Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Book Review: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Late in life, twenty-five years after her sister Jane Austen died, Cassandra Austen systematically destroyed (or edited by cutting out parts) many of her letters. Jane Austen had not yet achieved the literary status she holds today, but she was well on her way, and Cassandra had hopes. It's a tragedy for literary historians, but a boon for other novelists. In this book, Gill Hornby (yes, wife of Nick Hornby) imagines Cassandra going to visit a relative in hopes of recovering some of Jane's more open and honest correspondence--and getting rid of it.

Cassandra has outlived her parents (her mother lived to 87 though!), her sister, a few brothers, and while she's always, always made an effort to be exceptionally helpful, as she knew an unmarried female relative was a burden, she's also mostly outlived her helpfulness. But when her brother dies and his daughter has to pack up and move out of the vicarage, she uses her reputation for helpfulness as an excuse for a visit in order to hunt for more of Jane's letters. Throughout the book, we get flashes back to Cassandra's own engagement which ended in tragedy, to missed romances for both Jane and Cassandra later, to Jane and Cassandra's life together, and to Jane's final days. As Cassandra reflects on her (and Jane's) life choices and the results, she consistently declares herself to be incredibly happy with how things turned out and that she wouldn't have it any other way. And yet, when she sees her niece, a fellow spinster who is about to be homeless, Cassandra can't help but try to help. Is it possible she does regret some opportunities not taken? She'll never admit it to herself, but we readers can perhaps see alternate paths that would have also lead to happiness.

This novel is contemplative, quiet, about looking back on a life well-lived, but not the traditional path taken. There are hints here and there of where bits of their own lives were appropriated by Jane, or perhaps inspired certain scenes or language. Had Cassandra married, would we not have Jane's novels? Or would they have been different? Ms. Hornby really gets into the mind of a nineteenth-century woman, who doesn't even consider most options a single woman would these days, and it's just fascinating how burdensome and guilty they felt about what was only partly a choice and partly circumstance. There is a distinct feeling of failure throughout, despite achievements and happiness. As if shepherding six spectacular novels that will one day enter the canon of English Literature, to fruition, were naturally a much lesser accomplishment than marriage and children. The assumptions of gender roles are both expected and sad.

That said, the book isn't sad. Jane is a feisty and sharp observer, and Cassandra as our narrator, softens her a bit, at least with us. It's interesting to see their parents as lighter, less extreme versions of the elder Bennets, and to finally notice that Emma and Mansfield Park are opposites of each other based on a single line of dialogue (one book is about a girl who is rich in material good but poor in values, and then the reverse. How did this never occur to me before?) It was hilarious to hear James Austen's wretched poetry (which is all real, direct quotes of Jane's brother's dreadful attempts, which were lauded at the time.) And to wonder at Jane Austen's life turning out rather like how we imagine Mary Bennet's future, of all people. Was Austen to cruel to Mary because she didn't want to acknowledge their similar circumstances?

This book will make you think a lot about Austen, her works, and the actual human everyday life of writers outside of their books. Ms. Hornby seems to have done extensive research which all rang true (Ms. Hornby actually lives in one of the houses where the Austens once lived!) A must-read for any Austen fan.

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

Sunday, March 29, 2020

4 History Audiobooks

I love listening to history books on audio. For me, fiction on audio has issues. Nonfiction is my preferred audiobook, and after memoir, history is just great. You might be familiar with the broad strokes, if you miss a line or two due to traffic situations, it won't affect the overall story, and it's usually pretty interesting.

I've gotten way behind on my reviews, so I thought I'd combine four history audiobooks into one post. By the way, if you're stuck inside and listening to some audiobooks sounds like a good idea, I get most of mine through my local library on the Libby app, and the rest through Libro.fm. On Libro.fm you can pick an independent bookstore and help support them through your audio purchases. Most libraries only have new releases and you might have to wait weeks or months for the hot ones. On Libro, their depth of backlist is greater, and you own it, so you get it right now, and you don't have to listen to it in two weeks or it disappears--ideal for longer ones. Now, on to the reviews!

