Sunday, April 30, 2017

Four Coming of Age novels

I'm trying to catch up on my reviews, so today I have four coming-of-age novels.

Rain  Reign by Ann M. Martin

Rose has Asperger's. She lives with her father and her dog, Rain. She has an aide at school to help her with conversations or when she gets upset. She also writes lists of homonyms which calms her down. Things have been difficult since her mother died, but they're functioning, until a horrific storm hits, and Rain is lost. Rose has an uphill battle to find her dog despite washed-out roads, and simply being a ten-year-old which means she doesn't have as many resources. When her father loses his job, the difficulties come to a head. The end has a couple of nice twists. Ann M. Martin is reliable as ever, conveying the difficult emotions of Rose very ably, so at the end I feel I understand a little better what it's like to live with a difference like Asperger's every day.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

This is a modern classic of sorts. Set in Jamaica, it covers many years of Annie John's youth, starting when she's about ten, and going through about sixteen. At the beginning, she loves school and loves her parents and life is just pretty much fun, although she's a scamp so she does get into some trouble. But over the years as puberty hits, she gets along less well with her mother, friends come and go, her body begins to develop, and she goes through just a lot of the usual adolescent stages, but with the added bonus of the Jamaican setting, which gives a very different feel to the usual coming-of-age tropes. Annie was a pill at times, so you also have to get past that.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Calpurnia is the only girl in a house full of boys in 1899. Their grandfather lives with him, but all the kids find him fairly scary. Eventually, Calpurnia gets to know him, and they end up working together, collecting specimens, doing experiments, and she even reads Darwin's On the Origin of Species which he loans her. She has to also do her chores, keep up in school, and do the usual things that any girl her age does, but she also wants to help her grandfather discover a new species. But even as she studies how the world changes, she's not happy with the changes happening in her own life, such as her oldest brother courting a young woman. This book was delightful--Calpurnia reminded me a bit of Laura Ingalls, although in a more stable situation (and fifteen years later) as she's got tomboy tendencies but still also a girl of her era, and it's universal how she can appreciate bigger changes in the environment, but doesn't want her home life to change at all. And yet, life does go on and changes are the one guarantee.

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Sasha just turned ten which means he can finally join the Young Pioneers and be a good communist and prove to Stalin how much he loves him. But the night before, his father, who works for the government, is arrested and charged with being a spy. Sasha's mother dies years ago so he is all alone in the world. He doesn't know what to do so he goes to school and tries to pretend everything is okay. He is sure his father's arrest is a mistake and that he'll show up at the Young Pioneers ceremony.

I really liked this book but I found the format somewhat confusing. It's a very graphic book--not a graphic novel per se but a heavily illustrated novel. And the language was also geared towards younger kids, and yet, I wonder what young kids in the 8-10 range would be interested in reading this story? I think if it was given to them, they would, but most of them won't know anything about the USSR or Stalin or Communism (in fact, they might not have even heard of any of these things.)

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

I checked all four of these books out of the library.

All four of these books are published by Macmillan, my employer.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Book Review: Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Malone Scott

I don't normally read business books, but over the last few years, I've tried to read about one a year, just so that if I ever get into management, I have some knowledge of what I'm getting into, and also because my years of fanatical reading of AskAManager have given me new insight into the working world from other angles, and has made it much more intriguing to me.

This book has an interesting idea and mostly divides up our interactions into 4 types, one really bad, two mildly bad, and one good. Most of us are familiar sadly with bosses who are too mean and not at all empathetic, but bosses can also be too nice and way too empathetic (they tend not to ever fire anyone no matter how bad at their jobs.) It's not at all good to be yelled at daily but it's also not good to never get any negative feedback that you could work on.

