Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Book Review: Sourdough by Robin Sloan

In this quirky and sweet second novel by the author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, we meet Lois, a computer programmer, who moves from Detroit to San Francisco to work programming robot arms. However, she doesn't find this life to be fulfilling or interesting. It's just completely filled to the brim with work. One night, she orders take-out, and the man who delivers the soup and sourdough bread really makes her sit up and pay attention. As does the food. She's never eaten anything so nourishing, so delicious. She orders it every day for weeks. And then one day, the brothers who make the food have to move away. They did not get their visa renewals and they are not American (they are members of a country-less seemingly Eastern-European group that lives permanently abroad.) They bestow their sourdough starter on Lois and leave.

So Lois makes bread. And more bread. It's amazing bread. It might have a face in it. The starter might sing. And Lois applies to be part of a new food market opening up where technology is embraced instead of the trendy 18th-century ways of the other farmer's markets around town. Lois brings a robot arm with her to stir her dough.

Who is the mysterious benefactor behind the new food market? Is the sourdough starter magical? Where did it really come from? Will the brother bakers ever return? What will Lois do with her life?

This delightful book answers all these questions and more. It's a feel-good, sweet, but creative and fun story that takes unexpected twists and turns to get to its amusing conclusion. I felt like in Mr. Penumbra, the plot got a little away from Mr. Sloan, and this time around, he's simplified, very much for the better. It's a tighter story, with concise plotting, a shorter list of characters, but once again his trademark blending of new technology with artisinal products. If you're looking for a cheery book without any great trauma, this is perfect. And the cover glows in the dark.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Book Review: Come Sundown by Nora Roberts

So, as any regular readers of my reviews can guess, I am not a big fan of romance novels, or genre novels in general. I normally skip over the Nora Roberts books in my path, even though she's a huge seller. But this one intrigued me when it was named an Indie Next pick by independent bookstores, as they normally pick fairly highbrow books. I figured this was the one to check out.

It's set at a ranch in Montana, which over the years has turned most of itself into a dude ranch and spa sort of vacation spot, although the Bodine/Longbow family have also kept part of it as a working ranch. Bodine Longbow, the great-granddaughter, runs the resort, where an old family friend has recently been hired, Cal, who's not only a good horseman but also looks good doing it (Sundown is his horse.) Her brother has his eye on her new events coordinator, and baby brother likes the looks of the assistant, and everyone seems ready to pair off and live happily ever after. Which would be light on plot even for a romance novel. But there's a completely different side to this novel as well.

Back in the 1970s, Alice ran away from home after her sister Maureen's wedding, long before Maureen's daughter Bodine was born. The family first was angry, then worried, and finally mostly resigned. But what they don't know is that after a couple of years away, Alice was on her way home, in fact was very close to home, when she took a ride from a stranger that went horribly, horribly wrong. The very bad man who picked her up thought she'd make a good wife for breeding, and he kidnaps her and holds her prisoner.

Naturally, these two storylines eventually come together, and it really makes for an interesting dual-plot to have one side be rather sunny and happy, and the other story be very dark and even sadistic. It's a nice relief from the dark storyline, and honestly life does go on and people do fall in love even when horrible things are happening elsewhere. It's not an easy balance, but Ms. Roberts does pull it off. If you like a romance with a little more meat on the bones, this is a great book, and if you're skeptical of romances in general, this is a good meld of genres that shows how the romance side can bring optimism and sunshine to an otherwise potentially depressing story.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Book Review: Thornhill by Pam Smy

This book starts off with two stories, one in contemporaneous, set in 2007, and is told entirely through pictures. The other is set in the 1980s and is told through diary entries from Mary, one of the last orphans to live at Thornhill, before it is to be torn down to make way for a new development. But we can see in 2007 that never happened, as Ella moves in behind Thornhill after her mother dies, and her bedroom looks into the abandoned, boarded-up old mansion. Ella sees a girl her age over there from time to time. And she starts to find these old dolls, which turn out to be marionettes, which she fixes up. We learn those were originally made by Mary, more than 30 years ago.

