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Friday, November 29, 2019

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Personally, I hate reading series where all the books aren't out yet. For one thing, not every author can decently end a story. For another, on occasion, those series never end at all for one reason for another. Most importantly, I have a crap memory, and so I really want to read them all more or less in a row or else I'll forget too much if I have a year or more in between. As this book came out 10 years ago and the final one int he trilogy comes out after the holidays, I'd have had to have a masterful memory to make that work! But I heard the third was coming and so I knew I could finally get started. And as they're all chunksters (this one is just over 600 pages), I will need all that lead time.

Thomas Cromwell at the beginning of the book is a little kid, constantly getting in trouble with his blacksmith father, being beaten to a bloody pulp on frequent occasions. He runs away, goes to sea, and comes back a successful cloth trader having worked in Europe. He quickly becomes a landowner, a leader in his town, befriends Cardinal Woolsey who is King Henry VIII's primary adviser, and is on an upward trajectory that seems to know no end. He survives the downfall of Woolsey, gains the confidence of Anne Boleyn, is promoted a dozen more times, and manages somehow to be a strongman, a Lazarus, and a shaman of sorts, all at once. Everyone hates him, everyone wants him on their side, he charms everyone (that he wants to) even when they're certain they could never be charmed by such a shyster as him. It's a brilliant eye into the heart of power, with all its egos, machinations, emotions, complications, manipulations, and chaos. I can't wait to start book 2.

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

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Book Review: Factfulness by Hans Rosling (audiobook)

I recently looked up the quiz that begins this book and gave it to my step-mother, my brother, and his best friend. Granted, I'd already told them the premise of the book so they got more right than they would have. But what's crazy is how, even with knowing the premise, how many they still insisted on getting wrong. They probably knew the answers would be wrong when they chose them, but they did anyway.

Thanks to the 24/7 news cycles, the way our brains awfulize things, and assumptions, most people today think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and we're all wrong. The world really isn't as bad off as we all are told and believe. In this book, Mr. Rosling goes through and identifies, step by step, how inaccurate thinking processes, millennia of thought patterns designed to prepare for charging sabertooth tigers, the inaccurate data combine to make us all, on both sides of the aisle, think the world is a horrible place and getting more horrible every day. In fact, over the last century, we've made massive strides in everything from conservation to education to mortality rates, to poverty. The world is improving all the time.

Mr. Rosling was a consultant who regularly spoke to the UN, NGOs, ThinkTanks, and the like to explain where resources are and are not needed, and why it's a different list than what they had expected. He had an upward battle in every presentation and conversation, so he came armed with facts. While I listened to the audiobook, apparently a lot of these facts are presented as PopCharts which are easy to understand and visualize. That said, even without those, it was still fascinating, and did make me question a lot of assumptions. In fact, it's stuck with me for months. It's a great conversation starter and an important book for everyone to read, so we all can better understand what's really going on in the world, where we should focus our energy and efforts, and where we're throwing good money after bad.

This book is published by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, my employer. I bought the digital audiobook from Libro.fm. A portion of the proceeds go to Main Street Books in Davidson, NC, an independent bookstore.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Book Review: Best Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

In this book, which picks up where Real Friends left off, Shannon is now in 6th grade, with a group of friends, but still just as confused as ever. Her new best friend mostly seems great, expect when sometimes she drops Shannon or seems to be buddying up to her old best friend, Shannon's enemy, again. Another girl in the group occasionally seems to be spreading untrue rumors about Shannon, mostly harmless, but not always. Shannon can't keep up with what's popular, what's trendy, and actually feels like watching the most popular TV show and listening to the Top 40 every week is her most important homework. And then there's boys. The most confusing subject of all.

Oh, the emotions felt so real, so visceral, and it took me whipping back in time. I understood every feeling she was going through, every baffling situation, all the tension and anxiety. (Well, but she has actual Anxiety issues and I didn't. But I still understand them even if I didn't experience them.) Even with no longer experiencing daily bullying, life doesn't feel much better on a day to day basis. I especially was heartbroken when she spent a weekend with her old best friend who had moved away, who dissed her and wanted to spend more time with Shannon's sisters.

This book will have you reliving middle school. It's chock-full of details from an era when personal relationships were the most fraught, when everything you did seemed wrong, when it felt like everyone else had a script to a play you were ad-libbing, and boy am I glad that time is over.

