Saturday, March 30, 2019

Book Review: Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Cat always takes care of her little brother Chicken. But he's more high-maintenance than most little brothers. He has a tendency to run off, he's extremely impulsive, and doesn't seem to understand scary things like that cars will run over you and if you can't swim, the ocean will kill you. But Cat doesn't mind; after all she really loves Chicken. And that love has inspired her mom who has written a series of picture books about Cat and Chicken. Which is great because they need the money since Cat's father died. But with Mom working essentially three jobs (college instructor as well and I forget the third, maybe tutor?), it's even more vital for Cat to watch Chicken.

This summer, Mom has gotten a temporary position teaching at a college in Atlanta, where their family's best friends moved last year. It's perfect because Cat and Chicken can stay with the friends all day while Mom works. Except that while they're on their flights from San Francisco, Mom gets a phone call. The Atlanta friends have to fly to India because their grandmother has had a stroke. And no, they're not coming back soon as India is so far away and they have so many family members there they haven't seen in years. So Mom has to come up with a Plan B for Cat and Chicken right away.

She rents a car. And they drive to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where their mom grew up. Cat and Chicken are going to stay with their grandparents, who they've never met. They disapproved when their daughter got married (you wonder for a moment if it's because her husband was black but no, it's because they were too young, they wanted to be artists and to move to San Francisco.) And there's been a rift ever since. Obviously, everyone is nervous going into this situation.

It's not going to be shocking news that everything works out. But you'll have to read the book to find
out! Both Cat and Chicken grow a lot emotionally over the summer, they learn a lot about what it means to be a family and to be a friend and to be part of a community. They learn a lot about their mother that they never knew. And they end up having an unexpectedly great summer, albeit not without its drama.

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, March 26, 2019

Book Review: Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World's Riskiest Business by Matt Lee and Ted Lee

At first, when this book was compared to Kitchen Confidential, I was wary. I mean, I loved Kitchen, but it also made me feel rather icky about restaurant food, and I was about to go to two trade shows and eat a lot of catered food, so I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it. But boy, am I glad I did! This isn't a hit job on catering--it's a love letter.

The Lee Brothers are a writing and cooking duo from Charleston (I've made their bourbon balls which were delicious and I don't like bourbon, nor am I much of a cook.) But they also partly live in New York, and over the course of writing this book they each get jobs as kitchen assistants (KAs) at a couple of different caterers. And these aren't caterers in the vein of a hotel or conference center--these are offsite caterers who bring in EVERYTHING and often are cooking on folding tables in a back hallway. Or really, they're cooking in hotboxes. Those are these large rolling cases in which you can keep food warm (or cold) and if you put in sternos and use the large baking sheets in a smart way, you can even cook in them.

These chefs work amazingly hard jobs--think celebrity weddings at the beach and charity fundraisers in museums. They're expected to put out 5-star meals under incredibly imperfect conditions, and they never get any praise and no one even knows who they are. They will never win a Michelin star. They will not get cookbook deals or be judges on Food Network TV shows. In the history of catering, there has been exactly one caterer who has become famous, and no one else: Martha Stewart. It is a seriously difficult, seriously unsung job done by consummate professionals at the height of their skills. This book left me impressed. And I was angry every time I had to put the book down. A great read. It will leave you hungry.

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

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Book Review: Maybe a Mermaid by Josephine Cameron

Anthoni and her mom move around a lot. Her mother sells makeup at house parties (think Avon) and while things had been going well for a long time, recently sales have seriously dropped off, and they're unexpectedly in more difficult financial straits. Her mom had put down a substantial nonrefundable deposit at a fancy lake resort in the town where she'd grown up, for Anthoni to have that fun experience for the summer, but in the end, she gives up their apartment and they both go to the resort for the summer, with all their belongings in their car. Anthoni is determined to make the best of things, as The Showboat Resort is going to be amazing, like her mom said, right?

Welllllll, they're the only guests. It's more than a tad bit run down. But Anthoni nonetheless goes ahead with her summer plan to make a True Blue best friend, modeling her plan on her mother's marketing and sales plans. Meanwhile her mother's old childhood best friend isn't completely welcoming. The town kids also aren't exactly Anthoni's cup of tea. And the old lady who runs the resort is, well, quirky at best. Did she really used to be a mermaid in a vaudeville show? Did she REALLY used to be a mermaid? Is Anthoni's mom getting their lives back on track or further off? Will Anthoni make a True Blue best friend?

