Monday, October 19, 2020

Tim Returns to Minnesota!

Hi again from Tim! In my mind, I'm back in Minnesota. Maybe you saw my Gone to Minnesota in My Mind blog last month, where I told the odd truth that I've barely been to Minnesota, and yet I've loved several novels placed in our neighboring state. Every one of those authors have also done Boswell events. Now it’s time to add one more. I just finished The Land, by Thomas Maltman, and enjoyed every minute! It's mysterious, and dangerous, with hints of the supernatural, and the voice of young Lucien Swenson in early manhood is thoroughly likable. Maltman is doing a Boswell Zoom event on Thursday, October 22nd at 7 pm CDT, in conversation with William Kent Krueger, the author of two books from my original Minnesota blog. Click right here to register now - I can't wait!

The Land
is a fine coming of age story, told in convincing style by Lucien, a young man in the throes of forbidden love as he recovers from a terrible accident. But where is Maura? The young mother he fell for while they both worked at a bank is gone, and money from the bank is missing too. Now Lucien has taken a position as caretaker for a large estate in the Minnesota wilderness while the owners are away, near a shadowy church congregation where Maura’s violent husband preaches dark messages about the end of the world. Lucien is determined to find out about this church and the secluded place they call The Land. He needs to find out why Maura disappeared. It’s a well built mystery, with unexpected guests and elements of horror. Lucien’s migraines and other effects of his injuries have him seeing signs in the raw winter and questioning what’s real, giving the novel an eerie feel and a spiritual search for revelation. I enjoyed every bit of this story and its conflicted cast of characters. An exceptional novel!

If you read my first Minnesota blog, you may have seen the way I teased an entire state with my tongue-in-cheek take on James Taylor’s Carolina in My Mind. I took a little heat about that from a Minnesota friend, and I used it to do an update. Here’s the new version. Enjoy the beautiful Midwest fall!

In my mind I’m gone to Minnesota.
Can’t you feel the snowfall?
Just leave your boots out in the hall.
Car gets stuck, and then it stalls.
Ya get hit from behind.
Yes I’m gone to Minnesota in my mind.

Heard some stuff from a Facebook friend who lives there.
When my verse reduced her home to misery in snow.
It’s not a bad place, she said.
For a bit I hung my head.
But held on to a longing for 
this place I’ve never known.
I’m still gone to Minnesota in my mind. 
  
                                     - Sweet Baby Tim

Monday, October 12, 2020

Jenny Has Five Questions for Shannon Takaoka

From Jenny: I’ll read books from any section of the bookstore, but I’m drawn to two genres in particular, and they are wildly different. Anything from the YA fiction shelf and what I call medical science sleuthing nonfiction are my absolute favorites. When Daniel gave me a five-hundred page book on the elegance of the human immune system, I read it like a fast-paced thriller (ed note: An Elegant Defense, by Matt Richtel.) A book about the race to find new antibiotics to take on superbugs? Fascinating. And please send all YA books my way that feature a complexity of emotions, swoony kisses, and cleverly written, laugh-out-loud banter. Add in self discovery or non-stop bickering/simmering passion, and I will be totally hooked.

Everything I Thought I Knew is a mash-up of my two favorite genres, and I’m thrilled to welcome author Shannon Takaoka to the Boswellians Blog today to chat with me about writing, self-discovery, and so much more.

JENNY CHOU: Hi Shannon, and congratulations on the publication of your debut novel. I’m so glad you’re here to tell blog readers about Everything I Thought I Knew. Your main character, Chloe, collapses during cross-country practice during her senior year of high school, which leads to a heart transplant. Recovering from something like that would be challenging enough, but she’s got a lot more going on. Can you fill us in on what she’s experiencing? 

SHANNON TAKAOKA: Thank you, and I’d love to fill you in. When we first encounter Chloe about six months post-transplant, she’s doing okay physically, but at the same time, she’s not feeling exactly like she thinks she should. She’s finding it difficult to settle back into her usual routines and relationships (especially now that she’s stuck in summer school to make up for the time she missed when she was recovering) 


and ambivalent about academics and college planning – both things she used to care a lot about before. She’s also experiencing unsettling nightmares, and, most troubling of all, strange gaps in her memory, where she keeps getting flashes of places, events and even people she’s sure she must know but that she can’t quite remember. But she doesn’t tell her doctor or parents about any of this because she doesn't want any more hospital appointments – especially when she’d rather forget about her heart transplant and focus instead on her newfound obsession: surfing. 


JC: You write with such care and empathy for Chloe and the difficulties she’s facing. What inspired you to tell her story? Do you have a medical background, or are you like me, a book-loving English major with a sort of weird but endless fascination with physiology?  

ST: I’m definitely more like you. I have no formal medical background, but I’m for sure interested in all things science-related, from some of the strange multiverse theories that have been spawned by quantum mechanics – even if I don’t really understand the math involved! – to medicine, biology, environmental science and more. When I was in high school, Anatomy & Physiology was one of my favorite classes (outside of English Lit, of course). Learning about all the bodily systems that keep us alive was both fascinating and a little terrifying to me at the same time. It’s so wild to envision everything that’s going on under our skin to keep us moving and breathing and talking and thinking, but it’s also a reminder of how mortal we all are, because while our bodies are incredibly complex and amazing, there are so many ways that they are vulnerable too. Anyway, we went on some cool field trips for that class, and one was to a research hospital to view an open heart surgery. I think it was a triple bypass. I still have a vivid memory of it.

