Monday, August 31, 2020

Book Review: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King: The Graphic Novel by E.T.A. Hoffmann, retold and illustrated by Natalie Andrewson

In this fantastical graphic novel, Natalie Andrewson goes back to the original story of The Nutcracker, as told by E.T.A. Hoffmann, which is considerably different from the ballet, so be prepared. 

Marie (Not Clara), loves the nutcracker that family friend, Uncle Drosselmeyer makes for her and her brother, even after it gets broken. She goes downstairs at night to the locked shelves where it's put away to check on it, and finds the mouse king threatening it. If only Marie will give the mouse king her sweets, and her dolls, and this goes on for a few nights. Finally, as we know, the nutcracker does defeat the mouse king, but only with Marie's help and her sacrifices. Then she is ill and Drosselmeyer tells her and her brother the story, over several days, of how the nutcracker came to be (he was once a real boy). At the end, you decide what is real and what is imaginary.

I loved hearing the real story. It's true that the entire second half of the story I was familiar with is different, as there's no Snow Queen or Sugar Plum Fairy, but I did like it better. There's no real story in the second half of the ballet--just prettiness as Clara and the nutcracker passively watch all the treats. Here, there's plenty of story! I love that the pallet and style isn't overly "girly" so there's a chance boys too will pick this up, as it does have toy soldiers and the battles with the mice and everything. (I know, I hate the gendering of books like this. It's more the extreme gendering of ballet--which is impossible to escape--that makes this story feel more gendered than most.) I wish I'd known this version of the story, growing up!

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

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Book Review: Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains by Kerri Arsenault

Kerri's hometown of Mexico, Maine, is the titular mill town. It has a paper mill factory where her father worked and her grandfather before him. It's also where they both died of cancer. Like most people in town. And if you don't get cancer, it's something else horrific and rare, like aplastic anemia.

Kerri left home long ago and has lived all over the world. But when she resettles in the US and spends time with her parents both before and after her father's terrible death, she starts to see what a blight the mill is on the town and the people. And she begins to investigate.

It's not too shocking anymore what she uncovers--mishandled toxic waste, regulations skirted or flouted, misdiagnoses by the company doctors, and whistle blowers run out of town. But for once this story is being told by an insider (although the locals no longer claim her, as she's moved away.) This isn't a full-scale investigation as it's also a memoir. Many of the mill workers, insiders, and whistle blowers, are her childhood friends and neighbors. And she remembers was a boon the mill was back in the day. She loved her hometown, before the rot began to show. In that, this is an appropriately complex story of how one can appreciate the dream and plans of the original mill founders, and she can understand the current locals who are protective and defensive of their jobs and the backbone of the community. And yet, she wants to protect them. But it could come at the cost of their livlihood. Sadly, this is a story with no happy ending. But an important one nonetheless.

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

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Book Review: Flamer by Mike Curato

Aiden is at boy scout camp for the summer. It's not perfect, but he likes it well enough. It's a heck of a lot better than school, and even though he's a little afraid for his younger siblings back home, he's glad to be out of the house and away from his dad's volatile temper. This summer is especially fraught as he's 14, hormones are raging, he's switching from Catholic school to public school for 9th grade, and while he doesn't consciously realize it yet, it seems he might be gay.

He wants to concentrate on being part of his scout troop, The Flaming Arrows, learning archery and orienteering, building fires and canoeing. His bunkmate, Elias, is especially cool--a football player but one with long hair who listens to Alternative music. Oh, and he's really attractive. Aiden feels bad about his own body (pudgy) and really, really hates being called "faggot" (who wouldn't!?) He detests the communal showers (WHERE DO YOU LOOK?!?!) He misses his best friend and pen pal when he doesn't get letters from her. He makes some friends but that doesn't always make up for the racist remarks (he's half Filipino) and bullying. And the bullying and name calling just makes him worry that high school could be even worse than junior high.

With vivid illustrations, this graphic novel deftly uses just one color (orange) to make its point. I really was reminded of summer camp, of the out-of-school friendships that can save you, of that time to be a different person, to reinvent yourself in a way, even if you can't escape who you are. I really hope there's another book as I want to know if Aiden makes it through okay. I understand this is heavily based on Mr. Curato's own experiences, so I assume he does, but I still would love to follow him further along his path.

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Book Review: The Wrong Mr. Darcy by Evelyn Lozada

So I didn't know what this book was when I downloaded it at work--I just saw the title and thought, "yep, that's for me!" I was a bit surprised when I got into it to find it was a fairly traditional commercial romance novel, but set int he world of professional basketball. That's pretty out-there for a retelling of Pride & Prejudice. But I thought I'd appreciate the unconventionality so I pressed on.

