece Fanny (and eventually her brother Henry after he's recovered), and in the end, uncovers the truth of the murder and the map.

This is an adorable cozy mystery. Not so cozy that people aren't murdered and in danger, and there are a couple of bludgeonings and a possible second murder, but at the same time, Jane is concerned about her clothing at the Prince Regent's, and is wondering if Mr. West might be interesting in courting her, and is trying to push young fanny into the path of an eligible young man. Ms. Barron has thoroughly done her research, and this novel fits in perfectly with the known facts of Ms. Austen's whereabouts and doings at the time. She is reviewing the proof pages of Emma before it goes to press, and in a debate with the court librarian about dedicating Emma to the Prince Regent (who Ms. Austen dislikes a great deal, but she was informed what a great honor it would be for her to dedicate the book to him with his permission. It's not a request exactly. And in fact Jane Austen did dislike the Prince Regent and she did dedicate Emma to him.) For Jane Austen fans, the character of Jane here appears to act in character with what we know of her, and the facts all line up, so it's a delightful imagining of what could have been, had Jane Austen been a precursor to Nancy Drew in between writing her novels. I have the previous book and will read that one pretty quick as this book was just sheer fun and pleasant distraction through and through.

This book is published by Soho Press, my employer.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Book Review: Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore

Okay, I officially love Jill Lepore. I'm going to work on getting all her backlist. I do own her book on Ben Franklin's sister Jane, and her Wonder Woman book was terrific, and this book was also fabulous. As some prehistory, I did dig up my copy of Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, and I read the original article and the follow up one about Joe Gould (which I strongly recommend to anyone who plans to read Lepore's book.

Joe Gould claimed in the 1930s to have written (and be writing) the longest book ever--at least 8 million words, would reach 10 feet tall if all the notebooks were stacked up. He was homeless, a heavy drinker, with sketchy mental health, who had attended Harvard. Joseph Mitchell found him fascinating and wrote his original New Yorker essay, "Professor Seagull," about Gould and his book. Gould claimed to be writing an oral history of America and New York City, and he actually coined the phrase "oral history." After that article came out, Gould continued to pester Mitchell for years, and he eventually wrote the 2-part follow-up "Joe Gould's Secret" in which Mitchell concluded the oral history didn't exist. He supposedly never wrote again (not entirely true). It's as if revealing that truth broke Mr. Mitchell.

Ms. Lepore has taught Mitchell's essays and she decided to do some research and see if Mitchell's conclusions were in fact, accurate. And the answer, of course, is yes and no. In this quick little book, Ms. Lepore investigates Mr. Mitchell's research (and found some things he claims to have checked out, he obviously hadn't as he got them pretty wrong.) And she tracks down Gould's notebooks and some old friends and his medical records (his teeth were pulled out at one point in a hospital, hence her title) and tracks down what happened to him after the essays, how those essays made him famous, and impacted his life for good and ill. If you've ever read the original essays, if you're a fan of The New Yorker, or of Jill Lepore, this little gem was a delight.

I got this book for free from a friend who works at the publisher.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Book Review: Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell

Yes, I bought this book because of the TV show. And you can really see how it inspired the TV show, although it is very different. And boy am I glad the TV show moved away from this format.

It's hard to call this a memoir. Candace seems to  have witnessed many of the scenes she relates, but purely in a fly-on-the-wall context. She almost never participates, her name isn't used once, and not one story is about her. She was just there, and saw other people behaving badly. It's entirely vignettes of people's sex lives, a lot like the first season of Sex and the City, the TV show. But it holds up that conceit throughout. There's no narrative thread. No story arc. The characters of Miranda, Carrie, and Samantha appear, but not as they are in the show, not necessarily as major characters, and I don't believe Charlotte appeared at all. The book is lightweight, superficial, and you don't have to pay much attention. It's an easy read, but it's hard to figure why it became a bestseller and a TV show. Without any main characters, without a narrator who's a participant, without a narrative arc, it's just fluff that ultimately is gone the minute after you consume it, like cotton candy. It's a great light distraction, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read it.

I bought this book at Book Rack, the used bookstore in Charlotte, NC.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review: The Last September by Nina de Gramont

I was looking for a distracting and entertaining book and this one fit the ticket! Thrillers often do, as they are designed to grab you and suck you in.

You learn int he first few sentences that Brett's husband Charlie, has been killed. What lead up to that, who did it, and why, of course are the rest of the book. And we flash back...

In college Brett and Eli were best friends. One night at a party, Brett met Charlie, Eli's older brother, a ladies man. Eli tried to warn Brett off but she was head-over-heels the minute she met him. They had one glorious night together of skiing and fun and sex, and then he disappeared. But she compared every man to him for years. Until she finally had given up and moved on. She was engaged to another man and meeting his entire extended family on Cape Cod, when who should she bump into but his neighbor, Charlie. And that was it for Brett. Charlie and Eli's mother was dying of cancer, and Brett helped Charlie through it. The situation was made worse by Eli's poor mental health. In college, Brett had been with him the night he'd had his first mental break, when he'd hurt her and, after he jumped from the roof of a building, ended up in the hospital.