The other girls go away, one by one, as they find other placements or even foster homes. Eventually Mary is left with the bully of Thornhill, who has been tormenting her for years. When it's just the two of them and almost no staff left, things go very south very quickly. And 30+ years later, Ella is drawn to the desolate and lonely girl she sees in that foreboding landscape. Has she found a new friend?

This book is pretty dark. Not scary, but certainly not for the faint of heart or for younger kids at all. It's definitely for teens. The format is clever, the story is compelling, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Sometimes it's fun to read a dark, creepy book with an ending that makes you go "Whoa!"

I got this book for free from the publisher, my employer, Macmillan.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer, narrated by Scott Brick (audio)

This book is so frustrating. Don't get me wrong--that's Mr. Krakauer's goal and he's very successful. Nevertheless, there are moments where you just wish you could reach in to the book and shake people. In particular, the members of his own company who didn't follow protocol and who didn't listen when they were told to stop firing. Argh.

You probably know, as I did, that Pat Tillman was a NFL player who joined the Army Rangers after 9/11 and was killed by friendly fire. I also sort of knew there was a cover-up, but I wasn't sure how much of that was an actual cover-up, and how much of that was sensationalism by the media for headlines. And that's the grand total of what I knew going into this book. Well that, and Mr. Krakauer never picks a dull subject.

Turns out Pat Tillman was a pretty unusual guy, very thoughtful and introspective, rather unique in the NFL and in the Army (how many other men were reading The Odyssey while in Afghanistan? I'll bet zero.) He had one bad incident as a teenager which had a very good impact on his life, and he was a very moral, very intelligent, very esoteric man. At the same time, he was a huge and successful football player who did triathlons in the off-season. He did not fit any mold, and yet he usually fit in and was well-liked. He signed up at the end of the season after Sept. 11, 2001, along with his younger brother (a baseball player) and they trained to become Rangers. On their second tour, which was when Afghanistan was already an afterthought with no funding, after Bush declared it "Mission accomplished." And the day he was killed several things went wrong. And a lot of them were stupid. And those weren't the stupidest things that went wrong either--Mr. Kraukauer also explains how Jessica Lynch's convoy never should have been where they were to get ambushed a few months earlier (they'd taken not one but two wrong turns) and that in the rescue, 17 of the 18 Americans killed were killed by, that's right, you guessed it, Americans! Yes, our own Air Force was firing on our ground troops. So what happened to Pat was by no means an isolated or unexpected incident. What I did not expect is that unlike in the Jessica Lynch rescue situation, these were guys from his own company. He knew them! (It was not malicious.) And his brother was in the same company, too.

And yes, it was very much covered up. The army hastily conferred posthumous medals on Pat that he didn't deserve and wouldn't have wanted (if deserved, fine, but he'd never want credit for something he didn't do. He was not that kind of man.) The Army repeatedly said that they didn't tell the Tillmans the truth, because they didn't want to accidentally tell them something untrue. So instead they knowingly told them untruths for quite some time, in order to not tell them the truth. Hm. Very fishy in my book and I am very glad Pat's mother was so dogged in her search for the truth. The truth was destined to get out, considering how many people knew what had really happened, and who were no only friends of Pat's but of Kevin's, his brother, and I feel confidant someone would have told him eventually. I know they were just following orders, but I do wish at least one of them had let his ethics supplant those orders earlier. And the cover-up seems to have gone all the way to the top. If not Bush himself, certainly his speechwriters knew, as his multiple public statements about Pat were expertly crafted so as to not say anything demonstrably wrong, while also not saying the truth.

I think this book would have been hard to read when it first came out, when the war was still going on, before Osama bin Laden was killed. From this distance now of 10+ years, it's still maddening, and yet it's also easier to view with some equanimity.

I checked this eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Book Purge

It might seem strange that in a year when I'm definitely going to set a new reading record--by a lot--and when I have a job where reading is a large part of it and where I can get any book I want from the fifth largest publisher, that I should be thinking so much about purging books. After all, I did buy a new bookcase! But, that bookcase is 80% filled with sales materials that I'm going to get rid of over the next few months. I do have one shelf of Macmillan books that are by no means required reading (they're all backlist! The horror!) but the rest are last season's ARCs, this season's ARCs (two shelves), and marketing materials.