Personally, I feel the subtitle of this book does it a great disservice, because it's not at all just about managing. The last third of the book is, but the majority is about our interactions with others, and I could think of times when I exhibited these tendencies and created these negative interactions with my spouse, and with family. Not only do you not have to be a boss to get benefit from this book, but it also doesn't only have to apply to the workplace. But basically her message is to kindly tell t he truth. Trying to not hurt someone's feelings, or fix things yourself, or saying you're too busy to correct a staff member or colleague, is just as damaging i the long run as is yelling, slamming doors, giving contradictory instructions, having unrealistic expectations, and a load of other obvious behaviors that lead to negative work environments and relationships. Ms. Scott writes without using much business-speak, she is very open about her own failures as a manager (and what she's learned from them and how she should have done things differently), and it's an easy read. Personally, as a non-manager, the last third didn't do much for me, but that's not a big problem overall. I think her message is really important.

I got this book for free from the publisher at Winter Institute. I now work for the publisher although I didn't at the time.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Book Review: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

These are two middle grade-YA graphic novels about not feeling American and not fitting in.

American Born Chinese was awesome. Initially I was confused as there are 3 storylines that at first, really seem like they're not going to come together. Heck, they're in three different styles. One tells the straightforward story of our main character, a Chinese-American boy, Jin, in a new grade school, trying desperately to fit in and make friends. Then there's the story of the Monkey God. Finally, there's the story of Danny, an American boy, whose Chinese-caricature of a cousin comes to visit and humiliates him at every turn. In the end, they do in fact all come together and make sense and make the main story line (Jin) much richer, although one is a folktale and one is a farce/fantasy. I can see why this book has won so many awards and why it's so popular. I made a big impact on me and I want to read Yang's other books.

I didn't know anything going into Anya's Ghost and I was a little surprised to find it was another story of an outsider perspective (Anya emigrated from Russia when she was little). Anya has been fitting in, mostly, although she's embarrassed by her mother and the food she cooks and she's impatient with her mother not understanding that Anya's style (despite her school uniform) is very American and that she's purposeful in her short skirts and thigh-high tights. Then one day Anya's in the woods and she falls into a deep hole. Down there, she meets a ghost, Emily, who keeps Anya's hopes up in the two days it takes before she manages her way out. Emily comes with Anya, and is her new secret friend, who can help Anya on tests and find out what cute boys are saying. Then, things start to take a scary twist... and I won't tell you any more!

I think graphic novels are wonderful for school-age kids, partly because it's just wonderful to have the combination of words AND picture to enrich the storytelling. But also because some people are just naturally much more visual than textual, and so these books not only don't leave them out, but for once they might even have an edge. They're an especially effective format for books about different races/cultures because when you're just reading words on a page, it's possible to forget the main character is from another country or looks different from you. That's much harder to forget with constant visual clues. Both excellent books, highly recommend.

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

I checked both of these books out of the library.

Both of these books are published by Macmillan, my employer.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Book Review: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh, narrated by J.P. Barclay

I love medical memoirs, and when this book first came out I had suggested it to my mother as a possible good read for her husband, a retired heart surgeon. It's the memoir of Dr. Henry Marsh, a now-retired British neurosurgeon.

Henry jumps back and forth between his current job, training young doctors at a teaching hospital, and periodically travelling to the Ukraine to perform surgeries in rather difficult conditions, and his early days as a young neurosurgeon, learning the trade himself. The British medical terminology takes a little getting used to, but I think that's one time when an audio has an advantage, as you don't have to wonder how on earth to pronounce technical terms, Brit-isms, or difficult Ukrainian names. His frustration comes through quite a bit, as he is irritated by the hospital administration, by young doctors who won't speak up or own up to problems, and by mistakes made by others and by himself, and yet he moves past those fairly quickly (except the administration. That irritation is constant. I love that one solution was that he planted a rouge garden that is now the favorite spot of all the patients and staff at the hospital.) I really though loved the parts of the book when he became a patient himself. He has a big problem with his eyes at one point, which could imperil his career, an outcome many of us would not face in the same situation. And true to form, as a doctor, he doesn't make for a very good patient. It does though seem to increase his already robust empathy for his own patients.