Organ transplants especially have always fascinated me. The fact that humans have figured out how to transplant a heart or a kidney or a lung, successfully, from one person to another is such an extraordinary achievement, and the history and science behind it all is so interesting. (If you like medical science non-fiction, I highly recommend When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich and The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery by Rob Dunn.) But I’ve also thought a lot about the emotional side of transplants: What does it feel like to know that a part of you – a part essential to keeping you alive – once belonged to someone else? I read and listened to a number of stories about transplant recipients and was struck by how some of them reported feeling deep connections to their donors – to the point of picking up some of their likes, dislikes, and habits. So all of this, in different ways, inspired the book.

JC: What do you hope readers, and especially teens, take away from Everything I Thought I Knew?

ST: Well, first, I hope they just enjoy it as a story. And while I love imagining what readers might take away from it, I’m guessing that it depends on the individual. When I was writing it, one of the ideas I was trying to explore was the question a lot of people – and especially teens – ask themselves: “Who am I, really?” And I think that it’s okay to not always be sure. You don’t have to have everything figured out at age 17. Personally, I feel like the question of who we are is one we ask and answer again and again throughout our lives. We are always learning and hopefully evolving, and being shaped by our experiences.

I also wanted to look at what it really means to live. While there’s nothing wrong with having goals and plans, I think we can also get so wrapped up in what comes next that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that life is lived in the present. In Chloe’s case, she’s faced with this question in a rather extreme way – she almost dies and then her new life is a constant reminder of not just her “second chance,” but also of someone else’s loss. So how does she choose to live her life after coming so close to losing it, and with the knowledge that her existence will always be connected to her donor?

And finally, I think there’s something I was trying to get at about the tension between attempting to control our destiny and accepting the reality of fate and chance. No matter how much we learn and discover about life and death, there will always be things we don’t understand. For a scientific mind like Chloe’s, this can be frustrating, but I also think there’s something beautiful in recognizing that the universe is too vast, magical and mysterious to be fully explained.

JC: Where do you do your best writing? In a hip coffee shop, six feet away from other writers? The kitchen table? Anywhere you can find a few precious moments of quiet? And do you plan everything out in advance with a neat outline or do you wake up every morning eager to tell yourself the story to see what happens next?

ST: It depends on my mood. Sometimes, I want some energy around me, with people and conversations buzzing in the background, and coffee shops are great for that. I really missed my local indie – Book Passage in Corte Madera, California – during all the weeks of shelter in place. I wrote a lot of Everything I Thought I Knew in their café. Other times, when I really need quiet and focus, I go to a library. There are several great libraries near where I live. The closest to me is in a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and it’s got this retro-futuristic vibe that I like. (In fact, scenes from the 90s sci-fi movie Gattaca were filmed there!) There’s another library I love a few towns over from me that’s nestled in a grove of redwoods. It’s my favorite place to go when it’s raining. Redwood groves look especially beautiful when the weather is damp and everything gets all mossy and green.

In terms of pantsing vs. plotting, I’m more of a pantser – at least I was for this book. I find outlining challenging because I need to write for a bit to discover who my characters are and what the story is all about. I’m trying to get a little better at plotting with my next WIP, however. For me, that means having few key moments to aim for so that I can keep the momentum going and avoid writing myself into too many corners!

JC: Wouldn’t I just love to ask you all about your brilliant plot twist and a gasp-out-loud ending! But the Boswellians do not believe in spoilers. So I’ll just say that I found Chloe’s journey of self-discovery impossible to put down until I turned the last page, and instead of chatting about how you rocked that ending, let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day! What new or upcoming titles would you recommend to readers? 

ST: I’m glad we are on the same page about spoilers! And I would LOVE to provide some recommendations! I have LOTS. Are you ready? There are so many great books out this year, but I’ll keep this list to YA:

The Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson, Three Things I Know Are True by Betty Culley (Also one of Jenny’s favorites!) and Accidental by Alex Richards are three books about the aftermath of gun violence that are all fantastic – beautifully written, heartbreaking, but also hopeful as well. I loved The Edge of Anything by Nora Shalaway Carpenter. It deals with mental illness and an unexpected friendship between a volleyball player and budding photographer. A lovely, lovely book. I also just finished This is My America by Kim Johnson and it’s a powerful, important story about racial injustice set in a town with long running secrets. Coming up in November, Jennifer Moffett’s Those Who Prey is a thoroughly engrossing and unsettling story of a college freshman who gets caught up in a cult. I could keep going – that’s what happens when you get to connect with a lot of amazing writers during your debut year! – so I’m just going to list others that I read this year and recommend (while noting that I also have a TBR that’s quite long, so there are many 2020 releases I still have to read!):

·  Together We Caught Fire, Eva Gibson
·  Private Lessons, Cynthia Salaysay
·  The Perfect Escape, Suzanne Park
·  If You Only Knew, Prerna Pickett
·  True or False, A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News, Cindy Otis
·  The Sound of Stars, Alechia Dow
·  Jane Anonymous, Laurie Faria Stolarz
·  These Violent Delights, Chloe Gong
·  The Best Laid Plans, Cameron Lund
·  Diamond City, Francesca Flores
·  Glitch Kingdom, Sheena Boekweg
·  The Gravity of Us, Phil Stamper

Thank you so much Jenny for giving me the opportunity to chat with you about my book!

