Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Book Review: A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

You may already know Lynne Truss from her phenomenal book about grammar, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. If so, you may be surprised to hear that her newest book is a historical British mystery. But you won't be surprised that it is filled with period slang and she has a lot of fun with language throughout. But if language isn't your thing, no worries, the plot is rollicking enough to carry you along without dwelling on what is really a minor aside.

In the English beach town of Brighton, the police are run by Inspector Steine who, years earlier, made his name in the Middle Street Massacre in which two local gangs were going to have a shootout, which the police were heading to, when they decided to stop for ice cream. The gangs completely and totally wiped each other out, while not a copper got a scratch on him. Steine (pronounced STEEN by the way, he'd like you to know) was lauded for the way he brilliantly allowed the bad guys to clean up the town for him, without any loss of life or even minor injury to the good guys. In the movie he was portrayed by a handsome leading man whereas his number two, Sergeant Brunswick, came off as a doddering fool. Since then Steine has bragged about the lack of crime in town. Brunswick has lamented that the crime there is has now gone totally underground and is hard to suss out, and worse, that Steine refuses to investigate anything (lest he be proven wrong) or even admit there is anything to investigate. Then a young whippersnapper, Constable Twitten, who has managed to offend half of the British police force in very short order, is assigned to Brighton, and immediately starts to look into a series of thefts which seem to be tied to the unsolved Aldersgate Stick-Up Case of 1945. While Steine is hastily trying to sweep it all under the rug, a renowned theater critic is shot and killed at the theater (while sitting next to Twitten) and the playwright is also murdered, which are much harder crimes for Steine to ignore.

This story is pretty hilarious. The period details for the 1950s are dead-on. There are loads of quirky characters and red herrings and a phrenologist and a strong lady and if you have any affinity for British mysteries of the mid-twentieth century, you will love Ms. Truss's farce, which is told with much love, even though she's also kind of making fun of them all. It was a ball of fun!

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

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Book Review: Thundercluck! And the Kitchen of Destiny by Paul Tillery, Meg Wittwer

Thor's chicken, Thundercluck, has acquired a Thor-like power with shooting lightning. Now the Under Chef wants to eat him. Thundercluck must go to the human world to grow up, protected from Under Chef, and he returns when he's bigger. But Thor and the other gods are tricked by Under Chef and they're all drugged. Thundercluck and Brunhilde, a Valkyrie (his best friend) have to travel to all the realms of Valhalla to track down the Under Chef, defeat him, and save the gods.

This book is adorable, hilarious, and introduces kids to Norse mythology. Thundercluck has to deal with his fears which make him unable to wield his power and puts Brunhilde at risk. But in the end, his finds his inner power of thunder and is able to save the day. This would be an especially good book for struggling readers as it's super exciting, has a lot of fun details about all the lands he goes to, and moves along quickly. I loved the creativity and absurdity.

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 Roaring Brook, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Book Review: My Twenty-Five Years in Provence: Reflections on Then and Now by Peter Mayle (audio)

Wow, hopes dashed. I thought this book had everything needed to hit it out of the park--I love memoirs, travel, and amusing snarkiness. This book is supposed to have all of those elements. Well, it is a memoir. And it takes place in France. But it was undelightful.

It seemed like a bunch of random, unrelated essays, spanning 50+ years, that were slapped together. I know Mr. Mayle died a few months before it came out so it could have been pulled together without him, and/or it may have been only lightly edited with him not being able to okay edits or do any rewrites. I just don't know. But that being said, it was a hot mess. Thankfully it's very short, but even at just 4.5 hours, I almost didn't finish it. (The narration was very good though.)

It's filled with cliches. Isn't it ridiculous when English-speakers (for once the example was not American so in that regard I suppose it isn't a cliche) who can't speak French, when faced with a Frenchman who doesn't speak English, resort to speaking more slowly and loudly? And how many annoying friends want to come visit/impose when you move to a beautiful location. It's very smug. It was delightful when Peter and his wife discovered this charming and delicious restaurant, which then got a Michelin star. And he won some awards himself. It ranged wildly. Topics ping-ponged from seeing-eye dogs to truffles to the mistral (a bad wind akin to El Nino) to how he was friends with Ridley Scott BEFORE Scott made Mayle's story into a movie starring Russell Crowe (who was late every day).

Anyway, I think this book will be a good one for his huge fans who have read all his previous books. I've only read one other and only gave it three stars, so I should have learned from that earlier experience and skipped this one. They can't all be winners.

I borrowed this eaudiobook from my library via Libby.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Book Review: How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery

I've never been an animal nut, in fact I was especially good at my job selecting all the books in PetSmart and Petco for 3 years precisely because at that time I had no pets and so was very unbiased. Along with my husband came first one cat and now two, and I had a couple of cats growing up and my sister had a dog. We even had goldfish for a while. But we've gone long stretches between animals and nothing exotic. So you might think a book like this one wouldn't be for me, but I loved it.

It helps that Ms. Montgomery is unabashed about her animal love. She doesn't hedge it, doesn't overexplain, doesn't defend it. It just is. She's felt an affinity, an empathy for animals even stronger than her feelings for most humans, since the youngest of ages with her family dog, Molly. Every other animal has a shadow of Molly in it.

Shortly after college, with her dream job and wonderful boyfriend (now husband), she decided to chuck everything and move to the South Australian Outback for a non-paying research job for 6 months, and ended up following 3 emus pretty obsessively. I've been to South Australia and observed some emus, both in the wild and in an animal sanctuary, and they're pretty hard to identify with. They don't strike one as especially intelligent and are skittish in addition to behaving in a daft manner. That said, Ms. Montgomery makes an excellent argument that each and every animal is smart in their own way that I might not get. I have a lot more respect for emus now, which I didn't think was possible.
She then goes on to tell us about 3 more pet dogs, a pet pig (he got up to 750 pounds! If intrigued, read The Good Good Pig. It's excellent and it solely about the pig, with a dash of dog.), a series of octopuses (no, octopi is not correct), tree kangaroos, tarantulas, and a brief but stunning appearance by an ermine.

I am not 100% sure but I think this is classified as a children's book. Up until the death of her first pet dog as an adult which sent her into a suicidal depression, I was okay with that classification. She discusses it in a straightforward and not maudlin way but it still might be an unexpected turn of events for someone looking for happy animal stories. Still, death is a part of life, one often learned about through the shorter lifespans of pets, and anyone who reads books about animals regularly can tell you how all of them end. It can absolutely be a fine book for more mature kids down to 10 years old.

However, and delightfully, it's also great for adults. It does have cute illustrations throughout, but not in an infantile style. It's beautifully designed and will be a great gift at the holidays for those animal lovers among us, especially the ones who love even the more obscure and possibly icky ones.

I got a copy of this book for free from the publisher at NAIBA.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 1, 2018

My Month in Review: September

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

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

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

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

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