Because of that, I am really looking forward to his second memoir, which I understand is even more about his life as a patient, as he's already in the twilight of his career in this book and the second book continues in his life as he gets older. And we all have more health problems as we age, no matter what. Thoroughly enjoyable.

I downloaded this eaudiobook from the library via Overdrive.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer, although they were not yet my employer when I read it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Book Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

This is a wildly imaginative middle-grade long chapter book set in Fairyland, which most 9-12-year-old kids would love. September is a girl from Omaha in an orange dress who goes to fairyland. Her father is off at war and her mother is off making airplanes and she is mostly home alone, bored, and fairyland will prove much more interesting. She befriends the Green Wind, a flying tiger, a Wyvern whose father is a library, and a blue boy named Saturday. She has to defeat the wicked Marquess who has taken over fairyland and imposed rules that means the Wyvern (like a dragon but not) has to walk everywhere because he's not allowed to fly, making their journey much more difficult. (At one point they travel by September managing to catch a wild bicycle in a herd of wild bicycles travelling to their mating ground.) She needs to return a witch's spoon, rescue some imprisoned friends, and all along the way a magical key is trying to catch up with her. She meets a girl made of soap, loses her shadow, and gains a heart. Wild adventures ensue.

I think at this age, when I read every single Wizard of Oz book, I would have just adored September. It's a longer and harder book than a lot of books for kids this age (like the Oz books), really allowing a child to get fully lost and immersed in fairyland, as it this is not an easy book to zip through in a couple of hours. Like all fairytales the book is deceptively superficial but of course it's all a metaphor for the angst September is experiencing with her father off fighting and her mother rarely home. It probably isn't a good book for a struggling reader, but for a reader who needs a challenge, it's perfect. It isn't overly difficult, but it isn't at all a simple book either. But very enjoyable and a great escape.

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

I checked this book out of the library.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

I was skeptical of this book's premise. I don't especially like books with magical realism, and it didn't seem to fit with the other Rainbow Rowell book I'd previously read, which was very realistic, and that was one thing I liked about it. But I did like it very much so I thought I'd give this one a try, and see if she managed the magical realism part without being annoying, and she totally did!

Georgie is a TV writer, and right before the holidays, she gets an amazing deal, where the spec script she and her writing partners wrote years ago, their dream project, gets picked up, but only if they can write a half-dozen scripts in less than a week, and deliver them on December 26. Georgie knows this will royally tick off her husband Neal, who's been the house-husband and who finds her writing partner irritating. And it might break her kids' hearts. But she just can't turn her back on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So Neal packs up the kids and goes to his parents'. Has he left her? Or has he just taken the kids to visit their grandparents for the holidays? Why won't he return any of Georgie's calls or texts? The anxiety needles Georgie so much that she ends up not getting much work done herself, defeating the whole purpose of ruining Christmas. She goes to her mother's house, mostly to not be alone (although it's also closer to her work.) And she tries calling Neal again, but this time on an ancient landline phone in her childhood bedroom. And she reaches him, finally. But... she reaches him in college. Over the Christmas break which starts with a fight and ends up with him showing up unexpectedly and proposing. So she is talking to a Neal from about 15 years ago.

Is she supposed to be? Is that why he showed up and proposed? Or will she mess that up if she keeps talking to him? Does it even matter if she can't manage to talk to him in the present day? Is it worth possibly ruining her marriage over this career opportunity, if she squanders it away, being too exhausted to work on the scripts after staying up all night long to talk to her husband-in-the-past?

I didn't love this book as much as Attachments, but that was a high bar, and I still liked it very much. She did totally pull off the magical realism without annoying me. It was a pretty realistic picture of a relationship. About 10 pages from the end I didn't know how she was going to wrap it all up but she does. It really does make you think about how the past shapes events today, how the person you thought you met long ago impacts your relationship with that person today, even if neither of you are the same person, and how to decide about competing priorities--when does career trump family and when should family trump career? Really easy to read and issues that most of us can relate to.