JC: Thank you, Shannon, for joining me on the Boswellians Blog! For all of her latest publishing news, follow Shannon on Instagram @shannontakaokawrites and Twitter @shannontakaoka

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Goin' to Minnesota in my Mind

 

Hi from Tim! I've barely been to Minnesota. I briefly crossed the Mississippi River into the Twin Cities a few times. So why do I seem to have this thing about reading books set in our next door neighbor's state? Maybe it's to balance the Boswell blog universe, which is weighted with Appalachian and other Southern fiction courtesy of our marketing man Chris. His Boswellians blog called 'The South!' shows his West Virginia roots and his bent toward quirky living, grit, and heat. So maybe my fascination with northern suppressed emotions and snow-covered grit and cold, ending with break-out intensity and mortality, is the balancing act? Nah! I just like the landscapes and the writers I've happened across from The North. My latest Minnesota read is what inspired this neighborly blog. If you appreciate great writing, you can watch our August 24th Zoom event (watch it here!) with Peter Geye (cohosted by Books and Company of Oconomowoc) and check out the follow-up to his novel Wintering, called Northernmost.

In Northernmost we see the members of one family, several generations apart, and find the connections between a man who becomes a legendary survivor in 1890s Norway and a woman looking for the meaning of family and happiness in present-day Minnesota. There's a humanity to this novel that runs deeper than most, a gradual but constant movement through the earthy details of life and love. It's powerful, like the glaciers that become a vital part of the setting, and the longer I read the more it overtook me. Their struggles are timeless and universal. We know the descendants will continue, their blood crossing generations in defiance of personal isolation and beautiful but treacherous landscapes. I wondered at times how they did it. So did they, but their love is the greatest answer to how and why. I understand Geye's characters, and I think they would understand me. What greater compliment could I give a novelist?

Marion Lafournier, the narrator of This Town Sleeps by Dennis E. Staples, left his small Minnesota reservation town. He keeps going back, and he’s not sure why. Maybe walking away from his first boyfriend in Minneapolis at 18 years old could explain it, but it’s more than that. He’s with guys he meets through an app who are hiding in the shadows, but he’s comfortable being out, and he wants a relationship. So why keep returning to a place where nothing happens? When he finds a Revenant, a spirit in the form of a dog with a bloody maw, being back starts to look like destiny. The kids always said the dog that died under that schoolyard merry-go-round was still around. Now it seems to be leading him back to the murder of a popular boy, and looking back might be a key to moving forward. Staples gives us a beautifully complex picture of family in its many forms. Ojibwe tradition is blended with modern America and universal humanity. The voices are strong. The stark honesty of Staples’ characters and the grace of his writing make this debut memorable.

"God Is A Tornado." With those desperate words, painted on the water tower for all to see, William Kent Krueger reveals twelve-year-old Odie in This Tender Land. Odie runs, along with three other children, from the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota, which trains children to give up their culture. Odie and his older brother are the only white students there, little Emmy Frost is the daughter of a beloved teacher, and Moses is a Sioux boy who lost both his mother and his tongue to an attacker at a very young age. They've seen cruel school leaders preach about a protective God who’s done nothing but deliver them loss. They all have reasons to flee. This is not a children's book, but rather a classic American novel of the Great Depression (1932) and a riveting story of kids trying to find their place in the world. They escape along Minnesota's major rivers in a canoe, headed for a possible home with an aunt in St. Louis, and along the way they meet a fascinating group of characters. The beauty of this novel is in the deep development of the children, who got into my heart and have stayed there.

I also like Kent Krueger's Desolation Mountain, an entertaining mystery and the 17th book in his series featuring Cork O'Connor, a former sheriff and private investigator in northern Minnesota. O'Connor's Irish and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) ancestry is an interesting aspect of the novel. He works and has family in and around the Ojibwa Iron Lake Reservation, where many of the locals are eagerly waiting to meet with U.S. Senator Olympia McCarthy, who opposes a new mining operation which could potentially poison the land. She doesn't survive her trip to the meeting, which launches a complicated, frightening investigation by a web of government agencies and outside interests. Many people close to O'Connor are in danger. I enjoyed the descriptions of the autumn forest and how the land is woven into an engaging plot. When Kreuger was here for the book event, he mentioned that Ojibwe fans of his novels told him that he's not bad at portraying them, "for a white guy." I really liked the humor and candor of that.

Virg​il Wander
by​ Leif Enger is one of my all-time favorite novels! Virgil’s surname is ironic because he’s been in one place for a while, a beautiful but rugged Lake Superior town that’s well past its best days. Then Rune arrives, a magnetic man with a talent for making and flying wonderfully unusual kites, a man closely tied to everyone’s past, and a sign of their future. As he meets Rune, Virgil is recovering from a concussive near-death crash into the lake. It’s changed him; he’s more direct, more openly emotional, a little irreverent. He’s told to “watch out.” Maybe his name is a calling. It’s easy to like Enger’s characters. Their intelligence and sincerity make a Minnesota winter setting feel warm and open to unlikely renewal. And the story is engaging, expertly crafted for anticipation and suspense. If you want a great holiday read, and a welcome reprieve from negativity, Virgil Wander is perfect!

Tim Johnston is an excellent writer. The Current is a fine novel of suspense and an intricate study of how people react to tragedy and loss. Audrey and Caroline become close college friends after first trying and failing to be roommates. When Audrey finds out that her father's cancer is beyond treatment, Caroline decides to drive her back to her Minnesota home, and the two are caught in a frightening situation that reopens a ten-year-old crime. The past and present events happen in the same river across two states, and the story has the feel of a strong current. Johnston's descriptions of places in and around the river, where lives suddenly change forever, have a gravity like the flowing water, and he captures the survivors' struggle over what they can never get back as time pushes them away from what they had. His use of places and things to reveal characters' emotions is masterful, and his characters' direct, honest dialog about the most difficult problems is compelling. With very few words Johnston quickly shows us the thoughts and actions of people who seem real.

I'm liking the summer heat, but I love the seasons. I'll welcome our beautiful northern fall and winter, and these books can make them feel even better!
 