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Book Review: Me by Elton John, narrated by Taron Egerton (audiobook)

At first I was a little disappointed that Elton John only narrated the introduction, not the entire audiobook, but I soon learned the error of my ways! Mr. Egerton was fantastic! I knew he was a great actor from having seen him play Elton John in Rocketman, but he really brought a new level to the book in his narration. In the Introduction, Mr. John spoke rather quickly and also without a lot of emotion or tonality. He was just... reading. Whereas Mr. Egerton was most definitely ACTING. He had dramatic pauses, long sighs, he can do American accents (although his Tina Turner left something to be desired), and it was a perfect audiobook narration. I wish he could narrate all my audiobooks from now on.

That said, this was also an example of the perfection of subject matter and medium. I think Mr. Egerton would be amazing narrating any book, but this was a truly ideal marriage of form and function. You can tell Mr. John's book is terrifically fun for him to work with. It's juicy and meaty with gossip and temper tantrums and humor and cocaine and famous people. It's really refreshing how open and honest Elton John is about his flaws, his mistakes, his massive screw-ups, even making himself the butt of jokes from time to time (unless he can make Rod Stewart the butt of the joke.) I really wasn't at all sure I would like this book, but just an hour into it, I knew it not only would this help me get through the tail end of my travel season and my last bit of driving with my sanity intact, but I would even thoroughly enjoy that last drive home.

Like any sane human, I am an Elton John fan, but by no means a mega fan. I'm not sure I owned any of his music until MP3s came along and I could pick individual songs (maybe I had a copy of "Don't Go Breakin My Heart" on a mix tape.) I vividly remember the surprise that the bookstore I worked in was carrying the special Princess Diana version of "Candle in the Wind" (we sold out the first day.) And in recent years I've really enjoyed "I'm Still Standing" as an occasional personal anthem when I'm feeling a bit beaten down by the world (also Bruno Tonioli from Dancing With the Stars is in the video which is hiLARious! But now I have at least 10 of his songs in rotation, and they're just great. Also, if you think you don't need this book because you've seen the movie, the movie only covers about the first third of the book. It ends in the early 80s. If you want everything since then, like when Michael Jackson crashed the dinner where Elton's now-husband was meeting his mother for the very first time, you need this book.

This book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer. I downloaded the eAudiobook from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Book Review: The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson (audiobook)

I love Bill Bryson! I have read every book he's written (even his dictionary! Seriously!) I love the most his books on giant single subjects and yet I'm also always astonished when he comes up with a new area for those. The Body may be his best yet.

As always, it's utterly filled with trivia, bizarre fact, and anyone with just a passing understanding of anatomy and medicine will find something fascinating every few minutes. Did you know that if all your DNA was made into a single strand and stretched out end to end, it was stretch past Pluto and out of the solar system? Did you know that most stutterers are left-handed? And that stuttering is much worse in those who are left-handed but were forced to learn to write right-handed? Did you know that we get 2-5 cancer cells every single day of our lives, which our immune systems get rid of? And that kissing is a surprisingly bad way to spread a cold? My husband doesn't have any idea how lucky he is that I listened to this book while I was out of town and he was spared a massive amount of gasping and me telling him interesting things endlessly (he still got a few). And you need to have no prior knowledge or interest in the subject at all--I nearly failed my high school biology class.

Mr. Bryson narrates the book himself, and I know some people find him an annoying narrator, but I do not at all. He has developed a bit of a British accent and I find him charming. It's the best of both worlds where he sounds fancy and slightly foreign but he doesn't pronounce words like "laboratory" in that bizarre British way.

I found the book utterly delightful, completely fascinating, and I wish it had been twice as long.

I downloaded the eAudiobook from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Book Review: Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises by Jodie Kirshner

Did you read and love the amazing book Evicted? First of all, you should. And then this is the perfect follow-up. In a similar fashion, Ms. Kirshner looks at Detroit, and its perfect storm of job losses, property value tanking, crime rising, infrastructure crumbling, and the spiral that creates.