Still, why should I be getting rid of books? And yet I am. We had a yard sale last month, and I shipped out two large boxes of books to friends. And I have been buying next to nothing.

Well, partly it really is that whole thing where I have access to any books I want from Macmillan's publishers. Yes, it's work, but when your company publishes around 3500 books a year, it isn't at all hard to find 100-150 you'd really, truly enjoy. Having to read books for work is no chore at all. And the reading of these books will only make me better at my job, make it easier, and hopefully get me more in bonuses! So that's lots of incentives. And that means I really am enjoying all the Macmillan reading I'm doing. I have motivation to do it coming at me from all sides. Is there an occasional dud? Inevitably. But that's true no matter what I'm reading--book club books, or just plain fun. Without the bad ones, we'd lose the scale to remind us how good the good ones are.

So I am looking suddenly at reading almost nothing from my shelves. For the foreseeable future. Seriously, if I read 5 non-Macmillan books from my shelves between now and the end of the year, not counting audiobooks (those often are kind of random and not exactly what I'd choose if I had access to every single book as an audiobook), I'd be surprised. Which means, the 500+ unread books in my house that I often joke about, go from being 5 years' worth of reading material, to 100 years' worth. Yeah, I'm not going to get to them all. So I should pass some of them along to people who can read them and enjoy them, and make a little space in my life (and so I don't feel so guilty.)

And it feels good. I can't read all the books in the world. I can't even read all the books in my house! But now the ones I have are a tiny bit more reasonable.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Review: In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors by Doug Stanton

I had declared a WWII moratorium almost exactly two years ago, after reading All the Light We Cannot See. Now don't get me wrong, I did like that book. But I was so tired of WWII. It was just everpresent. With Life After Life and The Boys in the Boat and everyone pushing me to read The Nightingale, and I just couldn't take it anymore. I was so oversaturated that I was prone to dislike an otherwise good book, just because it was set in WWII. So I gave away The Nightingale and happily declared my moratorium and didn't miss them at all. I thought the moratorium would only last a year but it was instead almost two. It started to sneak back in in small doses, through The Radium Girls and Hidden Figures, which are not about WWII but do in a small part take place during the war. Technically The Port Chicago 50 is the first real WWII book I read this year, except it entirely takes place on US soil and the men involved weren't allowed to fight in the war, despite it taking pace in 1944. So I will declare Bomb to be the first real WWII book to break the fast. And then right after reading that book, I saw the movie Dunkirk, and then I just had to read this book, In Harm's Way, that my husband had recently read, and which I had seen praised highly on at least two different book lists last week of books about sharks (since it was Shark Week.)

The USS Indianapolis gets a solid mention in Bomb as it was the ship that delivered the components of the atomic bombs to the Enola Gay to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the book about the atomic bomb, the fate of the Indianapolis then merits just a passing aside. But my god, what a fate! After dropping off the bombs, it headed out for its next port, and was torpedoed by a Japanese sub and sank. Due to a terrible policy, some poor handling of various messages, fear of Japanese fake messages to lure Allies into traps, and so on, the sailors and marine who survived the initial two torpedoes and explosions, who didn't die right away but instead managed to find a life jacket or life boat and get away, then had to endure nearly 5 days at sea, without food or water or shelter, most just in the water not in a life raft, and of course, surrounded by sharks. When they were finally spotted--by accident as still no one was looking for them!--a fraction of the men who had survived the first day were still alive.

Boy, this book had a forward propulsion like few I've read. For a nonfiction, history book, it read so fast, and was absolutely unputdownable. It wasn't a short book but I read it in two days. In the end, I think the navy made a lot more mistakes and errors than they ever took responsibility for, and seriously mislaid the blame. The author also takes a half dozen men (who obviously survived as he'd obviously been able to talk to them) and uses their experiences--in different groups, in different levels of injury and danger--to demonstrate the situation for all the men, and to humanize the tale in a very effective way. This is a top-notch work of history about an often overlooked (the news of the sinking finally broke the same day Japan admitted defeat so it was inevitably lost in the brouhaha) but horrifying and gut-wrenching part of history. These men made the end of the war possible, and then were forgotten as their own lives were imperiled.