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
It's good to start with an overview! This history goes back to the very beginnings of civilization, with beer. Water has rarely been potable once humans stopped being nomadic and settled down. Plus humans (and some other animals too!) have always had interest in intoxicants. After we got beer mastered, next up was wine. Following that, naturally spirits. Then we've got all of alcohol down pat, so on to coffee, tea, and finally cola. This book covers thousands of years of history, and I learned some really interesting tidbits, like how Pepsi was able to sell behind the iron curtain, therefore when the Eastern Bloc countries were finally opened to the west, Coke took over a symbolic of the west, even though Pepsi had long been available in Moscow.

Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
While George and Martha Washington lived in Philadelphia, the second capitol of the United States, Pennsylvania had a law on the books that after 6 months, any enslaved person could petition for (and be granted) their freedom. Luckily for them, this was pointed out to them just before they were there six months, along with a loophole. If they took their enslaved people back to Virginia every five and a half months, the clock would restart every time. Well, if you think that was good enough for those enslaved people, who had worked alongside free whites and some free blacks in both New York City and Philadelphia, you'd be sorely mistaken. And one in particular, Ona Judge, Martha's personal slave, had had enough, and ran away. And man, the Washingtons really tried to get her back.

Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War by Steve Inskeep
Ah, how comforting it is to hear Steve Inskeep in your ear, talking just to you for hours on end. And about a truly interesting and largely forgotten character from the early days of the United States. Yes, I know you've heard of John Fremont, but can you tell me why? I sure couldn't. Turns out he was an explorer of the West, helped found California (and was one of its very first senators, just for a matter of months), fought Mexicans (sometimes illegally), was court-marshaled, and went on to run for president (not necessarily in that order). Along the way he married Jessie Benton, daughter of a longtime Senator, who turned out to be the famous woman behind a great man. John wouldn't have accomplished half of what he did, if it wasn't for Jessie's support, and more importantly her behind the scenes power, her understanding of political machinations and manipulations, and her ability to play the new media in a way never done before, making them the first real "celebrities" in the modern sense of the word.

You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe
Most biographies of George Washington are written by men (and by most, I mean 99.9%) and they're mostly not very critical, rather fawning looks. Even the ones written by respected Big Guys in biographies, don't tend to question what they read in previous biographies about how Washington's mother was horrible (um, take context into consideration please, and also go back to original sources) and they also are overly concerned about Washington's lack of progeny and hence, his manliness (which never seemed to bother Washington.) So this is a refreshing look at him as a three-dimensional human. Ms. Coe isn't out to tear him down from his pedestal, but rather to make him not  a marble statue at all, but instead, a human being. It's fascinating and a fresh look and I listened to the whole thing in one day! (Yes, it did cover a little of the same ground as Never Caught. But not in a way that felt overly redundant. That incident here is just given a few paragraphs in the last section of the book. You should definitely read both.)

All four of these I borrowed from my local library via Libby. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Stuck Inside Recommendations 1-10

On Facebook I started recommending a book a day for those stuck inside and looking for something good to read. I'm alternating between books published by Macmillan (my employer) and not. (Simply, because the vast majority of my reading is Macmillan books, it's really hard for me to not have this unbalance in any list I put together.) And I thought I'd pull together those recommendations every 10 days here, for people who I'm not Facebook friends with.

Please buy books from independent bookstores! You can find your nearby indies here, or you can buy from bookshop.org or you can get audiobooks from Libro.fm. Those last two you either can get to through the website of an indie, and have part of your purchase go to that indie directly, or if you really don't know of one, any purchases made on those sites, even unaffiliated ones, will indirectly support independent bookstores. Bookstores are really struggling right now, from chains on down to the little guys, and right now, you have a lot of time to read! Seems like two great things that go great together.

Now, on with the list! While these are numbered, they are not ranked. I've starred the non-Macmillan books, and if I reviewed them, I'll link to the review. Every one of these books got a 5-star rating from me!

10. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

9. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel*

8. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

7. Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl* (sorry, I read this book before Goodreads existed and before my blog, so no review!)