From afar, we all might think why do people stay there, but she follows a half-dozen residents to fully explain that. It's hard to just abandon a house that your family has owned for three generations. Especially when you can't afford to fix it up or--more crucially--to move. People forget, moving is expensive. Also it's hard to leave a neighborhood you once loved, where your kids grew up, where you once had hopes and dreams. The few remaining residents aren't losers who didn't get out while the getting was good--they're warriors, the last bastion of hope for this city. They're maintaining entire blocks single-handedly. They're alerting friends and family of abandoned homes they can move into and protect from vandals (yes, they're squatters, but is that worse than the house being literally ripped apart for its pipes and water heaters?). Some even see hope and opportunity. With the housing values so incredibly low, people who never could have afforded to buy a house before, now might be able to. Although the legal hoops make getting a conventional mortgage seem like a walk in the park. (And no, you can't get a traditional mortgage in Detroit. It doesn't matter how good your credit is, or how much money you have in the bank. No underwriter will insure it, so no bank will lend it.) Admittedly, also some carpetbaggers have arrived, both in the form of out-of-towners who have romanticized Detroit as a noir land of opportunity, and of absentee landlords, often flippers (but not the kind of flippers who fix up the house first).

But these personal stories serve to illuminate the larger picture. This could happen to any single-industry city. If something bizarre happened to the internet, this could happen to Silicon Valley. And it has happened to a lesser scale to other rust belt cities, from Buffalo to Cleveland (where my sister pays 1/5 the rent I do for a very similar apartment.) Diversification is the best bulwark against devastation, and then smart management if that's too late. Hopefully a city's state won't screw it to the extent Michigan did Detroit (in fact, I think Ms. Kirshner lets Michigan somewhat off the hook for some of the financial shenanigans that went on there. I think the state could have been pilloried some more and they'd have deserved it.) It's a cautionary tale, but also hopefully a story that will increase empathy for those not in booming coastal cities, for those who are struggling are often victims of circumstance and bad timing. This is an eminently readable, important book about a very American problem.

This book is published by St. Martins Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Book Review: Ellie, Engineer: In the Spotlight by Jackson Pearce

I just love these Ellie Engineer books! In this one, we really see one of my favorite aspects of the books, as it's set at a pageant. Kit often goes along with what Ellie likes to do but this time Ellie joins Kit for one of her favorite things: a kids pageant. Their friend Toby tags along too even though he can't compete (but that doesn't prevent him from trying his best to win Miss Congeniality!) Their moms take advantage of the long weekend with kids' supervised activities to have a Girls' Weekend, which is how this all comes together.

Anyway, as Ellie works on a light-up, foldable skateboarding ramp for Kit's talent, and laments that engineering doesn't lend itself well to a talent contest so she has to go with ballet, her second-best talent, the story gets underway. She meets the nasty Queen Bee of the pageant circuit, Melody, who promptly accuses Kit of theft when her precious rabbit, the highlight of her winning magic show, disappears. With the help of Ellie's engineering skills (although actually more her logic skills), Melody's rabbit is found in the nick of time, Kit's ramp lights up just right, and naturally--I know you knew this was coming--Ellie does end up showcasing her engineering skills (AND her ballet skills) in her talent after all.

For me the very best thing about this series, beyond the great friendships with girls and boys, the way they are so good at compromising and empathizing, and even beyond the engineering, is how ungendered they all are. Aside from the fact that it's a pageant and Toby can't participate (I was a little surprised he didn't fight that!), it's wonderful to see the more "girly" character of Kit doing skateboarding for her talent, and the more "tomboyish" Ellie doing ballet and being fairly excited about the whole pageant. I mean, Ellie didn't care about winning (and was bummed when Melody called her out on wearing her toolbelt on stage), but she still thought the weekend would be fun. It's so refreshing to see these variations on the usual highly-gendered kids activities and interests, just presented without comment, as if of course a girl interested in engineering would also dance ballet. Love.

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.

Friday, November 1, 2019

My Month in Review: October

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Nicole at Feed Your Fiction Addiction.

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

Books completed this month:
Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales
Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux (audio)*
The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves (audio)
The Hollows by Jess Montgomery
Best Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks
Displacement by Kiku Hughes
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell (audio)*

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World's Most Expensive Fungus by Ryan Jacobs (audio)*
Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu [annoyingly I am "still reading" this because even though I work at the publisher, only the first half of the book is available to me pre-pub.]
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? And 101 Other Questions about New York City by Jean Ashton*

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
Yale Needs Women by Anne Gardiner Perkins--I picked this up at NAIBA.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett--my book club book. I bought this at Browseabout Books in Rehobeth Beach, DE.