Throughout their young marriage, Brett and Charlie repeatedly took Eli in, even when he was off his meds and doing poorly mentally. But after their daughter was born, Brett put her foot down about Eli. Eli was there when Charlie was killed, and everyone assumes he did it, but did he? If he did, did he have a reason? If he didn't, who did? Does he know? Is Brett safe? In Brett's happy family and simple suburban life, it seems baffling that they could have any enemies, but as the book progresses, it becomes clear that there is more than one suspect in readers' minds. But of course Brett's family is not very happy and her life is not very idyllic, once you scratch the surface.

This book kept me turning the pages and kept me second guessing my assumptions. Characters were well-crafted, and subtly so. They always behaved as they would, but sometimes you didn't notice the fine distinctions right away. This isn't a mystery so it's the odd reader that will figure out who really is the killer until the end, as there aren't adequate clues. But there are adequate clues to figure out who it is not. I was also impressed with how Ms. de Gramont took a normally sunny happy place like Cape Cod, and made it ominous and menacing, kind of like in Jaws. It's almost scarier this way. In the off season, the Cape is such a deserted place, that it almost operates like a closed-room mystery. Creepy and twisty, this tale of domestic wretchedness and marital pain will keep you riveted.

I bought this book from Park Road Books at Bibliofeast, and it is signed by the author who I met at the event.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Book Review: Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin

You know I love memoirs. They are my absolutely favorite thing to read. And while the publisher I now work at doesn't publish many, they do publish a few, so I jumped on them! Poor Your Soul reminded me a lot of What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir by Alice Eve Cohen, which I loved.

Mira was in grad school and in a new relationship when she discovered she was pregnant. Luckily, despite the timing, both she and Andrew decided they were happy about the turn of events and would make the best of things. They got engaged and moved in together and started to make plans for how Mira would finish school and if they would move into a bigger place (or at least an apartment without a roommate and a weird landlord.) And then they were for the ultrasound to find out the sex of the baby. And the technician wouldn't tell them anything but instead ran for the doctor. Turns out the baby has massive congenital defects that means she will not live. And now Mira and Andrew have to decide what to do and quickly: have an abortion, bring the pregnancy to term and induce, or just let it happen naturally.

Meanwhile, this brings up a lot of feelings for Mira as she's pondering the loss of her unborn child. When she was a teenager, her brother died. And now Mira feels a new connection to her mother, who lost a child. As Mira thinks back to her own childhood, she realizes how much her mother, an immigrant from Poland, struggled and worked for Mira and her brother to have a good life in America. These stories unravel in more or less parallel, even though the manner of each loss is so different. The stories weave together seamlessly. And it's fascinating to see the young adult Mira, an overachiever and rule-follower, was actually the rebellious teenager who did drugs and ran away and lived with her boyfriend. But the loss of her brother changed her life radically, in ways that would have been hard to predict. and that loss means she fully understands the loss she is now facing.

Sad but hopeful, this book joins a large set of books about tragedy and grief in families, and is a worthy companion to them.

This book is published by Soho Press, my employer.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Review: Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World's Greatest Chocolate Makers by Deborah Cadbury

I love chocolate. With a couple of exceptions (key lime pie), I do not understand desserts that don't include chocolate. They seem pointless to me. I have been on a chocolate tasting tour in NYC (and I highly recommend it), and I published a book about chocolate, when I was an acquiring editor. This book was right up my alley. I particularly was interested as this book seemed like it would be the British counterpart to The Emperors of Chocolate about Hershey and Mars, and it was!

The author, Ms. Cadbury, can't exactly be unbiased. Yes, she is one of THE Cadburys. And naturally, the story of the British chocolate industry is told from their point of view, but they seem (from our biased perspective) to be a great centerpiece of the story, as the Cadburys were pretty great guys. Although the author makes a point that a lot of them were pretty great, particularly those who were Quaker. The Quaker religion meant they had to consider their workers' home lives and general living situation in ways no one else did. So even in Dickensian London their working conditions were pretty decent, and the Cadbury brothers set out to make them even more so. They moved the factory out to the country, off a major train line, but they didn't just expect everyone to commute to the country--they built an entire town with affordable houses, parks and greens and other public buildings and free health care, for the workers. Pretty cool. Most of the British chocolatiers were Quakers so this didn't put them at a disadvantage. Even Hershey in the United States was raised a Mennonite, which has some similar theories about responsibility (and he started a school for orphan boys and an orphanage and donated a lot to charity.)

Mostly though this is a story about innovation. Chocolate is a difficult product to work with. In its natural state it is bitter and tends to separate and can be grainy. Before tempering and milk chocolate techniques were developed, chocolate often had lots of additives such as flour and concrete mixed in. It was considered a luxury, but also unhealthy and just a generally bad product. The Cadburys made their name on their chocolate being pure. As each innovation was developed, it spurred all the other chocolate manufacturers to work twice as hard to try to replicate what others were achieving, all the while trying to put their own stamp on it.