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What My New Job Is Like, Part III

I am getting ready to head back out on the road! This season I am hoping to drive slightly fewer than the 5000+ miles I did last season as I have a lot less 1-store days and I think I've planned my trip smarter. We'll see. I know the planning part would annoy most people but to me, it's like a puzzle. I actually enjoy trying to figure out how to fit everyone in, in the most efficient way possible. Now, the most efficient way almost never works out. This season I had to plan my travel schedule around 2 trade shows (one is nearby but the other is in New Orleans, very far from home and my territory), 2 (now 3) family visiting me trips, 2 public holidays (yes, Columbus Day isn't a big deal in most of my territory but the further north I get, the more likely it is a factor), my anniversary, my husband's birthday, and of course trying to get it all done before the next Sales Conference. I have a couple of beach stores I can't visit until after Labor Day, and a couple of college stores when I need to avoid back-to-school time. Theoretically, with roughly 40 accounts to visit, if I can do 2 a day, that's 20 days so I should be able to do it in a month. It never works out that way, though. A few stores are just too far away (Norfolk, VA; Sylva, NC) from anything else, and some are too big to do more than the one in a day. And sometimes the store managers have conflicts. It will all get sorted of course, but it can be tricky to manage. Luckily, I really like puzzles.

I also had to get together all the materials I need. The most important thing I bring along is ARCs. It's true that I don't have to bring them at all—stores can make requests and I will order the ARCs to be sent directly from our warehouse. But they might not request a book they're borderline about. And they get ARCs from scores of publishers. It's easy for the buyers to get bogged down. But if we just talked about a book and I got them excited about it, and then I hand it to them, it's a lot more likely that they'll read it (hopefully starting that day!) Some books also really need a visual aid, whether it's a heavily illustrated adult book, or a kids' book with flaps and windows and other features that are more easily shown than described. So I have two boxes in my trunk, one of adult books and one of children's. I try to be paperless, but some things just work better in hard copy, so I print off the stock offers (those are extra discounts for a certain time frame) and a list of all the displays and signed books this season, and for this season only also a list of all the books that our publishers are promoting in the regional holiday catalogs that stores will be handing out to customers this fall. I used to have to also print off all my maps for each week and I'm sure glad that task is no longer necessary. I have to stock up on my audiobooks. I have several CDs from work, but I also like to listen to downloaded ones, especially for my week in DC where I'm traveling by foot and public transit, and not in my car. About half of the audiobooks are work-related, and then, since options are limited, I also give myself a break and listen to some from other publishers.

When I pack, my toiletry kit needs to be fully stocked. Long ago I just got two of everything (except my prescriptions) and I treated myself this spring to a whole new toiletry kit. I need pretty but practical shoes (sometimes I have to walk a bit. In fact, even when parking is readily available, I always try to park further back, leaving the good spaces for paying customers.) Band-aids and other possible first-aid items. I need an umbrella and a jacket and workout clothes (although I have a knee injury so I am not able to work out much right now.) Again, all this packing and planning really appeals to the hyper-efficient side of my personality. I blame the Germans. I've also been to the dentist and optometrist, picked up my prescriptions, gotten a haircut, and scheduled my next doctor's appointment. These are all things i need to schedule in between travel seasons. I do still need to plan my main outfits and be sure nothing needs to be dry-cleaned.

I do wish on the road that I had time to visit some of the attractions. One of these days in DC I at least want to visit the museum shops I sell to (I sell to the buyers in their corporate offices, not at the stores.) But I figure I've got plenty of time for that. I really wish I could come up with some snacks that aren't candy or other low-health high-calorie foods that can live in the car. Yes, I eat nuts (and those are high in calories) but when I look up low-cal snacks, it's entirely stuff that needs to be refrigerated/heated/prepared immediately before eating. Nothing I can just grab a handful of and munch on while stuck on the Garden State Parkway. And no, I'm not going to get a cooler for my car. That's just not practical.

I do love to travel, thankfully! I won't like it as much in two months, but then I'll get a break again. This is the life of a sales rep!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Book Review: Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin, narrated by Roy Samuelson

I haven't read much (if any) YA nonfiction, so I thought I'd give this one a go and see what it's like. I wasn't in fact, very sure what the difference was. And while I still am not 100% sure why this is listed as YA, instead of adult, I guess it is laid out in a more straightforward way and might use slightly simpler language. But for listening, those two things both improve the experience. The only moment when I was aware that I was listening to a book geared younger, was when who General MacArthur was explained. Most adult books just assume you know who that is (and in fact, it was jarring to me, to have that little appositive explaining him. Not bad, just startling.)