I checked this book out of the library.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer, although they were not yet my employer when I read it.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Book Review: American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin, narrated by Paul Michael (audio)

I don't get to read a lot of non-Macmillan books these days but the selection of available audiobooks is much smaller than print or even ebooks, so that's where I am giving myself some flexibility. And I thought this book sounded fascinating when I heard about it in the fall. I have heard about Patty Hearst my whole life but I didn't really know much at all except that she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), and later joined them or possibly had Stockholm Syndrome, and participated in or was forced into participating in a bank robbery. That was 100% of my knowledge.

First of all, a real basic that no one seems to know: she didn't even go by Patty. Her father was the only person who called her that and because he used that nickname in press conferences, the media latched onto it. She was 20-years-old, engaged to a man who used to be her high school teacher (ew. He was only in his 20s though, but still. Ew), a college student. She was wealthy, sure, but William Randolph Hearst did not trust his silver-spoon kids with either his money or his media empire, and so no one had as much money in this family as was commonly assumed.

The SLA was a small ground of radicals who I believe possibly also had some mental dysfunction and/or had a small-scale version of mass hysteria a la Jim Jones. They were lead by Cinque, one of only two African-Americans in the group, and they presented themselves as a division of a large worldwide army. There weren't even 10 of them. Before the kidnapping, they murdered a school board leader in San Francisco, which was pretty awful. Two of their members got picked up after that, and the original plan was to trade Patricia for their two imprisoned members, and barring that, they wanted to use her to ensure their imprisoned members would get decent treatment, saying they'd treat her as they heard their "comrades" were being treated.

What I also didn't know was that it was 19 months before Patricia was rescued/captured/found. I had no idea this went on for so long!

Mr. Toobin lays out a strong argument that Patricia was not intentionally brainwashed or coerced. But that she was naive, inexperienced, and always fell hard for figures of authority. Not to mention, that it was the rational thing to do--to go along with the kidnappers. So he does give her more agency than the brainwashing contingent, but also argues that she wasn't evil or a radical or anything like that, but that she made expedient decisions based on her situation. which she did again after being found when she reverted back to being a dutiful Hearst heiress (even falling in love with and eventually marrying one of her bodyguards, a police officer.) Would you or I have reacted in the same way she did? Likely not as we are different people, but it's hard to say we'd have done "better" or that we would have been harder to  convert to the SLA way of thinking. It's difficult to understand why Patricia made the decisions she did, but it's not difficult to empathize with the horrible circumstances she found herself in, kidnapped by a group of heavily-armed, unstable individuals.

Overall, the reporting felt thorough, even-handed, and gave good context to the times when all this happened. It was eye-opening to a seminal American event that in some ways defined a generation. Mr. Toobin brought his legal expertise without drowning the narrative in legalese. In fact, it was very readable. The audio was excellent, although you do have to overlook the very deep male narrative voice that often had to speak Patricia's words, in a light, simpering tone. But that sort of thing is inevitable in any audiobook.

I downloaded this eaudiobook from Overdrive via my library.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, narrated by Robin Miles

This is one of those stories from history that is so incredible that we didn't already know this. And yes, I was completely inspired by the movie (which I loved) to read this book. And I'm so glad I was! These woman are so inspiring, aspirational, and impressive. What's sad is that I don't see women in these numbers excelling in math and science-based careers today, let alone women of color, and opportunities ought to be so much more expansive today than in the 1940s (when this book begins), let alone the 1960s (when the space race reached its pinnacle.)