In my mind I’m goin’ to Minnesota.
Can’t you feel the snowfall?
Just leave your boots out in the hall.
Car gets stuck, and then it stalls.
Ya get hit from behind.
Yes I’m goin’ to Minnesota in my mind.
  
                                      - Sweet Baby Tim
 
 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Jenny Has Five Questions for Adib Khorram

I'm so happy to welcome YA author Adib Khorram to the Boswellians today to chat about his new shining star of a book, Darius The Great Deserves Better. I've been a huge fan of Adib’s writing ever since I read his debut novel as an advance copy before it was even published. (Booksellers are lucky that way.) Just like his first book Darius the Great is Not Okay, this follow up takes on essential topics like identity, depression, and finding connections not just among your peers but also within your own family. The result is a story that’s both fun to read and powerfully moving. Once again, I loved the detailed and laugh-out-loud observations Darius makes of the world around him.
 
Adib Khorram won the Morris Award from the American Library Association, which is given annually to a first-time author writing for teens. He also won the Asian/Pacific American Literature Association’s Young Adult Award and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor. Wow!

JENNY CHOU: Welcome Adib. I’m feeling so lucky today! I get to chat about one of my favorite YA characters, Darius Kellner, with the author of his books. I always like to start off my interviews by talking about all the challenges the main character is dealing with as he makes his way to the end of the book. On the surface, a cute boyfriend (who can cook!) and the internship of his dreams should be making Darius super happy. So tell us what’s going on in his head and in his life that’s tripping him up.

ADIB KHORRAM: Thank you so much for having me! I think that Darius has set goals for himself and achieved them and is now experiencing that feeling that I’ve had in my life (and I think a lot of people have) of: now what? And, is this all there is? So he’s grappling with the idea versus the reality, and trying to figure out if what he said he wanted is what’s actually good for him.
 
JC: Your writing wields such a powerful impact that reading your work is both a joy and a journey back through the emotionally draining days of high school. And I mean that as a high praise! For readers who are still in high school, this is an author who gets who you are now and who you are endeavoring to become. Adib, what do you hope readers, and especially teens, take away from Darius’s story?

AK: I hope they take away a sense of agency over their own lives. And a sense of freedom to change their minds, if what they’ve chosen isn’t making them happy. And hopefully also a little bit of comfort, too. Life is pretty tough right now.

JC: For your day job, you work as a graphic designer. What was your first inkling that you might be a writer?

AK: When I was in seventh grade, me and my friends went to an afterschool writing club, and basically wrote thinly-veiled self-insert Star Trek fanfiction. I’ve loved writing ever since. I don’t really have a moment when I decided I would try to be a professional writer; sometimes it feels like it accidentally happened. Sometimes I still don’t feel like a professional writer, to be honest!

JC: I’m hoping for lots more books about Darius in the future. Maybe ten or perhaps an even dozen. Can you tell us what’s up next for you? Did I hear something about a picture book?

AK: I do indeed have a picture book! It’s called Seven Special Somethings: A Nowruz Story, about the Persian New Year, and it’s very adorable. It comes out February 16, 2021. I’ve got some other irons in the fire but nothing I can really talk about yet!

JC: Let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day! Are there any new releases you’re excited about and would like to suggest to YA readers?

AK: The quarantimes have been really hard on my reading habits. I’ve switched to audiobooks in large part, because I can listen to them while I play Animal Crossing. But I’m constantly recommending Martha Wells’s The Murderbot Diaries to anyone that comes near me. The latest came out a few months ago. This summer has seen some great releases, too, like Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me In a Crown and Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After.

Thank you so much for joining me on the blog, Adib! To keep up with all of Adib Khorram’s publishing news, follow him on Twitter and on Instagram @adibkhorram.

And here’s some exciting news: Boswell Book Company will host Adib Khorram on Friday, August 28th in conversation with New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin, Nic Stone. Register here to join us on Zoom.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Chris Previews Emma Jane Unsworth's Virtual Visit


From Chris: As you perhaps know by now, I'm super excited for my virtual chat with Emma Jane Unsworth this coming Sunday afternoon - August 23, 1 pm - to interview her about her brand new novel, Grown Ups - released as Adults in the UK, for those of you who like to know those titles from across the pond. Speaking of the pond, that's the reason for the afternoon event. Unsworth joins us all the way from London for this special event. How'd we convince her to? With not one, two, or three, but four glowing staff recommendations. More on those below. To whet your appetite for this interview, I sent a few preview questions off to EJU this week, and here's what she had to say:

CHRIS LEE: Grown Ups is so much about the dark, toxic places social media obsession can take a person and the very real mental health disasters it can cause. When we first meet Jenny, she’s trying to get the perfect picture of a croissant to post, and if she can’t get that photo, it’s going to ruin her day, her month, maybe her life, regardless of how good the pastry actually tastes. That said, do you see any positives that living online bring into Jenny’s life? 

EMMA JANE UNSWORTH: To Jenny’s? I think she might be past positives. Certainly when we meet her. She’s spiraling. She has to be. That’s the drama; that’s where it’s going. But I think by the end of the novel she is finding ways to interact healthily online, and keep it fun and purely recreational. I don’t hate social media. I just think it can be a dangerous place for a vulnerable person. It can be a lifeline. But it can be a toxic hellhole, too.

CL: Speaking of the internet and croissants, you’re pretty online yourself, and there is evidence there that you’re pretty into croissants. So – is it life imitating art or art imitating life here?