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 Books for Young Readers, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book Review: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

David and Sarah are two students at a prestigious arts school. Over the summer they embark on a hot and heavy affair. But when school starts back the pressure of being boyfriend and girlfriend breaks them. Mr. Kingsley, their acting teacher, knows what's gone on between them and uses it in a trust exercise in the class for weeks on end. But neither David nor Sarah will be the first to give in.

Meanwhile, a troupe of British student actors come over for an extended visit and infiltrate the groups in the school, and embark on romantic relationships. Relationships are twisted, pulled, snapped, and then...

Twenty years later, Sarah has written a novel about a teen at a prestigious arts school. And a friend who was a minor character in the first part is standing outside City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco as Sarah gives a reading, trying to decide whether or not to confront her. And tell her that she's now working on a play with David.

I know this book is supposed to be amazing and oodles of people I respect are raving over it, but it just didn't work for me. The first half felt icky and gratuitous. Then the narrative shift was so abrupt and I saw the ending coming from a mile away. Overall it didn't work for me. However I seem to be in the minority. Decide for yourself.

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

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Book Review: The Astonishing Maybe by Shaunta Grimes

Gideon has just moved from New Jersey to Nevada at the beginning of summer. Since school is out and he's not even allowed to cross the street on his bike, his only friend option is his next-door-neighbor, Roona. She's nice but a bit odd--wearing a baby blanket tied around her neck as a cape and rainbow-colored knee socks even though it's stiflingly hot. Very soon, Gideon and we readers realize Roona's got bigger problems and Gideon and Roona might be in over their heads in trying to solve them.

Overall, this is a wonderful, albeit somewhat difficult novel, perfect for kids who like realistic and heartbreaking stories. There's an element of magical realism in the book that doesn't really go anywhere--Roona's mother bakes for the whole town and when she's upset, her feelings go into her baked goods--and it's primed to be a major plot point at the climax, but that is literally dashed to pieces and isn't mentioned again. But this is a minor quibble.

It's very realistic in the best ways. In other middle grade books I've read recently, even ones that are ostensibly realistic, I knew everything was going to work out. Everything would slot into place and at the end (or close enough to the end that you could see it), everyone would be happy. This book isn't like that. Readers have a serious worry that things won't work out. And a couple of really, really not-good things do happen. And in the end, even though there's a satisfactory resolution, and you know things will in the very long run probably be okay, nothing is tied up neatly in a bow, and several people are not happy or have a strong chance of being not happy. Sorry for all the vague-ness but I don't want to give away spoilers.

As with a lot of great middle grade books dealing with difficult subjects, the main character, Gideon, is a step removed, giving us perspective and safety in the reading. In the meantime, through his worrying over Roona, he understands his mother better and her worrying over things like him biking across the street. While the book isn't perfect--the little sister doesn't have much purpose and the cover is too cheerful--its heart is enormous and its issues are important and its insights are powerful. It might cause some of the most sensitive kids anxiety, but it's also easy to argue that since you can't protect them from bad things forever, this is great exposure in a safe, discussable way to some problems they or their friends might face down the road, and it's very important for kids to be prepared emotionally and intellectually, to deal with the inevitable bad stuff. I sometimes wish I could have a magic cape when I'm feeling overwhelmed. I hope Roona gets the support she and her mother desperately need.

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 Feiwel & Friends, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Book Review: Credo: The Rose Wilder Lane Story by Peter Bagge

You should know by now that I am a HUGE Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. HUGE. I've taken a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on her, I've been to her house, and my youngest sister is named Laura (not a coincidence). I haven't known much about Rose until more recent years, and this is a fun, odd, and much-needed graphic biography of her. After reading Prairie Fires by Caroline Frasier, I was pretty well convinced that Rose was a grade-A nutjob. I'm glad this book tells things from her perspective, as rarely is a person just a crazy basket case without more to the story.

First of all, her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a difficult mother: demanding, cheap, and grumpy. And as an only child, she had no one to share the burden with. Then her own life didn't go remotely as expected. From an early marriage that didn't work out to losing a baby and having a hysterectomy, meaning no children ever, to becoming a famous writer and friends with influential people across the twentieth century, I hadn't given either the difficulties or achievements in her life much weight. In her lifetime, she was the highest-paid woman journalist/writer with many bestsellers. She even went to Vietnam in her 70s to write about that war. Very well-traveled, she kept trying to get away but was always inextricably pulled back home to Mansfield, Missouri. She was inspired by, helped with, and felt sidelined by her mother's books. Even though she unofficially adopted several young men, she never seemed to fulfill her maternal drive. A famous contrarian and libertarian, she hung out with Ayn Rand.