In case you've been living under a rock, this books follows three women of color (primarily--a dozen other women are featured less prominently) who worked at NACA—late NASA—as "computers" and who proved instrumental in both pushing forward the rights of women and people of color, and also in forwarding the cause of NASA. I think the most impressive was Katherine whose calculations were so unfailingly inaccurate that John Glenn asked her to double-check the electronic computers, which he didn't trust, for things like his reentry trajectory. But Dorothy's story spoke to me the most, as a woman who rose in the ran ks and was a supervisor at a time when it was hard for any woman of any color to hit that level, but then finally when the color barrier was removed and the two units of white and black computers were merged, lost her position. That's a side effect of different rights' movements that is rarely focused on—the setbacks along the way even in the wake of—and sometimes as a direct result of—progress.

I also didn't realize until partway into this book that not only were these African-American women working in Jim Crow-era Virginia, but they were in Prince Edward County. In 2015 I read the book Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green about the horrific racial tensions in that county which led to the complete defunding of the public school system for several years in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education enforcement, and which resulted in segregated schools until 1986. That's not a typo! So the political and social environment surrounding these women was even worse than I think either the book or the movie let on.

Their accomplishments were towering. The environment in which they excelled made those accomplishments even more impressive, if that's possible. Thank you, Ms. Shetterly, for uncovering this story and writing about it so well that everyone wants to read about it (as they well should.) I'm very excited to hear what her next book will be about! I hear she's been meeting with publishers and the contract is expected to be a well-deserved large one!

I downloaded this eaudiobook from my library via Overdrive.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

My month in review: March

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

My reading has been weird this month. First I went to Sales Conference for a week which meant that even though I was surrounded by publishers talking about books for 14 hours a day, I read almost nothing. A little on the plane, but I was pretty brain dead during the very little free time. Then I got home and I dove into a backlist promotion as I could get those books instantly from the library. As you'll see, I mostly am focusing on children's books for this. I don't count anything below solid middle-grade books as read books. (In addition to what I have listed below, I have read 18 picture books/beginner readers/early chapter books this month).

Finally I got my access to the Macmillan warehouses so I placed several large orders for ARCs and finished books. Lastly, I got my iPad so I can also read downloaded books even earlier than I can get ARCs. (I can even get early audio books!) And I built a new bookcase. I mean, duh, you saw that coming, right? Next month I will be reading books coming up in the fall, so you'll be getting a sneak peek, although I am way behind in my reviews as well.

Books completed this month:
Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton
Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson (audio)
Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki
My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (audio)
Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by Brian Alexander
Toys!: Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions by Don L. Wulffson
Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Malone Scott
Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson (audio)
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (audio)
Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin (audio)
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People by Susan Orlean
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by William Anderson

Review of Two Middle-Grade Nonfiction Books

Okay, I should just read kids' nonfiction books all the time. Well no, not really, but they'e sure chock-full of fun, mostly random facts, presented in a fun way, so they're right up my alley!

Toys!: Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions by Don L. Wulffson, Laurie Keller (Illustrations)

This book, naturally, is about toys. Very few toys were invented by someone who just said "I want to think of a toy!" In fact some have some rather unusual background like the Slinky and Silly Putty, both of which were developed for use in the military (which neither product was good at). Some took a while to take off. Others were instant hits. Some have changed a bit over the years, such as Mr. Potato Head didn't used to come with a potato—you would use a potato out of your own vegetable bin (which also meant the accessories had very sharp spikes on them to get them in the potato, not like today's dull plastic nibs.)

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg, Kevin O'Malley (Illustrator)

One nice thing about this book is that the author manages to die all these famous people together, even though if you look at the table of contents you'll wonder how (and in the endnotes she has a chart showing exactly how everyone is tied together.) The book is mildly gross, perfect for middle grade kids, and the famous people are famous enough that they should have heard of them (Cleopatra, Napoleon, Albert Einstein). It treats the subject lightly, but not irreverently to be disrespectful. But always with the perfect tone for the audience in mind.

I know kids this age often have trouble finding good nonfiction books for reports or for reading assignments, but these would both be excellent choices. And if you are an adult assisting a struggling reader, know that you will enjoy these books as well.

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

Both of these books I checked out of the library. 

Both of these books are published by Macmillan, my employer.