EJU: It’s art imitating art and life imitating life. It’s a bit of everything I felt between the years 2011-2014 and also nothing real that actually happened. It’s semi-autobiographical fiction and if that sounds like a cop-out, that’s exactly why I write it! There was a period of time in my mid-thirties when I drove my friends mad because I was obsessing over how I presented myself online. It was an ugly time. A vibrant time. I have never been addicted to alcohol or drugs, but I definitely came close to something resembling addiction with the internet. One friend in particular gave me a really hard time about it. But she also pulled me out of the hole. 

I suppose I write what scares me, and the internet scares me, or it did then, and I wanted to capture that fear and make it abstract. It works, too! Putting your fears and heartbreaks into fiction. It’s the best. The croissant scene with Jenny makes me cringe because it is the most ridiculous thing. I never posted a croissant, but I agonized over similarly trivial things. I still occasionally do, but usually it’s a sign to me to check in with myself and do some meditation or just take a walk without my phone. We all need time away from our phones sometimes. Phones are fickle lovers.

CL: From the coming to terms with her mother to the almost breakup-story way another friendship is going, you write amazing, complex, super real relationships between Jenny and the other women in the book. Is there a relationship in the book you most loved exploring?

EJU: Jenny and Kelly, definitely. Jenny and Carmen was fun, but for me the real meat of the book is in the friendship story. I wanted to write a complex friendship story about two friends who broke up and got back together again. I feel like I’ve seen that story so much with romantic relationships, but never with friendship. In my previous book, Animals, it was more of a straight break-up. But this time the relationship felt more complicated, older, more mature. What if friends got back together? How would that work? How would it feel? How do you win a friend back like you might win back a lover? For me, Jenny repairing her friendship with Kelly is the main way we see how she has grown, and how she has started to learn about boundaries and forgiveness. 

CL: Normally I ask authors to do the Hollywood sell line – It’s ____ meets ____!  - but I think it’s pretty well established in the marketing package for Grown Ups that it’s Fleabag meets Conversations with Friends. So let me ask this – are there any heroes you’d like to say influenced this book? And of course, if you’ve got a second “It’s X meets Y” line, we’d love to hear it! 
 
EJU: Heroes! Oh so many. For this book: Carrie Fisher, Lorrie Moore, Lena Dunham, Douglas Coupland, Michaela Cole, Jennifer Egan, Martin Amis (sorry – purely for style), Mhairi McFarlane, Hilary Mantel, Long Island Medium, all of the friends I stole jokes from.

Can you believe it? I get a whole hour (okay, 45 minutes when you subtract a little introduction and perhaps even some audience questions, but who's counting?) to chat with this wonderful person this coming Sunday. And what's that I said above about other Boswellians loving this book? They do! Read on:

Madi says: "The anxiety is REAL. This book started out feeling like a phone-crazed Black Mirror episode but quickly turned into a mother-daughter relationship evaluation in the midst of a personal crisis. Jenny’s in her mid-thirties and wants desperately to actually live the life she presents on social media, but instead is spiraling into a mind-numbing, constant anxiety that sinks further when her extroverted, dare I say ridiculous, “psychic” mother decides to live with her. I was worried this book would be just another “the younger generation and those phones!” where our protagonist learns some kind of unplugging lesson, but it is so much deeper. Jenny deals with real problems women face, including the struggles of both motherhood and infertility, largely through her frantic yet comedic e-mails, social media posts, and inner monologues. I especially appreciated how it deals with infertility, as reproduction is so often considered a woman-defining ability, making it a silent struggle not often discussed. I cannot stress enough how well this book handles the stigmas and struggles that women face, including female relationships that are much more than catty bickering. Grown Ups makes you want to hug your best friends and call your mother."
 
Parker says: "Jenny McLaine's life is perfectly instagrammable. A nice photograph, with the right filter, and a witty caption, with the perfect amount of "!'s" and emojis. Well, most of her life anyways - she still has to deal with her complicated relationship with her ex-boyfriend, her crumbling friendships, her dying job, and worst of all, her mother. Grown Ups is a hilarious and scarily relatable novel that explores the complicated way that social media has begun to influence us and our IRL relationships. These characters and their antics made me laugh-out-loud, cringe, and shudder in horror when I saw myself reflected in them. Jenny and just about everyone else in this book seriously suck. But sometimes, so do we all, and maybe if we try a little harder, and post a little less, that can be okay. Unsworth tosses the falling tree and the forest aside and asks the question, "if I don't post about it did it really matter? And what happens if no one cares?"
 
Kira says: "Emma Jane Unsworth's Grown Ups is a quirky, she's-already-come-of-age novel with a cast of characters that you can't stand and can't believe you so clearly identify with. Reminiscent of Black Mirror's “Nosedive,” Jenny McClaine's perfectly posh social media feeds would have you believing anything but the truth - that is, her life is an actual bona fide mess, her relationship of nearly a decade just crashed & burned, and her neurotic, new age mama is moving in. Through Jenny's texts, emails, email drafts, and social media messages, Unsworth gifts her readers with a critique of the keep-scrolling-til-the-dopamine-hits culture of the 21st century that has every woman you know feeling like there's no damn way to keep up. Initially, more than a few of Jenny's actions come across as deplorable, but the deeper we dive into her psyche, the more understandable, and frankly, 100% relatable, she becomes. I want to give this book to all of the women I know, and I dare them to read it without checking their phone every couple of pages. #obsessed"
 
STILL NOT CONVINCED? Well at this point there may just be no hope for you, but here's my recommendation as one last try:

"This book is so good it’s giving me anxiety attacks. Jenny has a lot going – break ups, break downs, digital obsessions, maternal intrusions, maybe even a little growing up, and all of it rudely intruding from outside the edges of her phone’s screen. Told in a whirlwind of texts, unsent emails, Instagram comments, and Jenny’s mumbling, razor-tongued ruminations, which range from deadpan riffing to screaming-in-a-pillow angry crying, this is a sweaty palms, grinding teeth, visceral experience that’ll have you doing that taken-aback-laugh-rage-shaking thing – in a good way, I swear!"
 
Okay! Register right here for Emma Jane Unsworth's virtual event on Sunday, August 23, 1 pm, in conversation with me! You probably won't regret it. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Jenny Has Five Questions for Liza Wiemer

 Today is just a week away from the release of Milwaukee YA author's latest novel (and just a week away from her virtual release celebration Tuesday, 8/25, at 7 pm- register right here!) so Jenny has invited Wiemer to the Boswellians blog for a chat. From Jenny:

I’m so excited to welcome Liza Wiemer to the Boswellians today! Liza is a Milwaukee writer, a dear friend of Boswell, and the author of one previous novel for teens, Hello?, and several works of non-fiction. Her new novel, The Assignment, centers on social justice. School Library Journal called it, “An important look at a critical moment in history through a modern lens showcasing the power of student activism.” My own take-away from this powerful book is that yes, the story is disturbing, but Liza Wiemer’s heartfelt writing fills this novel with love and ultimately with hope. Don't miss Liza and I chatting over Zoom as we celebrate her book launch. Register above.

JENNY CHOU: Welcome, Liza! I’m honored to have you here on the blog today to tell readers about your new book. The Assignment feels relevant and vital during this summer of 2020 as people across the country are speaking out against injustice. Your two main characters, Logan and her friend Cade, show such admirable courage throughout the novel. Tell us about them, and explain what they face at school and in their community after a teacher assigns a chilling project focusing on Hitler’s Final Solution.

LIZA WIEMER: I love Boswell Book Company! Thank you so much for having me. Cade and Logan are high school seniors with very different goals. Cade plans to stay in Riviere, NY (a fictitious town) to help run his family’s inn and attend a local college. Logan is heading off to Georgetown. They’re best friends and are supportive of one another. (Spoiler alert: light romance) Cade takes History of World Governments so that the two of them will have one class together. Mr. Bartley, their beloved teacher, often gives out-of-the-box, creative assignments. Other than Cade and Logan, no one questions him about the assignment to recreate the Wannsee Conference. What’s wrong with pretending to be Nazis and coming up with reasons to murder Europe’s 11,000,000 Jews? After all, it’s history.

The issue is not learning about it. The issue is debating whether sterilization, ghettos, and work camps is a better idea than straight out extermination. In other words, this was a debate on whether to enslave the Jewish people and work them to death or kill them immediately. Cade andLogan refused to do this assignment on moral grounds. They will not defend the indefensible. When two students give the Nazi salute in class, it solidifies Cade and Logan’s decision to do everything they can to end to the debate. But they face ridicule from classmates, a principal who will only accommodate them on his terms. Unfortunately, things spiral out of control when a reporter interviews Cade and Logan about the assignment.

Hopefully, readers will put themselves in this novel, thinking about what they would do in similar situations. Would you have the courage to speak up? You’ll just have to read the novel to decide what you would do.

JC: I love the story of how this novel came to be. Can you talk a bit about that? And how challenging was it to keep the heart of the story but fictionalize the people involved?

LW: Great questions. Without a doubt, the experiences that led me to writing this novel are extraordinary.

On April 4, 2017, I was visiting Oswego, New York, for a book signing at River’s End Bookstore for my debut young adult novel, Hello?. Before the event, I stopped at a local grocery store and was unable to exit my car because of a downpour. To pass the time, I went on Facebook. That’s when I saw the horrifying headline “Homework? NY Students Debate Exterminating Jews.” The first line announced that this took place in Oswego. I was shocked. I remember wondering how I ended up in a town where people saw no problem with an assignment asking students to advocate for the Holocaust.

I was in awe of the two teens who spoke out against the assignment, Jordan April and Archer Shurtliff, and really wanted to say thank you and let them know that their actions were brave and heroic. The problem was that I had no idea how to get in touch with them.

I decided to purchase copies of my novel, include a personal note, and ask the bookstore owner if he would help me send them to the teens. Turns out that the plan was unnecessary. Four steps into the bookstore and there was Jordan! Amazingly, she worked at the bookstore. Later that evening, we had a three-way call with Archer.

Soon after I returned to Milwaukee, I wrote about the experience, which was published as an op-ed on several sites. An author friend then suggested that I write a novel. I knew it was something I had to do. Readers might find it interesting, however, that the night before I met Jordan and Archer, I had decided that I was done with writing. I’d received my sixtieth agent rejection for a manuscript I’d worked on for six years. I saw that rejection, along with one of the worst teaching days of my career, as a sign to do something else with my life. The only way I can explain the series of the incredible events that has led to the publication of this novel is Divine Providence.

About how difficult it was to fictionalize the story...

From the very beginning I made the decision to write a fictitious story, so it wasn’t hard to imagine my own characters. They became very real to me. The novel required a lot of research—reading about similar assignments, researching the Final Solution, the Wannsee Conference, Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter. I watched a lot of original footage from World War II, YouTube videos, interviewed students, experts on the Holocaust, survivors, and so much more.

JC: What do you hope readers, and especially teens, take away from The Assignment?

LW: When it comes to speaking up and taking a stand against an injustice, you are not alone. It’s not easy, especially when adults are involved. Sometimes, you have to look for that support. There are many different ways to be an upstander instead of a bystander. I think the vast majority of us can think of instances in our lives where we stayed silent instead of speaking up for ourselves or others. I hope that after you read The Assignment, the experience will stay with you for a long time. I hope that it will be an example to draw strength from, so that when you face an injustice you’ll be able to recall the experiences in this book and find the courage to speak up. Your voice matters. You can and will make a difference. Stay strong!

JC:
What foreign rights have been sold, and when will the book be available in other countries?

LW: So far, the novel has sold in Italy, Russia, Poland, and South Korea. Most likely, we won’t see those versions until 2021.

JC: Let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day here at Boswell! Are there any new releases you’d suggest to YA readers? What are you excited about for this fall?

LW: If I had the opportunity to work at Boswell Book Company for a day, I’d love it. I’ve been known to recommend books to shoppers at my favorite Indie!

This is a tough question, because I normally ask each person what they enjoy reading and make recommendations based on their likes. Regardless of this, I would highly recommend Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. They share American history that very few of us know. It’s an important book and should be read by all teens and adults.

And since I’m working, I am certain I’d meet people interested in excellent books for middle graders. Here are two that recently came out that I’d recommend. Turtle Boy by Evan Wolkenstein. It’s an emotional novel dealing with family, friends, turtles, identity, self-esteem, life and death and so much more. Evan grew up in Wisconsin and the novel is set here, so extra bonus. The Dream Weaver by Reina Luz Alegre also kept me turning pages and will have readers thinking about what dreams to hold onto and which ones to let go!

I’m looking forward to Dear Justyce, the sequel of Dear Martin by Nic Stone, which comes out September 29th. (Note from Jenny: Boswell is hosting Adib Khorram, author of Darius the Great is Not Okay, in conversation with Nic Stone on Friday, August 28th! Register HERE.) For fantasy lovers, I’ve heard wonderful things about Cast in Firelight by Dana Swift. I’d also love for our YA readers to put American Betiya, by Wisconsinite Anuradha D Rajurkar, on their to-read list. It doesn’t come out until next March, but it will be worth the wait. It’s a book about a young artist grappling with first love, family boundaries and the complications of a cross-culture relationship. I was fortunate to read several versions of the manuscript. This book is fantastic!

Thanks to you, Liza, for joining me today! Liza Wiemer’s virtual release party on Tuesday, August 25th at 7 pm is sure to be fun! She’ll be joined by me, asking questions about all things YA and writing The Assignment. Ready to pre-order a copy of The Assignment? Anyone who preorders will receive this decal along with a bookmark, and they can fill out this form for the chance to win 3 Delacorte Press books of their choice for themselves and 5 books for a classroom or library.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Chris Interviews Lee Conell about The Party Upstairs


From Chris: I'm feeling quite lucky to have this chance to sit down - or rather, since that's out for a while, exchange emails - with Lee Conell author of The Party Upstairs. Some of you know that aside from being a bookseller, I'm a writer as well, and this is the kind of first novel that’s so good it makes me, when I've got my writing hat on, super-duper jealous. So it's pretty great to have a chance to get the author on the other end of the old typin' machine to dig a little deeper into what makes this book tick.

Here's the elevator pitch (a phrase that will have even more relevance as you read on): Conell takes on an upstairs-downstairs-in-NYC premise centered around the brewing fight between back-at-home-swimming-in-liberal-arts-education-debt Ruby, her meditating-birdwatching-trying-to-avoid-a-mental-breakdown-building-super father Martin, and her grew-up-in-the-penthouse-but-definitely-doesn’t-think-she’s-better-than-you oldest friend Caroline. Over the course of a single day, these tensions boil into a crisis that leaves everyone scarred and changed in one way or another.

Chris Lee: Thanks so much for taking the time for this chat. I love that your book is super focused on economics and the realities of how money influences every part of peoples’ lives - these are the big questions of the book, right? - but the at the same time, you’re able to fold that influence really deftly into the character’s lives and relationships – so much so that the realization of it creeps up on them and the reader. How much were you thinking about economics and money as you wrote? What sort of “ah-ha!” money moments did you set out to write about, and did any creep up on you?

Lee Conell:
Those are definitely the big questions of the book, but I think I found those questions as I went. I started with just really wanting to write about the small little power dynamics in an apartment building, hoping that those dynamics might speak to bigger things around class and money, but trying to not pay too much attention to those bigger resonances right away. I knew less about exactly what I was setting out to write than about what I didn’t want to do: As a kid and a young adult, I often felt that a lot of stories and movies around money seemed to deal with either 1) genteel poverty (sorta like “We once had money, now we don’t, but our former wealth makes our story worth telling”), 2) immediately life-threatening poverty (often shown in dramatic, peak-grit fashion), or 3) enormously rich people behaving badly. It felt like, in talking about class and money, certain types of stories were favored or let through over others.

I knew that what I was writing didn’t quite seem to fall into those three categories, and that the novel seemed to have a lot to do with the shame and anxiety that sometimes occurs when people try to pretend that class tension doesn’t exist or doesn’t affect them. Ruby and Martin don’t aspire to be like the wealthy tenants in the building, but they still have complicated feelings and fears concerning how these tenants view them, feelings that they are trying to sort out throughout the novel. The big questions of the novel were probably borne in part out of some of my frustrations with how class is often talked about (or not talked about), but the shape of the questions themselves emerged through these two characters.

One ah-ha creeping-up-on-me moment I do remember: As I went along, I saw the novel was interested, too, in the way stories around poverty and financial struggle sometimes get kind of co-opted by those with more power, as a display of moral goodness. At times, those kinds of displays themselves wind up being a sneaky form of conspicuous consumption. This wasn’t an initial concern of the novel but it wound up intermingling with a lot of the earlier money anxiety stuff I knew the book would deal with and proved surprisingly crucial to a lot of the novel’s action.

CL: Martin - father, super, watcher of birds, which I love, especially as, through the story, he gets tenser and tenser, we see him juxtaposed at the birds staring back him, impassively. How did birdwatching make its way into the book?

LC:
When I was a kid in the city, I was part of this NYC parks department group called Junior Rangers—every Saturday I’d go on these hikes led by city park rangers and learn about birds or plants or city geology. It always felt like a kind of secret to me, that all these different birds existed and made their life in the city. It was such a part of my experience of the city. And I wanted to give Martin another set of creatures to interact with, to watch, to respond to. I’m glad that you mentioned the birds staring back! That’s an important part of the whole dynamic—not only is Martin watching the birds, but he recognizes that he can be seen by them, too. A lot of the book wound up being about characters’ trying (and often failing!) to really see each other.

CL: The building itself is a character in the book – there’s the shabby comfort of the old blankets and couch in their basement apartment home, the terror-inducing childhood memories of the elevator-motor room. Can you talk about creating that space? If you were to take someone into it for the first time, what would you want to point out to them?

LC: This is a great question! (ed. note - thanks!) I’d probably want to show them the elevator-motor room, or maybe the boiler room. It’s something that I still find so wild, that residential apartment buildings contain these spaces that residents are supposed to forget exist—if the boiler room is functioning, you, as a resident, should never think about its existence. Creating the building space was a lot of fun and did involve a fair number of conversations with my father, a super himself, to make sure the details weren’t off. Thinking about the building’s physical spaces and how they interlock helped me to think about the interlocking parts of the novel, too.

CL: With the building’s residents, from Caroline’s penthouse-owning father to the homeless woman sleeping in the foyer to the pigeons nesting in the façade and everyone in between, you’ve created almost a whole city of social strata in miniature. Was it important to you that the building and characters that people the book be representative of a wider world?

LC: If I’d thought too much about the building and the characters representing the wider world, I probably would have become totally paralyzed during the writing process. If anything, I worried that I was describing something too specific to have much wider resonance at all. But I love the idea of the building being a social strata in miniature, that in paying close attention to small things, all sorts of bigger resonances are achieved.

CL:
Ruby’s dealing with what I’d call some pretty archetypal millennial guilt – her parents have worked hard so she could get an education, and so she’s clearly feeling the pressure of expectations, but at the same time, the world just doesn’t have the opportunities it would have had for her 20-30 years ago, and so she’s confronting this tough truth that in spite of that education, she’s maybe not going to wind up that much better off than her parents. And there’s also the moments of “why-oh-why did I go into the arts?” regret. Can you talk about how you see her dealing with that squeezed-from-all-directions pressure?

LC: So much of Ruby’s movement in the book is about her traveling from a place of non-dealing to maybe-dealing-a-little-bit. And part of that move toward dealing, I think, concerns her becoming more cognizant of the way the rage and shame she’s been directing toward herself (and in some ways toward her father) needs to go in other directions. Only then Ruby’s anger starts ricocheting off individuals she views as privileged, rather than the systems that give them privilege (though of course these individuals are often supporting those same systems). Ultimately, a lot of her dealing seems to be reckoning with her anger and learning how to begin to… not exactly release… but redirect the squeezed-from-all-directions pressure you mentioned.

CL: In another article you wrote, you made it clear that much of the novel is based on experience – your father was the super of the building you grew up in – which makes me wonder if there’s anything in the book that you find readers are surprised to know is totally, 100% true-to-life? Or something that’s completely fictional, that came entirely from the characters, that everyone thinks came from your life?

LC:
One question I’ve been getting a lot is if I had any long-term friendships with others in the building like the one Ruby has with Caroline, in the penthouse. I’m happy to report that I did not! For the most part there actually weren’t many children my age in the building, though there were a lot of babies around the time I was twelve. So, if I’d been born a little later, who knows! The part of the book most based on my experience is probably the setting itself, the ecosystem of the building. Hearing calls on the answering machine, as Ruby does, was a big part of my growing up. I had a kind of constant awareness of the various needs in the building, and expended a fair amount of energy trying to squash this awareness. When I began to write the novel, I didn’t know much about what was going to happen, but I did know that I wanted to inhabit that setting again, to think about it from a different angle, one where I was permitting myself to be more aware of the building and its inhabitants.

CL:
As he mops, Martin sees the whole world in terms of wet and dry. Ruby tends to reframe the world around her into the kind of dioramas she studied and created in school. I love how your characters sort of reinterpret the world around them through the concrete things they’re doing. Was that a trick you used to get inside their heads?

LC: Definitely! It’s a useful way for me to try to get out of my own head. As a writer, I tend to see a lot of world stuff—probably too much world stuff!—in these arc-y narrative ways. I see a lot of patterns and almost-symbols and connections that feel like stories. Really, what I’m noticing is my obsession with storytelling imposing a kind of selective order on the mess of details I could draw from at any given moment. My characters often think in ways that feel very different from my own usual thought patterns, but having them reframe the world through their activities and obsessions is very familiar for me—and is a way into their minds.

CL: Be the bookseller for the day here, fill in the blanks – The Party Upstairs is the perfect mix of ____ meets _____ !

LC: Mrs. Dalloway meets Heathers! (I don’t know if this is true, but someone said it to me about The Party Upstairs once, and I’m clinging to it as a descriptor forever. Also, I know Heathers is a movie, so I’m maybe missing the bookseller point of the question! Ahh! I’m so sorry!)

- The point is definitely not missed, just like many of them in the book. Here comes the hard sell: snag a copy of The Party Upstairs right here from Boswell!