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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Book Review: The Chaos of Now by Erin Jade Lange

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

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

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

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

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

This book is published by Bloomsbury, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Book Review: On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

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

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

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

Friday, September 21, 2018

Book Review: Listen to the Marriage by John Jay Osborn

This is an unusual novel. It's about a failing marriage. And you, the reader, have limited access to information about it. It reads like you are a fly on the wall in the marriage counselor's office. You know nothing of Gretchen and Steve's marriage outside of those four walls. What they tell their counselor is also all that you know. You do sometimes get to hear the thoughts of Sandy, their therapist (and sometimes her thoughts are exactly what you worry your therapist is thinking: "How can you be so obtuse, Steve?") But it's not limited third-person in the usual way. You really feel like a fourth presence in the room, but invisible and silent. And as the book really entirely takes place in the office with just these three people, it reads very much like a play. It's mostly dialogue.

Steve and Gretchen may have let things go too far before going to counseling. When one party has moved out and is dating, there's not much marriage left to save, perhaps. But you can also feel real, genuine feeling between them, even if at times they deny it. Sandy is an interesting character in that she's far from a traditional counselor. She gets very involved, very pushy, and calls Gretchen and Steve out on things most therapists wouldn't (she does acknowledge that she's unconventional--it's not that Mr. Osborn doesn't know how therapists are supposed to behave. It's much more that she and the book are more fun--and heck, Steve and Gretchen get a lot further a lot faster--than they would be in traditional therapy.)

It's a short book that packs a punch. Might put you somewhat off both therapy and marriage a bit. But really explores how relationships can end up in the places they do and how--and if they even should--patch things up.

This book is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book Review: Impossible Owls: Essays by Brian Phillips

This essay collection makes me really regret that I never read Grantland, which is now defunct and so I can't anymore. But I can say that Brian Phillips's essays would all appear right at home in a New Yorker issue.

Like some of my favorite nonfiction essay writers from John McPhee to Chuck Klosterman, Phillips's interests are wide-ranging. He covers topics in this book from the Iditarod to Princess Kate to an eccentric rich old woman in his hometown who disappeared for a decade. I think the essay on the current best sumo wrestler was probably my favorite, but it's hard to pick one. I did enjoy the one about the Russian filmmaker the least, but that may have been colored by my own personal frustration with a man who's been working--and not finishing--one project his entire life. I just want to shake him.

But the other essays were fascinating and kooky and deep enough that I learned a lot but moved on when they needed to so they didn't get bogged down. Thoroughly enjoyable.

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Book Review: The Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain

This book is a tricky one to tell anything at all about without giving away some serious spoilers. But I will try.

In 1970, Caroline's husband has just been killed in Vietnam. Her one consolation has been her pregnancy--that she will get to love a baby that reminds her of the love of her life forever, even if she can't be with him. But then she gets devastating news. Her daughter who isn't even born yet has a life-threatening condition and doctors can't save her. Caroline leans on her sister and brother-in-law for support. They've all moved out to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, even though her BIL, Hunter, still has to commute in to the Triangle area to work on his research project. Now Hunter comes to Caroline to reveal that there is hope for her daughter--if she'll listen to his crazy story and trust him. And what he tells her gives her real pause because it sounds utterly nuts. But Hunter's always been a good man who has loved her sister and done right by them from the beginning. Could his crazy plan actually work? What does Caroline have left to lose?

What happens next really pushes Caroline's understanding of the world, belief in herself, and her love for her daughter. But she has to do anything, even things that seem crazy or that cause her great pain, for her daughter, right? What does unconditional love really mean? What lengths would you go to for your child?

Ms. Chamberlain has upped her game from her previous book I read, Pretending to Dance. This is a thought-provoking, juicy book that will be perfect for book clubs. I read it in just a couple of days, as the story is really compelling and it's an easy read. Her fans will be thrilled to see her achieving new heights, and if you're curious, you should give it a try, as you'll likely become a fan yourself.

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

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Book Review: Check, Please!: # Hockey by Ngozi Ukazu

Bitty is a former-figure skater-turned-hockey player starting college and doing a vlog about his experiences. This book covers his first two years (I believe there is a planned sequel that presumably will cover the rest of college.) He is gay and he goes to a college that has a good reputation for inclusiveness, even if he's involved in a sport that isn't known for being super gay-friendly. But his teammates are actually very accepting when he finally does come out to them. It probably helps that he's already won them over with his fantastic pies. He is scared of being hit, but otherwise is a great player, which also doesn't hurt. The star player--whose dad was a professional NHL player and has high expectations--helps out with Bitty's weaknesses and he just improves.