Hara is a young sports journalist, working at her hometown newspaper. The NBA set up a nationwide contest for sportswriters to compete to win an interview with the most reclusive basketball star, Charles Butler. Hara wins and flies out to Boston for the interview. Before she can meet Butler, she has an unpleasant run-in with his best friend, Derek Darcy, who she finds obnoxious, even if he is gorgeous.

Multiple twists and turns ensue, and I wasn't sure the book was going to sustain my interest, but just as I was starting to tire, Ms. Lozada stopped following the P&P outline and went off the rails in a spectacularly great way. With blackmail and prison and an eventual shooting, it diverged quite a bit, and really came into its own when it let go of Austen's coattails. While the romance parts weren't for me (I know, I actually read Outlander for the history), the plot was a lot of fun and I raced through to the end. Romance readers will love this one.

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

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Book Review: Stealing Mt. Rushmore by Daphne Kalmar

Nell was supposed to be a boy. Her dad loved Mt. Rushmore and a postcard of it got him through his time serving in the Korean War. Afterwards he had three boys--George, Tom and Toddy--and a girl, Nell (actually named for Susan B. Anthony, Nell is a nickname). Nell has always felt like she's had more to do to make him proud, and since their mom left, she's really been carrying the lion's share of the household (she's the second oldest.) Her brothers aren't slackers per se--George works full-time (in the summer) as a busboy at the same diner where their dad is a short-order cook, and Tom has a paper route and picks up a second job as a bagboy at the grocery store. Nell's primary job is watching Teddy, the six-year-old, but somehow all of the cleaning and shopping and laundry and dishwashing falls on her 13-year-old shoulders.

Since their mom just disappeared one day (but her suitcase and record player and records are all gone so they know she left by choice), their dad has been in a serious funk. He didn't leave the bedroom for a week. And now finances are even tighter than before. But he's trying to hold the family together. A long-planned cross-country trip to see Mt. Rushmore is what they're all hanging onto. Their dad saved $500 so they can go (it'll be a camping trip, plus it's 1974 so $500 goes further). Then he discovers that the coffee can in the freezer with the vacation money is empty. His wife took that too when she left. He retreats to the bedroom again.

Furious, Nell is determined to recover the money. She's been saving to replace the record player and she now puts all of that money toward the trip, as does Tom with his savings. She holds a car wash, and asks neighbors about doing yardwork. Finally she has an idea. If her mom isn't coming back, why can't she sell all her things, sitting in boxes in the basement? Would that be appropriately ironic if it could get them to South Dakota?

I really appreciated that this book wasn't all cutesy and things didn't get wrapped up in a bow. It reminded me a lot of last year's Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart, but much grittier. This family is also in mourning in a way and just barely hanging on. But the situation is a lot more realistic. As is the ending. Things don't all work out in the end. And life is usually like that, so kids need books that show those situations. Sometimes your family members can be real jerks. And sometimes they can step up when you least expect it.

This book is published by Feiwel & Friends, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Book Review: The Switch by Beth O'Leary

Leena has worked herself into a breakdown. But that was precipitated by her sister's death from cancer last year. After that, she threw herself into her work which worked for a while, but not forever. After an incident in a presentation with a client, her boss has put her on a mandatory two month sabbatical.

Meanwhile, while talking with her grandmother, Eileen, Leena finds out her grandmother had had grand plans back in her youth, to move to London and be a city girl, that were thwarted by an early marriage and kids. Since Eileen's husband has left her for a younger woman, which doesn't particularly upset Eileen (boy, that's when you really know a relationship is over--when you just don't even care about the breakup), Eileen and Leena hit upon a plan--Eileen will move into Leena's apartment in London (with her two roommates) and live out her 20-something dream and also start dating again, and Leena will move into her grandmother's village cottage and experience life slowed down and calm.

Leena takes over her grandmother's committees and other village responsibilities, including the town's annual festival. She talks to her best friends a lot, but since she and her grandmother even swap phones, she can't Facetime or even text easily on Eileen's ancient hardware. Her boyfriend has to keep canceling his plans to come out and see her due to too much work himself. But she's keeping busy. Meanwhile Eileen has gotten set up on Tinder, thanks to Leena's roommates, and has come up with some plans of her own in London!

This granddaughter-grandmother novel is billed as a rom-com, and while there's a tiny bit of romance, that's not really the story. Leena has to reconcile with her mother and finally deal with her sister's death. Eileen is coming to terms with choices she made in her youth and how those have played out over the years. It's relatively light but also pretty real and full of ups and downs. It's a great escape for a few hours, thoroughly distracting.

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

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Book Review: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

One day Kiku is shocked to find herself having jumped back in time to the 1940s from now. It happens again. And again. She starts to think this is interesting and even cool--she sees her grandmother as a teenager and feels like she could start to get to know her, when it takes a dark turn. She is rounded up along with other Japanese-Americans into an internment camp. And this time she doesn't jump back.

Instead she lives in the camp, near her grandmother but not interacting with her. She experiences what life was like then, as do we, the readers, who feel fully immersed in the experience as well. As Kiku starts to come to grips with the idea that she might be stuck in this era forever, she stops going along with the rules as much, and pushing back against an unfair, racist society.  She knows how things will turn out for America, and that she's on the right side of history, but she doesn't know how her actions will affect her personally and the others she's gotten to know in the camps. Also, will she ever get back to now?

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

Monday, August 3, 2020

Book Review: When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

When Terry's mother was dying, she told Terry she was leaving her journals to her. She had 54 of them, one for every year of her life. But Terry had to promise not to read them until after she died.

After her death, Terry reached to them for comfort, and she found... nothing. Nothing. They were blank. All of them. She bought one every year and kept them all on a shelf. What did it mean? What did it mean that she gave them to Terry? And now in 54 short essays and meditations, Terry looks at her life, her mother's life, and tries to make sense of the world.

First of all, I have to say WOW, Terry is SO much more understanding and resigned to this situation that I would have been. I would have been utterly furious. I imagine a lot of screaming, "how dare she!" It's one thing to have pretended to keep a journal. After all, they're Mormon, and that's expected of all women, regardless of whether they actually want to, if they find it helpful, or if it's a burden to them. But to tell Terry they were especially for her and to  make her promise not to read them until after she's dead, and leave no explanation--that's really cavalier with Terry's feelings at the worst time in her life. 

That being said, if you can get past the origin of this book, the essays are beautiful. Ms. Williams is a terrific writer, who loves the environment and the nature surrounding us. She takes inspiration from her mother's lack of voice, and gives her voice back to her. Using the recurring metaphor of women as birds, she ties it all together. It was a quick read and definitely worth it. I've heard of writers and writing classes using this book and that makes sense to me. 

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

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Book Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama

I wanted to read this book when it first came out like everyone under the sun. But I heard the audiobook was the way to go. And it's (just) over nineteen hours. Which just has been too much of a commitment for me to make until now. Now, instead of going to the gym, I'm walking for 2 hours 4 days a week, which meant I could finally tackle it without worrying it would take me so long to finish that I'd have forgotten the beginning by then! (Also, because I knew it would take me more than 2 weeks to listen, I couldn't get it through my library. I had to purchase it.)
Michelle has a fairly ordinary growing up, if rather poor. On the infamous South Side of Chicago she lived in a small apartment with her parents and older brother Craig, in a little house owned by her aunt and uncle. She took piano lessons, eventually went to a better school, and followed her brother to Princeton, where he'd won a basketball scholarship (despite her school counselor telling her she couldn't get in to Princeton.) I was very struck by a comment made by Michelle's mother after Barack was elected, when she was asked about how Michelle was a special child. Her mother said she wasn't special. She said, there are hundreds of kids just like Michelle and Craig on the South Side--we just aren't looking for them. And I can see that. Which isn't to say that Michelle isn't brilliant and accomplished and impressive--she's all those things and more. But truly, there was nothing exceptional about her that made you think she'd end up in the White House. If she was in my book club or I worked with her, that would make sense. She's so accessible and down-to-earth, and Everywoman.

She did work hard and her accomplishments are laudatory, and I'm no longer annoyed that she didn't do more as First Lady, as I once was. She was trying to find a good balance, her kids were young, her job wasn't something she could keep doing, and she did do a lot with nutrition and health for kids. In fact, she did a lot more than I knew, along with Jill Biden, from getting food vendors who sell to schools to provide better options, to getting the parent company of Olive Garden to offer more low-calorie options. 

I kept waiting for a moment to happen when she was shocked by what was happening and that never did occur. But that also makes sense. Everything was incremental. The road the White House was built in many small steps over years. That realization makes it seem much more like truly, anyone can be president. With Barack's books, it seems he saw the path laid out more clearly and earlier on than she did, but there wasn't ever a point where she would've said, "Wait, that's crazy!" 

Meanwhile, there are gowns and celebrity sightings, and backstage details. It was inspiring, and right now a real kick in the head, too. Man, what a classy, smart, together family we once had in the White House. We really let them down in the last election. It's nice to remember how great they were but also sad in comparison.

I bought this audiobook digitally from Libro.fm. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

My Month in Review: July

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:
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris*
Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller*
Broken (In the Best Possible Way) by Jenny Lawson 
Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits: A 4-Week Stretching Plan to Achieve Amazing Health by Eiko*
Becoming by Michelle Obama (audio)*
Buses Are a Comin': Memoir of a Freedom Rider by Charles Person, with Richard Rooker

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu
Love Is for Losers by Wibke Brueggemann
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (audio)*

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
none. I was good! Also I am moving and the last thing I wanted to move was more books.