Graphic biographies are, by their nature, accessible and concise. If you're a Wilder fan and/or have heard of Rose and want to know more, or just want to see what life was like for a famous woman writer from the Midwest in the first half of the twentieth century, this is a great book.

This book is published by Drawn & Quarterly, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Book Review: Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable, illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw

When I picked up this book, I thought it was going to be a light, fluffy, Sweet Valley High type of book about kissing and flirting and boys, and so on. Boy, did I underestimate it!

I mean, on the surface, that is how it starts out. Mads and her best friend Cat are seniors at the local Catholic school and they party and hang out--especially Cat who is always somewhere fun (her home life is a mess and she's always wanting to not be at home.) Mads loves to hang out with her dad, play video games, and go to the minor league baseball games with family friends. Adam, the brother of another friend, has a big crush on Mads, but she doesn't feel the same way... or does she? Well, if she did, why does she also kind of have a crush on... Cat?

Meanwhile, she overhears her father in a conversation and misunderstands a big secret. She figures out the secret isn't what she thinks... but then what is it? She starts to do research after finding a photo and a check, and is astonished by what she finds, and how it might change her family forever.

This was a powerful book. There's a lot to unpack. It's really layered and there's a lot going on--a lot of emotions, confusion, betrayal, trust issues, some of it going back before Mads was even born. There's nothing inappropriate here--a younger kid flipping through this book won't see anything that would shock them, but it certainly is for more mature teens who can understand the complexity. I absolutely loved it.

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, March 5, 2019

Book Review: Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

I wasn't sure about micro-memoirs. I love memoir but hate short stories. I haven't read Ms. Fennelly before but I love her husband Tom Franklin's books. Finally a friend raved about it so it went on my shelf. And in a spurt to finish my goal at the end of the year, super-short books are a boon.

I'm so glad I read it! If it were longer it likely would have gotten annoying. But it's cutesy, quippy little bites of life. Mostly funny, occasionally eye-opening, and one or two surprisingly sad. I do wish for the more serious ones that she'd not held so firmly to her form as a few more details (when her sister died and how) would have provided much-needed context. But I loved it! That is a minor complaint. My favorite is the one about marriage and love that is only a few lines long, and is about how she bumps into her husband's hand with her own, as they each reach to turn on the other's seat warmer. That is true love!

I bought this book at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in Manhattan.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Book Review: Tito the Bonecrusher by Melissa Thomson

Oliver loves the Mexican wrestler, Tito the Bonecrusher, who has gone on to have a wildly successful action movie career (while still wearing his mask). Oliver's dad moved to Florida recently to help a friend open a restaurant and... he has been arrested for some confusing things Oliver doesn't fully understand but might have to do with illegal loans. And of course Oliver knows it's all the friend's fault and his dad didn't do anything. Which means he shouldn't be in jail. And who is great at breaking people out of places impossible to break out of? Tito the Bonecrusher! Who is going to be in town soon as a guest at a charity fundraising event! Oliver just knows that if he's able to sneak in and talk to Tito, he can get his dad out of prison and save the day!

Along the way Oliver makes some new friends, finds his own resourcefulness, and might figure out his father's not quite as innocent as he believes, but that life will go on nevertheless and things will work out okay. But the hijinks to get there will be pretty hilarious!

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 and Giroux Books for Young Readers, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Friday, March 1, 2019

My Month in Review: February

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

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

Books completed this month:
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews
The White Darkness by David Grann (audio)*
The Right Sort of Man by Allison Montclair
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister,  Candace Thaxton (audio)*
Amazing Decisions: The Illustrated Guide to Improving Business Deals and Family Meals by Dan Ariely
The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling by Jeanne Safer*
Twenty-one Truths About Love: A Novel by Matthew Dicks
Born to Fly: The First Women's Air Race Across America by Steve Sheinkin

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson
The Dharma of the Princess Bride: What the Coolest Fairy Tale of Our Time Can Teach Us about Buddhism and Relationships by Ethan Nichtern

Books I did not finish:
The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre (audio)* Even though I was 3/4 of the way through this, I couldn't follow the narrative line and just didn't find it interesting. So many other people love it, I wonder if audio was just the wrong format.

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
None! Doing well with my budget!