The book begins with the story of a spy who gave away American secrets about the atomic bomb, and then goes back to give us the entire history of the bomb. It begins with the scientific discovery of fission, of physicists' realization of what that meant (it's not many steps to get to a bomb given the amount of power given off by a minuscule amount of fission-able matter). It quickly gets to Robert Oppenheimer and Los Alamos. And as they worked away, the German were also racing to make a bomb, and we were racing to prevent it. They were using a different method involving something called "heavy water" and Allied spies thought they could set the German back years if they could get to their source of heavy water.

Meanwhile the Soviets were recruiting spies among the physicists. (Funnily enough, one Brit later arrested was given a much lighter sentence because, at the time, the USSR was our ally, not our enemy. American laws however were not as forgiving.) And then after Fat Man and Short Boy were dropped on Japan, the Soviets became our enemy, and the spy recruitment intensified during the Cold War.

We'll never know what the outcome of WWII would have been if either the Germans had gotten the bomb before we did, or if we hadn't dropped it on Japan, but we work with the history we have, and the scientific and intelligence race to outwit our enemies (and occasional friends) is an awfully fascinating 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 Macmillan, my employer, but I listened to the audiobook which is published by Listening Library. I downloaded the eaudiobook from my library via Overdrive.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

I don't read a lot of contemporary women's thrillers, even though they're really hot right now, but I read a few, and I've read the big ones. This novel falls squarely in that wheelhouse. One night two teenage sisters disappear. Five years later, only one of them returns. Where is Emma? What has happened to her?

This book takes place  over the course of one week (although with a ton of flashbacks) after Cass reappears, alternating between Cass telling the story of what happened (through her trauma she's got memory issues, which is why is takes a week for the family to figure out where Emma is), and the female FBI profiler on the case, Dr. Winter. Emma was a typical teenager, rebellious but also striving, who made have gotten into trouble. How did she disappear that night, how did Cass end up disappearing with her, where have they been for the last five years, and why has only Cass returned? I don't want to tell any more because all of these are important questions. The job does a good job of holding the tension taut, giving away only the parts you need to know, and keeping the reader guessing until the end. It's also a little more literary, in my opinion, than a typical thriller, mostly due to the psychologist's perspectives. Not much gets by her, although we readers don't always get her take on the story until later. It's a fun read, with twists and turns that kept me fully entertained.

I got this book for free from the publisher, which is my employer, Macmillan.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

My Month in Review: July

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

This was a big reading month for me as I prepare to head out on the road next month again. I had set myself a quota of 75 books this season, including books I'd already read (which were now coming out in paperback), picture books, on up. I have 9 left. Then I'll let myself read whatever I want... until the end of August. Sept. 1 I will then switch over to reading for the next season (Spring/Summer 2018) through the end of the year. And I think my goal will be 75 books again. Once I've been in the job for a year, and more of the paperbacks will be books I've already read, then I will take it up to 100. I have read a few books this season which are in paperback, so those won't help me next year, but only a few. So most of what I'm reading are 2018 books.

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

Books completed this month:
Zombie Abbey by Lauren Baratz-Logsted
In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary
Raffie on the Run by Jacqueline Resnick
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein
Kindred Spirits by Rainbow Rowell
The Forgotten Book by Mechthild Gläser
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (audio)
The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family's Search for the American Dream by Bryan Mealer
Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (audio)
The Hunting Accident: A True Story of Crime and Poetry by David L. Carlson and Landis Blair
In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors by Doug Stanton

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Come Sundown by Nora Roberts
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer (audio) *

What I acquired this month (non-work books): 
Hm, none. My husband bought one, and we went to the local bookstore where we also bought a puzzle (for me) and a fancy set of playing cards (for him). But with my really ambitious reading schedule and with my access to everything Macmillan, and my limited budget (I'm finally making decent money after many years of just scraping by, which means I can finally start paying down debt.)