6. A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

5. A Shot in the Dark (Constable Twitten #1) by Lynne Truss

4. The Story of the Great British Bake Off by Anita Singh*

3. The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal

2. Life With Jeeves (Jeeves #2, 4, 6) by P.G. Wodehouse*

1. Twenty-one Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Book Review: What Stars Are Made of by Sarah Allen

Libby has Turner Syndrome. It causes a lot of problems like different learning abilities and an enlarged heart, but Libby lives with it just fine--after all, she was born this way and doesn't know any other way to be. It sometimes causes issues at school when she doesn't make friends easily and blurts out things in class that don't go over well. But she's excited when there's a school assignment to pick a person from history who you think should be included in textbooks who isn't. She knows exactly who to do: Dr. Cecilia Payne, who first discovered what stars are made of, although a man was later named as the discoverer of that. Also, a new girl at school seems friendly. And the best thing of all--her beloved older sister Nonny has come home to stay for a while. She's pregnant and her husband has gone away for work. There's a nationwide contest sponsored by the Smithsonian behind the school assignment, and Libby is determined to win, so she can give the money to Nonny, for her baby. After all, there's a worry that Nonny's baby could also have Turner Syndrome.

This is a very sweet story about a well-meaning, whip-smart, and truly kind girl who has some issues, but always tries her hardest (and then some). I was thrilled when she made a friend (a half-Samoan girl who likes poetry and rap) and the relationship with her sister was very loving and Nonny's advice was great. The lengths Libby went to for the contest were impressive and yet believable. I think any middle-school girl will adore this book.

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 BYR, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Book Review: One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives by Bernd Heinrich (audiobook)

I listened to this book back in January but it's ideal for right now. It's all about Mr. Heinrich watching the birds right in his own backyard (granted, he lives in the woods in Maine). Each chapter focuses on a different bird or bird pair that he notices doing something interesting, and so he focuses on them for a while.

Now, I doubt many of us have the level of interest that would persuade us to cut a hole in a bedroom of our own house in order to better observe a nest of baby birds, but I'm glad Mr. Heinrich does. This book is quiet, contemplative, and yet fascinating even though it's on a tiny scale. There is a world of interesting wildlife right outside our own back doors, even in a city. If we slow down and pay attention, we might learn something.

I downloaded an eaudiobook of this from Libby/Overdrive.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Book Review: The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer

Thalia lives in a world where there are three kinds of people. There are Traders, who change between human form and an animal and are incredibly rich and beautiful and rule everything. There are the ones who commune with nature (and are the go-betweens with the native peoples). And finally, there are the Solitaires, who are just ordinary humans with no powers.

Except that--Thalia is a stage magician, giving the illusion that she has magical powers. One night when a trick goes horribly wrong and her life is endangered, something happens. She's not exactly sure what, but her arm felt numb and cold and turned white, and then she was able to slip out of a handcuff without any trouble. Something... happened. Did she trade into an animal? That's not possible. After all, she's a Solitaire, not a Trader. Isn't she? She is an orphan after all--maybe she doesn't know as much about her parents as she thought she did. Add in the theft of a trick and a murder, and Thalia has too much going on to really figure out who she is right now--except there are secret powers that demand her attention no matter what. And she must give it to them, or her life is in danger, too.

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Book Review: Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit

I love a good historical novel, and you rarely encounter one set in early colonial days, so that pulled me in right from the start. Set only ten years after the Mayflower landed, we have two narrators--the second wife of one of the leaders of the colony, and the wife of an outsider, the pair of them having come over as indentured servants, not as Quakers.

The language is stilted and evocative of the overly formal, antique style of the era. One woman is not sure about her husband, about what exactly happened to his first wife, her friend, and about how to act in her new community. The other woman is a rebel, defiant and sure, standing up for herself and her husband.

A new ship has entered the harbor. There must be a big dinner, sapping their resources, to welcome newcomers (and a couple of oldcomers) to the settlement. There is a land dispute. And a body.