The book is fairly dry and there isn't much gossip or juicy detail, but it's a well-written, well-researched history of the British (and occasionally European) chocolate industry. If you are a chocolate fancier like I am, this book will be right up your alley. Warning: you will eat more chocolate than usual while reading this book. And you will feel guilty if it is American or of inferior quality.

I bought this book at Park Road Books. the independent bookstore in Charlotte, NC.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Book Review: My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier

Che and his sister Rosa are Australian, but they move everywhere for their parents' work. They've now moved from Hong Kong to New York. Che, who is seventeen, really wants a girlfriend, and he wants to box. But mostly he wants to not have to be responsible for ten-year-old Rosa all the time. And I don't mean that his parents make him babysit--no, Che fears Rosa is a psychopath and will hurt someone. He's trying to protect everyone else from Rosa.

This book was slow going for me, because it's not pleasant to read about an adorable, manipulative, dangerous psychopath. I was nervous the whole time I was reading it. There was certainly a convincing feel of ominousness and danger. I could feel a big twist coming on, but it was not what I expected at all (the red herrings were effective.) This book was chilling and disturbing and slightly evil. But that's what the author was going for, so it was also pretty darn good. It you like dark YA, this book is right up your alley.

This book is published by Soho Press, my employer.

Book Review: Maud's Line by Margaret Verble

When Maud's Line was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, most people I know, even very bookish people said, "Huh? I've never heard of it!" I, instead, said, "Oh, I need to read that!" as I had it at home. It's not the kind of book I normally gravitate toward, as quiet atmospheric books can often be books where nothing happens. And I have seen reviews that accuse Maud's Line of having nothing happen, but that's crazy. There's a double-murder! And another death! And someone possibly losing their mind! And a disappeared fiancee!

But I am getting ahead of myself. Maud Nail lives with her brother, Lovely, in their mother's house in Oklahoma, on the land given to the Indians (which is the word used by them in the book as it is 1928). Their father shows up for a few days at a time, hungover, and then disappears again. Maud and Lovely keep things going, with doing the chores on the farm, and Lovely working for a nearby farmer for cash, to keep them (barely) afloat. One day, a peddlar arrives, with a bright blue wagon cover, and shelves of books. Maud is captivated (although one wonders if her feelings were more than a little influences by the books.) I don't want to give much more away but look to the last paragraph for hints of excitement to come.

The book is diffused with the grit and poverty and with grit of another kind: the determination and strength of character and of will to keep going, no matter what tragedies life puts in their paths. Maud is a great character--all quiet and steely backbone with the hard work to get through, and yet she dreams of more. She doesn't want to live her whole life in the middle of nowhere aside from her family, in a house without running water or electricity. She doesn't have flighty dreams but she wants more. Although the end of the book is foreboding, when things just seem to be working out, she thinks to herself (it's the New Year) that the last two years were pretty bad, so 1929 has got to be better! A cautionary reminder of the truism, things could always be worse.

There is not one extra word in this book. The word choices are exquisite, yet never show off. It's subtle, how impressive the writing is. You truly feel like you are there, on Maud's farm, on the porch where they've dragged out the rocking chairs because it's too blazing hot in the house, although there isn't a breath of air outdoors either. The characters feel very real, and yet the author doesn't spend time explaining them: this is a master class in "show, don't tell."

Brilliant, deceptively quiet, perfectly formed, this book is a gem.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

Friday, July 1, 2016

My April, May, and June in review

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date. Now, I didn't switch from doing weekly updates to monthly all that long ago, but then my life spiraled out of control for a while with a move to NJ and a new job, but I'm starting to get a handle on things, so I'm going to catch up and I hope to keep this up better going forward. I'm sure I'll miss a couple of books I acquired but with moving I was really trying not to acquire, in fact I was trying to divest, but books have a way of coming into my life no matter what. Also, due to my new job I can get any Soho books for free now and yet, I generally return them to the office so I'm not counting those as "acquired." I will star all the Soho books. Also, due to the new job and the move, this list isn't nearly as unwieldy as it otherwise would have been, as I'm 7 books behind for the year now.

Books completed this month:
Jane and the Waterloo Map by Stephanie Barron
The Last September by Nina de Gramont
Never Look an American in the Eye: A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American by Okey Ndibe *
Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year by Neil Hayward
My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier *
The Girls by Emma Cline
Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore
Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin *
Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach
Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World's Greatest Chocolate Makers by Deborah Cadbury
Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell
Montclair by Elizabeth Shepard
Another One Goes Tonight by Peter Lovesey *
Murder on the Quai by Cara Black *
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

What I acquired this month:
Got for free from publishers:
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Given to me my friends:
Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year by Neil Hayward
Montclair by Elizabeth Shepard
American Girls by Alison Umminger
The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

Bought at Savoy Books in Rhode Island:
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Bought at the used bookstore in Charlotte before we left:
Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson