Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Book Review: Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier by Jim Ottaviani, with illustrations by Maris Wicks

I love the title of this book. I LOVE that the title isn't Women Astronauts. It's just Astronauts. Because it's not that Astronauts and men and Women Astronauts are something different. Right there, before you even open the book, you know this book's approach is somewhat different, in an awesome way.

This graphic novel traces the history of women in space, mostly at NASA, but also of Valentina Tereshkova, the Soviet Cosmonaut who went up in space way, way back before the US was even considering it. But eventually, decades later, the U.S. caught on that not only are women just as good astronauts as men, there are certain things women excel at. In fact, one of the biggest advantages to letting women into the astronaut pipeline is that it opened that pipeline to all sorts of people who weren't all just test pilots. So we have much more diversity of opinion and approach when it comes to problem-solving, than NASA used to have when everything looks like a nail because they'd only hire hammers.

We follow Mary Cleave as our narrator through the background, and then on her two missions, building the ISS. I loved this book! The science is accessible, the history is appalling, and the future is promising. For any budding young scientist--of either gender--who might be interested in space, this is a must-read.

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

Friday, January 24, 2020

Book Review: The Cactus League: A Novel by Emily Nemens

Baseball is certainly the most literary sport. It's not my favorite sport, but it tops my sports reading, by far and away. It's no contest. And in this novel-in-stories, baseball once again hits it out of the literary park.

In 9 stories (get it? Like 9 innings?), we see various angles on the L.A. Lions' preseason Arizona league. We start with the batting coach who once tried for the major leagues himself, who returns to his beloved Arizona home only to find it has been trashed by squatters while he and his wife were away. Then we spend time with a woman who once was young and beautiful and hopped from baseball player to player, but now is no longer so young, no longer so beautiful, and no longer has the pick of the team, as she considers reevaluating her life and her choices. Then there's the star rookie.

These stories truly can be read as individual stories, but as they progress, they do coalesce into a greater whole. particularly in the last story as several themes from previous ones come together. Perfect for spring. Perfect for baseball fans. But you don't have to be one to love this book.

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

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Book Review: Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolution by Andy Warner

When I was in college, I did not do study abroad. I am dreadful at foreign languages, I'd already spent some time abroad with my family as as tween, and I liked my college and wasn't sure why part of the point was to leave it. Yet most people did. Including Andy, who in 2005 went to Lebanon to study abroad. That's a fascinating decision that he kind of glosses over (yes, he makes a good case for Lebanon being a beautiful and interesting country but only after he's there--I'd like to have known more about why he chose to go to a country that's been war-torn for decades, after Sept. 11.) But the book pretty much starts with his arrival.

He meets people, he makes friends, he gets an apartment, he goes to clubs, he misses his ex-girlfriend, he starts to drawn cartoons again and most of all, he goes a little insane. Like he sometimes hallucinates, he's paranoid, and he has disturbing and realistic dreams. I'm glad that all seemed to be a one-time thing that resolved itself after he came back to the United States, but I also wish he'd explained that further--did he ever have any medical testing? Or even psychological? What would cause a person to temporarily go somewhat crazy for a few months, but then fully recover and never have another incident.

And yet, I don't get the book I wish for, I get the book he has written (and drawn). To see even a low level of a break with reality from the inside, from someone who's come out the other side, is truly a gift. To have someone who is now sane, be able to explain it in a way we can understand, gives a level of empathy most of us who've never struggled with mental health in that way, insight.

Now, that's not the only thing going on while Andy's there. There's a political assassination and unrest, Andy has his first sexual experience with a man, and in the end he decides the breakup with his girlfriend was a mistake (they're still together today and have kids). This book is incredibly open and raw, and reads like he doesn't even know the word artifice. It's one of the most honest and vulnerable memoirs I've ever read.

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

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Book Review: Catching a Russian Spy: Agent Les Weiser Jr. and the Case of Aldrich Ames by Bryan Denson

The second book in the FBI Files series for kids, I find these just utterly fascinating. The last one, The Unabomber, was about how the FBI works. This one is mostly about the CIA, and about the rather evil CIA operative, Aldrich Ames, who went to the Russians and offered to give them information if they paid him. His information lead to the death of dozens of American spies in Russia. The FBI got involved when the CIA figured out they had a mole and uncovered who it was. It turns out (I didn't know this!) that the CIA is not a law enforcement agency, so they can't arrest people. At that point they brought in the FBI, who worked with the CIA to discover evidence that would convict Ames, and to then arrest him before he could leave the country.

A single double agent can undercut and endanger the lives of dozens and scores of agents. One actually inside the primary spying organization of the United States was particularly dangerous. This book highlighted the problems, but also ended on a positive note as he was discovered and taken out. These books give kids an inside look at the FBI (and CIA) without glossing over the issues, and with an exciting and interesting story to go right along with it! Today, true crime is everywhere, and it's important for kids to have age-appropriate books they can turn to as well, so they don't end up watching Manhunter on Netflix and scaring the bejeezus out of themselves. As an added bonus, they'll learn some modern American history along the way.

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, January 16, 2020

Book Review: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez

This book burned me up! A lot of this stuff I already kind of knew. But I never really thought about it. How everything in life is designed for men. How women's clothes don't have pockets. But I didn't know that Siri is designed to hear men's voices. And iPhones are designed to fit in men's hands. And when I thought about it, a big reason why I hate filling up the humidifier and leave it for Jordan' to do, is because of the massive opening which is very hard for me to twist the lid off, as it doesn't fit a woman's hand at all.

 But this book isn't just about modern technology. She discusses everything from how women MPs are treated in Parliament, to how different nonprofits have designed cooking stoves for African women who still cook over open fires--without ever asking the women what they want or need and then being shocked and dismayed after when the women aren't using them. Somehow the fault there lies with the women, according to the designers. Not with their designs. (Seriously, a spokesperson at Apple said we just need to train women--all women--to speak to Siri in a lower tone. Not fix the phone.) It reminds me a lot of another book I read recently, No Visible Bruises, about abuse, and the common question of why don't the women leave. The question ought to be, why don't their men stop hitting them?

But we can't fix any of these problems because we don't understand the problems. We don't know the extent of them. We don't study them. It's harder to study the effect of drugs on women because of hormone fluctuations. So we don't. So some drugs aren't effective on women at all. That's the solution our society has come up with. In what universe does that make sense? You think that's crazy, a drug that was DESIGNED for period pain was tested on men. That's how they found out a weird side-effect of the drug--Viagra--and completely changed the use for it (they never finished the testing on it for period pain, even though it looked to be extremely effective in early trials.)

It also reminded me of a graphic novel I read called Astronauts, which is about women astronauts, and it pointed out that when NASA expanded their idea of what an astronaut was to include women (and to include all sorts of strange things like Not Just Test Pilots), suddenly their troubleshooting became a lot better, because it wasn't any longer just a room full of hammers trying to force every problem into being a nail. When 52% of the population is being excluded, we can't possibly be functioning well. Want to raise the GDP? Instate universal day care. It would raise the GDP by 10% practically overnight. Ooooh, this book made me mad and aware and is really sticking with me. Everyone should read it.

I borrowed this eaudiobook from the library via Overdrive/Libby.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Book Review: American Dirt: A Novel by Jeanine Cummins

The person who told me to read this did warn me, that once you pick it up, it's impossible to put down. From page one, it's a roaring adrenaline-rush. In fact, I found it to be a terrible before-bedtime read as it excited me instead of lulling me, and I couldn't sleep at all. I should have just stayed up all night and read the whole thing.

It's hard to know where to go with a description with not wanting to give away even the very first chapter, but I think it's inevitable. Some backstory as preamble: Lydia lives in Acapulco with her husband, a journalist, and young son, Luca. She owns an independent bookstore. Their life seems happy and normal. But one day, they are at her mother's house for a party--it's Lydia's niece's quinceanera. The family is grilling out and everyone has gathered. Luca has gone inside to use the bathroom, and Lydia goes after him to see if he needs help. When the two of them are inside, machine gunfire erupts outside. Lydia grabs Luca and throws him into the shower and throws herself on top of him. They lie in silence, terrified, as they hear their entire family murdered around them. Some the killers come inside. They must be even quieter, making no sound at all. Finally, when there is silence, they must run. Run for their lives. Leave Acapulo forever with only what they have with them. A cartel is after them. Lydia's husband ran a profile of the leader in the local paper, and they vowed not just to kill him, but his whole family. They won't be safe anywhere in Mexico.

This book read like the best kind of summer action movie, but with much higher stakes, if only because the situation was so much more believable. And speaking of believable, I read nearly 100 pages before I finally realized this was fiction. It read just so true, that I was convinced initially that Lydia and Luca were real and that Ms. Cummins had done extensive interviews to tell their stories. Even now, weeks later, writing this summary, my heart has started beating faster, and the rush of the heart-pounding story is literally making my breathing increase. Yet it's not a fluffy beach-read thriller--I learned so much about the plight of immigrants striving to come to America for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. The danger, the uncertainty, the diligence and incredible effort they must put forth for.... who knows what outcome. But for Lydia, and many, many others, there is no other real option. She does what she has to do to protect herself and her child once she has lost everything else in the world. Desperation proves a strong motivator. Pick this book up when you have many hours to devote to it. You won't be able to put it down.

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

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Book Review: Finding Mr. Better-Than-You by Shani Petroff

When Cam returns home from camp for her senior year of high school, her loyal boyfriend Marc is waiting for her. She's so excited to spend a year in art class with him, cheering him on at his soccer games, and ending with getting into Columbia alongside him. So when he publicly dumps her at their favorite diner surrounded by their friends, she's crushed in many ways, and has to figure out where to go from here.

Her best friends help her out, and along the way she figures out some important stuff, like that she doesn't have to sublimate her own interests for a boyfriend, and that true loyalty and real love doesn't even have to come from a romantic relationship at all. It's a fun romp with things going on practically every minute--she joins (and is the entire!) yearbook committee, becomes the secondary school mascot (at volleyball games and the like), rediscovers her love for NYC--and that NYU is probably a better fit for her than Columbia ever was--organizes an art show for one of her friends, dates a little, and basically has a fun, rollercoaster, more typical senior year. What about Marc? Marc who? Let's move on!

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 Swoon Reads, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Book Review: The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black

During WWII, the King and Queen of England stayed put in Buckingham Palace amidst the Blitz, to show solidarity with their people in the chaos, terror, and uncertainty. But, were they willing to put the lives of their young daughters at risk? Particularly when they're in direct line for the throne? Mr. Black (pen name of the award-winning author John Banville) has heard a story that they did not. And he's here imagined what might have happened.

"Ellen" and "Mary" are spirited West to Ireland in the care of secret agent Celia Nashe, to the crumbling manor house of a Duke, a relative of the Queen Mother's. An Irish detective, Strafford, is also in attendance to watch over the girls. Ireland is neutral in WWII, and Canada is too far away given U-Boat accuracy (Australia much worse) and even though Irish-English relations are still quite raw from the Irish War for Independence just 20 years earlier, it seems like the best of several bad options. So off they go. Mary gets into scrapes and is nosy and secretive, while Ellen tries to maintain a stoic outlook, riding her horse and behaving herself. Celia is bored and hoping the handsome diplomat will return. Stafford is busy reading everything he can get his hands on. The Duke and his household staff both try to get on with everyday life and yet also can't help but gossip. And gossip could well be the downfall of everything. Can you imagine if the IRA managed to kidnap the future Queen? Well, they can! It's better than Hitler, but not by much. Celia and Strafford have more on their plates than they initially bargained for and this sleepy country estate harbors more than dust motes and boredom.

The book is very atmospheric and creepy for a large part of it, and towards the end it quickly turns thrilling (with the added fun detail that our narrator through those scenes is also deathly ill with the flu while all the shit is hitting the fan). I enjoyed the book thoroughly and wish it were twice as long! Zipped through it in just a couple of days. I will be looking for more of Mr. Black/Banville's books.

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

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Book Review: Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

At the beginning of the tech boom in the early 2000s, Anna, disenchanted from working in the super-low-paying world of book publishing (ahem), First dips her toe in the tech world by working at a company with a reading app. But when that job doesn't work out, her contacts help her land a job in San Francisco working customer support (because even the very, very few women in tech still work gender-role based jobs) for a company that provides data to app companies. It's like selling jeans to the 49ers in California instead of panning for gold, so from that POV, this start-up seemed like a good idea. But soon the bro-culture, the skateboards, the late nights, the getting shafted with options (she was told they don't have pay discrepancies so not to negotiate her pay structure. Lies.) starts to open her eyes to the bigger problems in Silicon Valley, and hence, this memoir was born.

It's compelling and a great insider's view to a business and culture all of us interact with daily (if not minutely) and yet, know nothing about. We've seen the Facebook movie and read a few articles, but to really understand the day-to-day from inside the crazy is a great perspective. I wish she'd been less naive and more self-aware, and while I understand her reasoning for not using brand names throughout the book, it also feels rather stilted and awkward. (At first. And then it gets to be funny. And then you don't notice it much anymore.) Watching the train wreck, it's impossible to put the book down. And yet, I didn't feel any better about the technology and even worse about the companies behind it. Very much a book for Now.

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

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Book Review: Go with the Flow by Lily Williams, Karen Schneemann

Sasha is starting at a new high school. On the first day she managed to annoy some of the older, more popular girls, but she also makes a new friend. A day or two later, Sasha experiences every teen's worst nightmare--while wearing white jeans, she gets her period for the first time, which is apparent to all. The popular girl makes fun of her, while her new friends rescue her. Her new friends, Brit, Christine, and Abby, now have a friend for life.

As the school year goes on, the teasing around Sasha dies down. Brit experiences terrible, debilitating pain monthly, Christine seems to be having more than usual feelings for Abby, and Abby becomes increasingly incensed about the situation at their school surrounding periods. She seems the football team just got new uniforms after only two years, and yet the women's bathrooms are always out of pads and tampons. The principal claims they can't have them due to budget issues--which is crazy not only because the new uniforms surely cost money, but the students have to pay for the pads and tampons, so why does that cost the school anything at all?

She starts a blog and does an art project and tries to get her friends as upset as she is, but nothing she tries is getting any traction. She blows up and defaces the school and drags her friends into it which they don't appreciate. In her frustration, a blog post she writes finally gains ground.

I really hope this is going to be a series! It seems there is plenty still left to do. Notably, as Abby realizes, fixing this problem at their school only fixes it for a small--and somewhat privileged--population of girls, and it needs to be addressed on a larger scale. Brit's health issues need to be resolved (fingers crossed--most women with endometriosis aren't even diagnosed for more than 10 years.) And Christine, who is normally the goofball of the group, looks to be one with some bigger concerns coming up (is she gay? Do her friends know that? In particular, is her friend Abby receptive to her interest? Could this ruin their friendship?)

This is a great story hitting a topic that has been getting much more notice the last few year, particularly among the younger set. But for those not on the frontlines of period activism, there is still a lot of shame and embarrassment and fear surrounding menstruation, and the best way to tackle that is just to be open and honest about the subject. This book goes a long way in that, too.

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.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Book Review: The Hollows by Jess Montgomery

The second book in this mystery series, each reads like a stand-alone so don't be afraid to just jump in. Set in Appalachian Ohio in the 1920s, the books feel somewhat older, as the "Roaring Twenties" haven't really hit this neck of the woods yet (and I'm guessing never will.) Our main character is Lily Ross, who in the last book was made sheriff after her husband, who had been sheriff before her, died. But most people assume when the election comes around, she'll be replaced by a man, of course. Lily, however, likes her job and is good at it, and would like to stay sheriff.

Meanwhile, an elderly woman was hit by a train in a nearby rural area, so desolate one can't drive there in a car. Where did she come from? What was she doing wandering around in the middle of the night in a nightgown and no shoes? What is her connection to the town of Kinship?

While investigating, with the help of her best friend and jail matron, Lily is also dealing with the election, and with deciding how she wants her life to move forward. Working mothers weren't really a thing at this time and she's having to very much lean on her mother and friends for support. Feminists will note with much eye-rolling her mother's correct prediction that in the midst of a murder investigation, Lily must enter a pie in the local fair's contest like she always does (which the male candidate of course does not need to), to prove she's still feminine.

The setting is so vibrantly drawn in the hill country with mining and farming all around, with sketchy literacy rates and such a different way of life. I still find it so unique, with Model Ts and indoor plumbing still being new, and yet the hardscrabble, hardworking people actually mean that despite being rather backwoods, they're used to women working hard (just not often outside of the home but still working 16-hour days) and so this might not be as much of a stretch here, as in more urban areas with more "progress." The mystery kept me guessing, but I came for Lily and Marvena and Hildy, and look forward to spending much more time in their company.

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

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

My Month in Review: December

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

I did not finish my annual goal! I loved reading the third Lady Astronaut book which was long and I dragged it out, and we traveled some to see family, had family in town, I got bitten by bedbugs, and I got food poisoning. I still could have done it if I crammed in a bunch of middle grade books and graphic novels, but my network password for work, which I use to download manuscripts, expired and I couldn't get it to reset and the company is closed, so I finally just gave up. Instead I decided to treat myself to reading whatever I want (it's a printed book, shocking! And it's long! It is a book published by my company, but it's a couple of years old, so it's not something I'm reading "for work.")

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

Books completed this month:
The Invisible Boy by Alyssa Hollingsworth
Dung for Dinner: A Stomach-Churning Look at the Animal Poop, Pee, Vomit, and Secretions that People Have Eaten (and Often Still Do!) by Christine Virnig
The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe
The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint, Michigan, Fought for Their Lives and Warned the Nation by Candy J Cooper, with Marc Aronson
Articulated Restraint by Mary Robinette Kowal
Child Star by Box Brown
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez*
When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? And 101 Other Questions about New York City by Jean Ashton*

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway -- and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad, translated by Sarah Death
Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels by Rachel Cohen
Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
Again, yay me, nothing! I did give 5 books as Christmas gifts though:
Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Me by Elton John (this one is a book from my work!)
Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Irvin D. Yalom
World War II: Infographics by Jean Lopez, Nicolas Aubin, Vincent Bernard, Nicolas Guillerat (2 copies)

2019: The Year in Review

In 2010 I got this meme, I think from Boston Bibliophile. It was a fun way to summarize the year, so I now do it every year. 

How many books read in 2019? 117. Sigh. First time I didn't hit my goal. I came incredibly close (goal was 120). Oh well. It's still an awful lot.

How many fiction and non fiction? 59 F / 58 NF

Male/Female author ratio? 36 M /91 F*
*I counted illustrators (if different from the author) of graphic novels, and I know some of these authors prefer to use "they," and I am simply classifying them in order to keep my own stats, not to say something about their gender. But wow, I've never had such an unbalanced year, including years when I was explicitly trying to read more women! Cool! 

Favorite book of 2019? 
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Least favorite? 
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. It won the National Book Award. But was definitely not my cup of tea!

Any that you simply couldn't finish and why? No whys here, but some audiobooks that just didn't grab me. Some books just don't work as well on audio (for me) for one reason or another and it's not always (or often) a failure of the book itself:
Range by David Epstein
Pioneers by David McCullough
Fifty Things that Aren't My Fault by Cathy Guisewite
Heavy by Kiese Laymon
The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre

Oldest book read? Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule 1992
Newest?  Displacement by Kiku Hughes, comes out August 4, 2020

Longest and shortest book titles? (not including subtitles)
Longest: Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby by Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal
Shortest: by Therese Anne Fowler

Longest and shortest books?
Longest: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel 604 pages
Shortest: Articulated Restraint by Mary Robinette Kowal 26 pages

How many books from the library? 24, all audiobooks.

How many audiobooks? 30, a new record!

How many graphic books? 17, including two cartoon books and a cross-stitch book.

Any translated books? Nope, not this year.

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author? Mary Robinette Kowal and Therese Anne Fowler, 2 each

Any re-reads? 

Favorite character of the year? Daniel Mayrock from Twenty-One Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading? England, Mexico, Singapore, Australia, Morocco, Romania, Ireland, Lebanon, France, Italy, and the Moon!

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation? The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution's Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life's Biggest Problems by Matt Simon I believe this was recommended by my friend Brad who works at Random House. The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling by Jeanne Safer, recommended by Tony, a therapist. Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear by Kim Brooks, recommended by Emilie, a bookstore buyer.

Which author was new to you in 2019 that you now want to read the entire works of? Hilary Mantel

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read? I had hoped to read the new Olive Kitteridge book by Elizabeth Strout, Olive Again, and the new Mary Norris, Greek to Me

How many books did you read for work? 88. Plus about 120 picture books that I don't count here.

How many different publishers (not imprints) did you read? 9

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read? Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel! I counted this as a book I read for work because I read it while selling in the third book in the series.