Shelf Awareness for Friday, February 2, 2024

Flatiron Books: The Courting of Bristol Keats: [Limited Stenciled Edge Edition] by Mary E Pearson

Forge: My Three Dogs by Bruce W Cameron

Running Press Adult: Scam Goddess: Lessons from a Life of Cons, Grifts, and Schemes by Laci Mosley

Chronicle Books: Taste in Music: Eating on Tour with Indie Musicians by Luke Pyenson and Alex Beeker

Doubleday Books: Death at the Sign of the Rook: A Jackson Brodie Book by Kate Atkinson

Groundwood Books: Who We Are in Real Life by Victoria Koops

Agate Bolden: 54 Miles by Leonard Pitts Jr.


Amazon: Fourth-Quarter Sales Jump 14%; Net Income Tops $10 Billion

In the fourth quarter ended December 31, net sales at Amazon rose 14%, to $170 billion, and net income was $10.6 billion, compared to $278 million in the same period a year earlier. For the full year, net sales rose 12%, to $574.8 billion, and net income was $30.4 billion compared to a net loss of $2.7 billion in 2022.

Because fourth-quarter results were above analysts' estimates, shares of Amazon rose nearly 7% in after-hours trading, to about $170 a share.

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said that the fourth quarter was "a record-breaking holiday shopping season and closed out a robust 2023 for Amazon.... The regionalization of our U.S. fulfillment network led to our fastest-ever delivery speeds for Prime members while also lowering our cost to serve."

The Wall Street Journal said that "Amazon has rebounded from a postpandemic slump and reorganized its dominant logistics business after a period of instability." In addition, sales at Amazon's important cloud-computing operation, Amazon Web Service, rose by 13% after a soft year.

Staff cutbacks also helped results. The Journal noted: "The company has continued to adjust its corporate head count after a wave of layoffs to start 2023. In recent months, it has slashed roles across its entertainment, devices and games divisions, citing shifting priorities across its businesses that include artificial intelligence. The cuts so far have been smaller than a year ago, when it laid off roughly 27,000 employees. Amazon's overall head count, including its army of warehouse workers, totaled 1.53 million at the end of 2023, slightly below its level a year earlier."

Amazon said it expects net sales in the first quarter of 2024, ending March 31, to grow between 8% and 13%, to between $138 billion and $143.5 billion, compared to the first quarter in 2023.

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Let's Play Books, Emmaus, Pa., Celebrating 10th Birthday, 'Exploring Options'

Let's Play Books, Emmaus, Pa., will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its grand opening this weekend, and owner Kirsten Hess told that although the shop is facing challenges and rumors have spread it might be closing, she is actually considering several options for the 244 Main St. location. 

"We are not closing--we are exploring options," she said, adding that she will ask the community what shape its Emmaus location should take and how best to move forward, with options that include staying as it is, focusing on certain efforts, or finding a new location. 

"I think the bottom line is post-Covid, in the new world of point-and-click and immediate gratification, that we have to determine what physical spaces matter," Hess noted. "And I have to make this matter, otherwise there's no point in having a retail rent. It just doesn't make any sense at all."

She also owns sister store The End: A Bookstore, which opened last year in Allentown. While Let's Play Books is seeing less success as a standard retail operation, Hess has every intention of figuring out how best to support the location going forward: "It's just been eye-opening... that The End is becoming so successful, that it makes us question what should we be doing with Let's Play Books. That's all--that's a good problem.... Because the world constantly changes and we need to stay relevant and we need to figure out how to sustain ourselves. And that is what good business does."

While business as a whole was up 31% in sales between the two locations and online operation, the majority of the gain was in online sales and at The End, with about 78% of customers from Let's Play Books now choosing the new location as their primary store, something Hess said "has completely thrown us."

"I'm exploring a lot of options," she said. "Everything from creating a nonprofit [to run the Lehigh Valley Book Festival], to opening a lending library and an after-school location, to an art center. There's so many options, but I want community input to see what we kind of need and what people may value because what I do know is that the three floors of that building is challenging to run as a retail store." She added that a decision about the future of Let's Play Books would be made in early May at the earliest, following community conversations. 

In an update posted on the store's Facebook page Wednesday, Hess offered further clarification: "This weekend's festivities include an open house forum, including q&a with our readers about the FUTURE of LPB! We have many ideas! Let's Play Books Bookstore has lost a lot of our own customers to our second store, The End: a bookstore. It is more convenient for so many of our readers. So, we have to rethink!  