College is tough and Bitty is a wonderful stand-in for any teen worrying about what it will be like. Even though he is a white man, he still has a lot of issues with and worries about being accepted, and different people have varying levels of issues with him as a person, some of which are related to his identity but more of which aren't, as with everyone. He struggles with difficult conversations, he worries about crushes, he is told he has to improve his big hockey problem or he'll lose his spot on the team, and he has a relatively normal college life.

I loved this story. Bitty is so endearing and optimistic and tries so hard that you can't help but root hard for him. I do find it fascinating that the author is an African-raised woman, and yet she's written about a white male. But don't worry--my little brother played hockey for at least 13 years and everything hockey struck me as really accurate (she did a ton of research.) The only problem to me was that I wanted the book to keep going! I wish the sequel was out right now! (I hate reading books in a series before they're all available.) The book is sweet and fun and honest and just great.

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 First Second, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Book Review: Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar

It's odd that I am squeamish and yet like medical books. I nearly failed high school biology (and to be honest, I should have failed it. I only passed by cheating. Sorry, Mom.) and yet decades later, I wonder about those organs I tried not to look at too closely in my little frog.

I read Dr. Jauhar's first medical memoir, Interned, years ago. (Unfortunately, I missed his second memoir. This is his third.) Like in Atul Gawande's Being Mortal, in this one, Dr. Jauhar is not just the medical expert, but he also becomes a patient in his own arena. He is a cardiologist, and he got his brother (also a cardiologist) to run some tests and found his cardiac arteries were mostly blocked, while he was still on the young side of middle age. His grandfather died of a sudden heart attack, and many members of his family have heart problems.

But it is not just a memoir. It is about how the heart itself functions, including the ludicrous idea still circulating today that it's where "love" is (the first heart transplant patient's wife asked the doctors if he would still love her after the surgery.) It is about the history of the understand of the heart, and the history of cardiology. Even years after we were exploring the brain, the heart was still considered off limits to doctors. And as Dr. Jauhar remembers his training in cardiology and how he learned important facets of his field, he elucidates this vital organ in all its mystery and simplicity.

If you have any interest in the medical field at all, even tangential like mine, this is an excellent book.

This book is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

My Month in Review: August

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

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star. This was my last month off from travel, and in fact, it wasn't because the last week in August I was in DC!

Books completed this month:
The Peacock Feast: A Novel by Lisa Gornick
Conan Doyle for the Defense by Margalit Fox (audio)*
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn
An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman
Sadie by Courtney Summers
Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable, illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin
Bloom by Kevin Panetta, illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau
Credo: The Rose Wilder Lane Story by Peter Bagge

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson*
Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America by Kyle Swenson
Ask a Manager: Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and Other Work Conversations Made Easy by Alison Green*

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh, this was given to me for free (an ARC) by an employee of the publisher.

Book Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

I hadn't wanted to read this book. It's being heavily pushed by my company, but it felt gimmicky to me, and I was selling it in easily, so I didn't feel the need. And then I had two different bookstore buyers in the same day tell me how amazing it was so I gave in.

I never was big into thrillers as a teen and I'm still not, although every once in a while they're fun. Basically, this book is inspired by the first season of the podcast Serial, and half of it is a podcast. a young girl has been found dead, and now her older sister has gone missing. A podcast producer hears about the story and goes to Colorado to investigate. Sadie is sure that she knows who killed her little sister, and she's out for revenge. West McCray doesn't know what happened exactly to Mattie or Sadie, but he knows a good story, and he's determined to find out.

My favorite parts of the story were when West took a wrong turn, or believed someone's lie (that Sadie hadn't believed) or made a wrong assumption. He usually got back on track in the end, but I liked how that demonstrates how no matter how meticulously researched and how many people interviewed, a journalist's story is never the whole truth--just an angle of the truth. And sometimes they can get things wrong.

In other circumstances Sadie could have gone far, so that part is a shame. When bad families happen to good people. But it is important to have books set in poor towns in broken families, so kids see themselves in their reading options. Other kids like Sadie, raising her younger sister alone after her drug-addicted mother disappears, need to know they're not alone. Hopefully their own circumstances don't go as off the rails as hers did, but some probably do. After all, the majority of violence happens in economically depressed areas.

Anyway, it was good fun, not for the faint of heart, and Sadie was a compelling protagonist who would do anything for her sister, even when her sister is no longer here.

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 Wednesday Books, a division of Macmillan, my employer.