I was expecting a more traditional mystery set in these colonial times and the book isn't that at all. There's no mystery except what will result from it. There is a lot of preamble, setting up the atmosphere and relationships and for a long while you are wondering who is going to kill who, as there is a lot of hatred and mistrust. In this book you really feel as if you walk amongst the colonials in a way I haven't encountered before. And the women's voices, as awkward as they sound in this day, truly immerse you in the 1600s.

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

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Book Review: Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

Gene Yang teaches math at a Catholic high school with an excellent basketball team. When he learns the school is about to go to the State Championships--which they've been to many times and never won--yet again, he decides to follow the team and for a year and make it the story of his next book. The book went off in directions he never anticipated.

He did a lot of interviews with the coaches and students. The head coach himself was once a student, and a basketball player, at the school. The two stars of the team have been best friends for years and seem to be complete opposites. The school has been so close to major success so many times, and yet keeps falling short. Several players have gone on to the NBA.

As the story wends its way through the season, with the predictable and yet no less enjoyable ups and downs, what isn't predictable is the revelation of a scandal involving the previous coach, and also the lessons learned by Gene as the year goes on. He starts off not particularly interested in sports in general and basketball in particular, And of course he gets into it and feels and wins and losses and close calls as passionately as any long-term fans, but he also learns from it. He's offered a big opportunity midway through the book, which is a distraction, and also involves him making a big decision. In the end, the Dragons basketball players inspire him in the choice he makes.

Will they win the big game? If not, how will his book end? Gene's wife points out that winning isn't the only possible ending here. In fact, losing can be a more inspiring ending, if addressed well.

I loved this story. The kids are so impressive--I want to look them up and see what successes they went on to--and amazingly diverse and really thoughtful. The parts with Gene are unique. I can't recall often seeing an author insert themselves into a narrative in this way. It feels unintentional, like he was pulled in against his will. And yet, as the season unfolds and he takes inspiration from the athletes, it also feels so natural, like it was the intention all along.

You don't have to like basketball to love this graphic novel.

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 3, 2020

Book Review: A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

In a suburban neighborhood in North Carolina that sounds an awful lot like where I grew up, the nouveau riche are tearing down the older homes and putting up McMansions. African-American college professor Valerie has been unhappily watching a giant extravaganza complete with swimming pool go up directly behind her beloved ranch. She is disinclined to like the Whitmans, and they her as well, so when her son and the Whitman's daughter start dating, it's not good news. In fact Juniper isn't supposed to be dating at all, having gone through a "purity ceremony" a few years earlier with her step-father Brad.

When things blow up, it's spectacularly bad. In fact, you're told on the first page that someone will die, so I read with dread throughout, as I kept trying to anticipate who that would be (and changing my mind several times.) The neighborhood narrates the novel as a kind of Greek chorus, but it really works and is unobtrusive. It has the added effect of making us, the readers, complicit in some of the bad acts. Because I could be in this book club. I could live in this neighborhood. This could happen nearly anywhere. Filled with juicy, timely topics like race, class, grief, assumptions, money, and sex, this would be an ideal book club pick. It stayed in my mind for weeks after I read it. I was bummed at first when I heard Ms. Fowler's new book wasn't a historical like her previous ones, which I loved, but this one rises to the challenge and proves she is as adept at contemporary novels.

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

Sunday, March 1, 2020

My Month in Review: February

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:
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout*
The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly by Jamie Pacton
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (audio)
The Switch by Beth O'Leary
A Royal Affair: A Sparks Bainbridge Mystery by Allison Montclair
American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan (audiobook)*
Modern Family: The Untold Oral History of One of Television's Groundbreaking Sitcoms by Marc Freeman
Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai
A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage, narrated by Sean Runnette (audiobook)
History Comics: The Roanoke Colony: America's First Mystery by Chris Schweizer
Braver: A Wombat's Tale by Suzanne Selfors and Walker Ranson

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu
Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu
One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives by Bernd Heinrich (audiobook)*

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
For my new niece I bought a copy of Scaredy Squirrel, which is a truly excellent picture book.