"Maybe we only have weekend retail hours, perhaps the location becomes  a non-profit, a relocation (IN EMMAUS) to a more accessible shop is an idea too. 3 floors with 9 rooms is hard to manage--and CLEAN!! The only reason we've made it this far is because we are constantly changing, it is truly the only constant. It makes good business sense to make changes as changes need to be made! This is all GOOD news."

Soft Opening for Root & Press, Worcester, Mass., in New Space

Root & Press, a café and bookshop, Worcester, Mass., which announced in October that it would be moving from its Chandler St. location to a new space at 156 Shrewsbury St., has reopened, the Worcester Guardian reported.

While co-owners Rich Collins and Nicole Cote liked the coziness of the original location, they wanted to keep that feel but expand to a space where people could reliably get a table to study, read, and eat. "We were never going to be able to continue in our old spot... we were suffocating," Collins said.

The Shrewsbury space has multiple rooms and is nearly four times the size of the Tatnuck Square store, including a storage area in the basement. The expansion "allowed the couple to more than double their inventory of books and add additional gift items for sale," the Guardian noted, adding that it has "also allowed the cafe to expand its menu."

The new location had its soft opening last Wednesday. "We just wanted to make sure everything worked and we weren't setting ourselves back before we welcomed people in," said Collins. 

The co-owners wanted to enhance the bookstore aspect of their business, including the addition of a new kids' room, when they moved because Collins believes bookstores are "terribly important for neighborhoods.... I think it's important for people to keep reading books. I think it helps kids for sure but it strengthens even adult minds." 

In a Facebook update posted Sunday, Root & Press wrote: "We are beyond grateful for all the kind words and support from everyone Wednesday to Saturday. It felt great to be welcomed by some many to a new neighborhood. We know we have some things to work on so if your food, drinks, or service were a little off, please know we are attempting to address our issues ASAP. We were very busy at times in a brand new space--we will keep trying to get better and better! Thank you again!"

Prairie Path Books, Wheaton, Ill., Opens at New Location 

Prairie Path Books reopened last month in its new location at 107 W. Willow St., Wheaton, Ill. The Daily Herald reported that "cookbooks and cooking events have been a keystone of Sandy Koropp's 10-year journey" as the bookshop's owner, so "the possibility of having a full kitchen on the first floor of a two-story house in the city's downtown helped clinch Koropp's decision when she considered a relatively spontaneous move from a Wheaton shopping center."

"Really, the kitchen probably was the reason I moved," she said. "It felt like home to me, and I like to have my work and home collide in all the best ways. So it's going to smell like love; as my Grandma put it, a house needs to smell like love."

Describing the new store as "more intimate than the space in Town Square that Prairie Path Books occupied for nearly five years," the Daily Herald wrote that "it's a fully realized version of her initial store in a model apartment in the former Toms-Price Home Furnishings store near the Wheaton Public Library."

Within the tastefully designed and freshly painted interiors of the circa-1905 building, Prairie Path Books specializes in fiction, new releases, children's and young adult books, self-development, women's features, gift cards, and "a whole lot of cookbooks," Koropp said, adding: "Only the best."

International Update: WH Smith Financial Year Off to 'Good' Start; Sales Gains in 2023 for the Netherlands 

WH Smith said the company has had a "good" start to the financial year, with total U.K. revenue for the 20-week period ending January 20 up 15%. The Bookseller reported that in a trading update, the retailer said it had seen a "notably strong performance in the UK," while the travel business was "growing strongly." 

Total group revenue rose 8% compared to last year, while global travel was up 16% over 2023 on a constant-currency basis. The U.K. high-street division delivered a "good performance, in line with our expectations," with store like-for-like revenue up 1% in December, while total LFL revenue for the 20-week period was 3% lower compared to last year, "in line with expectations."  

"We maintained good stock availability and we exited Christmas with a clean stock position. We are on track to deliver our targeted full-year cost savings of £10 million [about $12.7 million]," the company said. 

Carl Cowling, WH Smith's group CEO, commented: "We continue to make excellent progress in North America, and I am particularly excited by the substantial growth opportunities that exist in this market. We are on track to open more than 50 new stores in North America this financial year. In total, we are on track to open more than 110 stores this financial year." 


Customers in the Netherlands purchased 43 million books--physical books, e-books, and audiobooks--in 2023, the largest number sold since 2012. NL Times reported that the increase in sales is entirely due to foreign-language books, primarily in English. The sale of Dutch-language books decreased, according to the Collective Propaganda of the Dutch Book Foundation. 

"It is encouraging to see that more books have been sold in the Netherlands for the fourth year in a row and that turnover is even growing for the ninth year in a row," CPNB director Eveline Aendekerk said. "Especially because this year we see that fewer books have been sold in other countries like France, England, America, and Germany. Reading enriches people and society. That's why CPNB connects people with books."

Readers purchased €685 million (about $743 million) worth of books last year, 3% more than in 2022. The sale of physical books fell slightly (-0.3%), while 5% more individual e-books outside subscription forms were sold after two years of decline. The sale of Dutch-language books declined by 1%. 

Aendekerk noted that the Netherlands' book industry seems to be doing well: "The question, however, is whether the increase in turnover outweighs the significant cost increases that the book trade is also experiencing. Reason for the CPNB to sharpen its strategy in the coming years to increase its impact on the market and stimulate the desire to read. The aim is for Dutch people to visit their favorite bookstore or library at least once a year for a book."


Books+Publishing's Christmas survey asked Australian booksellers and publishers to predict what trends and developments might unfold in 2024. While concern about the economy was widespread, Tom Hoskins, operations manager for Readings bookshops in Melbourne, said: "With any luck, the era of inflation and rate-rises is behind us. If this stability brings about stronger consumer sentiment, we hope to see an uplift in sales over the next twelve months. Digital detox may continue to grow, heightening the importance of community hubs and third places like bookshops."

Peter Arnaudo, owner of the Book Cow Bookshop, Canberra, agreed: "I think that people are moving away from the online platforms to buy books and are continuing the return back to physical bookshops where they can browse, share experiences on books and get great advice and recommendations. Especially for kids' books. There is nothing that can compare." --Robert Gray

Binc Awards Two ComicsPRO Industry Meeting Scholarships

The Book Industry Charitable Foundation has named the recipients of the $750 scholarships for attending the ComicsPRO industry meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa., later this month. 

They are Miranda Nordell, of Dreamers & Make-Believers Books in Baltimore, Md., and Drew Sullivan, of Ash Avenue Comics & Books in Tempe, Ariz. The funds can be used for travel, replacement wages, lodging, and meals, while ComicsPRO will cover the event's registration fee. Jean Michel, of Megabrain Comics in Rhinebeck, N.Y., will also attend; he received a ComicsPRO scholarship last year but deferred to 2024.

"We are pleased to continue our support for comic retailers with these scholarships," said Pam French, Binc's executive director. "We look forward to seeing everyone in Pittsburgh."


Image of the Day: Gordon Greisman Debuts at Mysterious Bookshop

The Mysterious Bookshop, New York City, celebrated the launch of screenwriter Gordon Greisman's debut novel, The Devil's Daughter (Blackstone).

Reading Group Choices' Most Popular January Books

The two most popular books in January at Reading Group Choices were All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow (Algonquin Books) and Unfinished Woman: A Memoir by Robyn Davidson (Bloomsbury Publishing).

Personnel Changes at Simon & Schuster

Julia Prosser has been promoted to v-p, associate publisher, publicity & marketing, of the Simon & Schuster imprint. Prosser joined S&S in 2003 and has been integral to its publicity efforts since then.

Media and Movies

TV: Mary & George

STARZ has released a trailer for Mary & George, inspired by Benjamin Woolley's nonfiction book The King's Assassin. The seven-part limited series, starring Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine (Red, White & Royal Blue), will debut on STARZ April 5.

Written by D.C. Moore (Killing Eve, Temple), the project's cast also includes Nicola Walker, Niamh Algar, Trine Dyrholm, Sean Gilder, Adrian Rawlins, Mark O'Halloran, Laurie Davidson, Samuel Blenkin, Jacob McCarthy, Tom Victor, Alice Grant, Amelia Gething, Mirren Mack, Rina Mahoney, and Simon Russell Beale.
Mary & George is produced by Hera Pictures in association with Sky Studios. Liza Marshall is executive producer for Hera Pictures alongside D.C. Moore, Oliver Hermanus and Julianne Moore. Hermanus also helms the series as lead director. Additional directors include Alex Winckler and Florian Cossen. Sam Hoyle serves as executive producer for Sky Studios.

Books & Authors

Awards: Drue Heinz Literature Winner 

Mubanga Kalimamukwento won the 2024 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, which recognizes and supports writers of short fiction, for her collection, Obligations to the Wounded. The University of Pittsburgh Press will publish the book on October 8.

"These thematically linked stories deliver an intricate study of Zambian women living in both Zambia and abroad who are weighing their options of who to love, where to live, where to work," said author Angie Cruz, who chose the winning title. "The author, with a poet's restraint, has written stories that deftly negotiate the challenges and tribulations women face when they feel the pressure and duty to yield to the will of family, community, customs, country, and spiritual beliefs. Obligations to the Wounded is a graceful, touching, and generous collection."

Kalimamukwento commented: "An absolute dream come true to have been named this year's winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, especially by a judge whose work I hold deep respect and admiration for. This is a prize I have been reading and entering for years, so a win is a kind of 'Finally' and 'Thank you, thank you, thank you' moment for me."

Reading with... Ayesha Rascoe

photo: Mike Morgan

Ayesha Rascoe is editor of the anthology HBCU Made: A Celebration of the Black College Experience (Algonquin, January 30), a collection of essays by graduates of historically Black colleges and universities about how their attendance at these storied institutions shaped their lives. Contributors include Oprah Winfrey, Roy Wood Jr., Branford Marsalis, Stacey Abrams, and Rascoe. When she's not compiling an anthology, Rascoe hosts NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday and weekend episodes of the Up First podcast. She's also a proud mom of three wonderful kids. She is a graduate of Howard University.

Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:

Historically Black colleges and universities help make the world better. This book is a joyous and first-of-its-kind testament to that legacy.

On your nightstand now:

So, way too many books are stacked up on my nightstand. It's a hazard. I have to read for work, so one of my nightstands is full of advanced reading copies for potential interviews for Weekend Edition and those past. One ARC in the stack is a bound, printed copy of Roxane Gay's Opinions, which collects her published essays. I really enjoyed the book and interviewing her about it earlier this year. 

Favorite book when you were a child:

My favorite book when I was growing up was The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I love adventure and fantasy, anything to take me away from the real world, which is boring. I want elves and dwarves and wizards. Oh, and giant eagles! I will always remember how excited I got during the last major battle when all hope seemed lost and then the eagles came and saved the day. I felt like I was there with Bilbo. There's nothing like being transported by a book like that!

Your top five authors:

Toni Morrison is my hands-down favorite. Her writing and her lyricism are just unmatched, in my opinion.

Next would be Stephen King. His talent for storytelling and worldbuilding is undeniable. There's a reason why his books appeal to the world and have been made into so many hit movies! I really love his novels, but there's a special place in my heart for his short stories. Read his short story "The Death of Jack Hamilton." Thank me later!

Neil Gaiman is another of my favorite authors. I actually got into his writing through comics. He's very famous for the Sandman series, obviously, but I actually read a lot of his writing for Marvel comics. Eternals by Gaiman is excellent. He also wrote Marvel 1602, which I highly recommend.

While one of my nightstands is full of advance copies of books, on my other nightstand I have a bunch of devotionals and Bibles. I'm not a super saint or anything, but my faith is important to me. My favorite writer in that sphere is Beth Moore. Her book Portraits of Devotion is thoughtful, compassionate, and deeply researched. Her writing is just beautiful. She came out with a memoir this year, All My Knotted-Up Life. I got to talk to her for Weekend Edition, and it was a really open and honest conversation about her decision to leave the Southern Baptist denomination over misogyny and its embrace of former president Donald Trump.

And, finally, I've already noted that I love comics, so it's appropriate I include another noted comics author, Brian Michael Bendis, who wrote some of my favorite Marvel storylines, including Secret Invasion and House of M. These were thrilling epics that I just couldn't put down.

Book you've faked reading:

Now, I've said I loved The Hobbit and I really did. But I have never been able to get through the whole Lord of the Rings saga by J.R.R. Tolkien. I've finished The Fellowship of the Ring, but I've never gotten through the other two books. It's just so much walking on that journey. So I just have to lean on the movies for the rest of the story.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us by Rachel Aviv. I have recommended this book to so many people! It explores Aviv's diagnosis with an eating disorder at a very young age, and stories of other individuals dealing with mental illness diagnoses, what that means for them personally, and what that says about our society. The book's exploration of the idea that delusions are often rooted in reality was eye-opening for me.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding. The red lips and eyes on the cover drew me in long before the movies came out. 

Book you hid from your parents:

I didn't actually hide these books from my parents, but one of my babysitters tried to get my mom to stop buying me Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine, because she thought they were demonic.

Book that changed your life:

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison really changed my outlook on what writing could be. It was my first time reading literature and really seeing characters I could relate to, even as they were larger than life.

Favorite line from a book:

From Song of Solomon: "For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it."

I'm still trying to figure out how to surrender myself to the air, but it's a great line, maybe even a perfect line.

Five books you'll never part with:

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. For all of the reasons listed above.

It by Stephen King. Nothing's scarier than being a kid experiencing something horrifying and your parents don't believe you. And clowns can be pretty scary, too. The novel takes us from childhood to adulthood and reminds us that some terrors never leave us.

Jazz by Toni Morrison. Morrison's description of a woman's rage in this book has stayed with me, and the relevance only grows as I get older. Sometimes I can relate to Violet.

World War Z by Max Brooks. This book alone probably helped spark the zombie craze of the early 2000s; at least it did in my house. This book, along with Brooks's The Zombie Survival Guide, makes me feel like I'm ready to face the undead in combat.

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan. These stories, told through the eyes of children, continue to haunt me all these years later. I still think about the teenager, Jubril, with his amputated hand and his sad fate.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, because it's a great book and it took me places I never thought I would go--and I loved the ending. It'd be awesome to experience that again.

Book Review

Review: A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest by Charlie J. Stephens (Torrey House Press, $16.95 paperback, 181p., 9781948814980, April 2, 2024)

A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest is a heart-wrenching first novel by Charlie J. Stephens that incorporates moments of beauty in a traumatizing coming-of-age tale. In the 1980s, eight-year-old Smokey Washington lives with their mother in Moss River, Oregon, a small town beset by poverty, violence, and a shortage of options for improving one's lot, but surrounded by vibrant natural life. As Smokey's situation worsens, they turn increasingly toward that outside world, seeking solace in dirt, deer, and trees. The tragedies that befall Smokey and their family and neighbors will disturb even jaded and strong-stomached readers, but notes of stark truth and tenderness filter through. A will to live pervades these pages from beginning to end.  

Moss River is inundated with violence against women and children, from the opening scene ("Stop TJ, you're hurting me") through a PBS special about the death of a mother gazelle ("It's just the rules of nature"), and throughout Smokey's childhood. Smokey's mom dates a series of men who hurt her and hurt Smokey, a child who engages with animals and the outdoors more than with people, and who doesn't fall into a gender binary. With a friend, Smokey wonders, at the sound of a gunshot, "which of the men we know might have shot the gun and who he might have shot. We worried about our moms with their bruises and their need...."

Stephens gives the child narrator a wise, inquisitive voice that feels perfectly suited to Smokey's age and distinctive personality. Through Smokey's point of view, readers follow an increasingly grim story, dreading the multiplying wounds that begin to feel inevitable. While Mom tries to care for Smokey, she cannot always protect them; nevertheless, she is a woman with moments of startling, defiant strength.

Smokey's descriptions and perspective are insightful, often surprising, and lovely. Mom drinks steaming coffee and smokes Lucky Strikes; Smokey wonders if "evaporating the things she loves is her most practiced spell." Smokey sees her as a crow in her black jacket; for themself, they hope to grow up and become a deer. In a world with few apparent escape routes, the woods hold great appeal. "I want to spend more time low to the ground.... I want my animal body. I want to get it back."

A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest offers a harrowing and wholly realistic story of suffering, but also a message about resiliency, the healing power of nature, and simple survival. "Being alive can sometimes feel like a miracle, even as you let it go." Stephens's debut will shock its readers with love, pain, and fresh perspective. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Shelf Talker: In a town beset by poverty and violence, an unusual child turns to the natural world for comfort in this novel of suffering and tenderness.

Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: Booking Passage on the Icon of the Seas, with Mickey Mouse at the Helm

I've been having this recurring fever dream lately. Imagine Mickey Mouse, the Steamboat Willie version, on the bridge of the Icon of the Seas, whistling happily as he spins a wooden ship wheel to steer the massive new cruise ship (five times the size of the Titanic, as the media keeps writing without fear) on its maiden voyage from Miami to St. Kitts and back, with a couple of stops in between. 

Steamboat Mickey is now a public domain character, so I can cast him in my seafaring dreams without fear of litigation. And there has been so much publicity about the Icon's maiden voyage that I've felt obliged to work it into my quiet little bookish, non-seafaring life. 

Which leads me to this question: Is there a book angle to help me process the candy-coated enormity of the Icon? I have other questions, too. If I were somehow teleported to the Icon, would there be a place for me to hide and read? Is there a bookstore on board? (No, as far as I can tell.) Is there a ship's library, where I could stow away for the duration of the cruise? (Apparently not).

Many ships do have "libraries," though I suspect they often look like this Library & Card Room on another Royal Caribbean ship, offering a downsized definition of the term well stocked: "In the mood to curl up with a good book? Or show off your poker face? Our well stocked Library and Card Room offers great reads across many genres. Plus tables for cards and board games."

QM2's library

I've also learned during my brief landlocked voyage that Ocean Books has been providing Library Services to the cruise industry for more than 30 years "and has gained a wealth of experience commissioning and managing on-board libraries for most major cruise lines." According to the company, it has supplied more than 130 new cruise ship libraries, from exclusive ones as small as the 200-book Library Suite on Aurora, to the 1,000-book libraries on luxury yachts, the 2,000-3000-book libraries on a wide range of cruise ships, and even the 10,000-book library on the Queen Mary 2.

But I was still at a loss to find a bookish connection to the Icon of the Seas until I was rescued by perhaps the unlikeliest of high seas adventurers.

Gary Shteyngart on board.

"Cruisin' for a bruisin' on the maiden voyage of the world's biggest cruise ship, the Icon of the Seas. Stay tuned for more," author Gary Shteyngart posted on TwiX last Saturday.

Now the real voyage had launched, featuring a worthy, mischievous protagonist. Was he really on board? Joyce Carol Oates seemed surprised, commenting: "Is this something you've done before, Gary? do you know what you are getting into? friends are hoping so."

"I finally feel like American Golden Boy, Joyce!" Shteyngart replied. 

Oates also noted that "writers/professors are often invited on cruise ships as a kind of entertainment for passengers; a Princeton colleague (literature) found himself competing with a class on flower arrangement. the most interesting thing in David Foster Wallace's hilarious essay is the revelation that, on a cruise, provided you don't become infected with a hideous contagious illness spreading like wildfire through the floating petri dish, you will sleep 10-11 hours at a stretch as if comatose. rolling boat, sloshing waves, atrophying muscles & brain."

"I'm pretty sure thinking is not allowed on this ship," Shteyngart cracked.

Mystery author cruises are a popular option, but the mystery here was whether Shteyngart was actually on board the Icon or having a laugh at our expense. Either would have been fine by me, and well within the parameters of his well-honed senses of humor and irony. 

Shteyngart's shore excursion.

Then Shteyngart dropped further clues, posting photos from St. Kitts ("The curried conch in St. Kitts is unimpeachable. Also rum punch. Wish I could stay here.") and St. Thomas ("Jumped ship at the Virginal Islands. These chaste people make one hell of an oxtail.").

Asked by a commenter whether he'd be getting back on the Icon, Shteyngart replied: "Staying behind would be considered treason by Royal Caribbean. I have free wifi and an en-suite espresso maker aboard the ship. I can't lose that."

I want him to be on board the Icon, but I also kind of love the fact that he's leaving just a little room for doubt. Even this post from last July anticipates the mystery to come: "Will sail and write about this thing for a fee. Please specify level of sarcasm desired." 

Words at sea. 

On my brief virtual voyage this week, I also learned the one word you can't say on a cruise ship, courtesy of TikTok star Marc Sebastian, whose 18-day stint on Royal Caribbean's nine-month Ultimate World Cruise was sponsored by Atria Books. The bad word, as you've probably guessed, is... Titanic.

"You're not supposed to talk about the Titanic? Who knew that? I didn't," Sebastian said. "I brought it up to an entire room of people having lunch that our ship is only 100 feet longer than the Titanic... utensils dropped; waiters gasped; it's dead silent."

So, just to be on the safe side, watch your words, Gary. And Steamboat Mickey, please steer a safe course home.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor

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