Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of August 9. 2022

Time for new books that the Boswellians dig. 

First, Daniel Goldin on A Map for the Missing by Belinda Huijuan Tang: "Belinda Huijuan Tang’s excellent debut, inspired by her father’s upbringing in Anhui province, opens in early 1990s California. Yitian is called back to his hometown when his mother reports his father missing. While Yitian has hardly adapted to America, the return stirs up its own haunted memories, a tortured life with his father, a lost bond with his brother Yishou, and an unfinished longing for his onetime-girlfriend Hanwen. Though framed as a missing person mystery, Yitian’s journey helps him unlock deeper questions of his family and perhaps one day understand his father. The Cultural Revolution is one of repression and loss that affected generations. In making the political personal, Tang brings this period to vibrant life."

Jen Steele keeps it quick and quippy in her recommendation of High Times in the Low Parliament by Kelly Robson: "High Times in the Low Parliament is an entertaining lesbian, stoner, buddy romp with political intrigue and angry fairies. War may be inevitable, but so are mushrooms!"

Next it's Tim McCarthy with not one but two new histories for you to read. First it's the new Rinker Buck book, Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure. Tim says: "Winning the American Revolution fully opened land west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers, and the way forward was the rivers. A great migration built fast-growing towns like Pittsburgh, where flatboats (and later steamboats) were made for moving surplus farm products down the Ohio and Mississippi. Many thousands of young farmers and rivermen floated to southern states each year, creating a unique river culture. Buck studied this history and decided he had to try the same flatboat trip himself in our age of massive river barge traffic, a crazy notion for an amateur on the water. Lots of river dwellers told him he'd die. He helped build his own flatboat, and the 2,000 mile adventure with a crew full of characters turned out to be awe-inspiring. The book ties his very personal journey to our past and to the ever-changing United States, as it’s seen from the rivers today. While Buck writes with strong and sincere words about the 'profoundly tragic' role of American slavery and the devastation of indigenous nations, this is mostly a story of our constant expansion, rough independence, and ingenuity. Buck uses a lively blend of historian’s love of research and storyteller’s blunt humor to describe how he revels in the challenges and meets people of all kinds. I confess that along with my intense anger over America’s brutal history, I have a soft spot for the romance and marvelous details in this story. I enjoyed every bit of Rinker Buck’s wild river ride!"

Next, Tim recommends the latest from multi-Pulitzer-winner David Maraniss, Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe. Tim writes: "Swedish King Gustav V apparently told Jim Thorpe, as he handed him a gold medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, that he was 'the most wonderful athlete in the world.' Thorpe was certainly admired and sought after worldwide for his unmatched athleticism and talent. Everyone wanted to see him, wherever he went. He was on World Series teams, he was there at the inception of the NFL, and later he had many small Hollywood film roles, befriending the biggest stars of the day. Thorpe was often used as a novelty as well, a drawing card constantly subject to racial stereotypes, and as time passed he became more actively involved with indigenous people’s rights. As a man, Jim Thorpe had serious human flaws and struggled constantly to succeed, but he was personally kind and generous, offering a huge smile to all. He never seemed inclined to pity himself or stop chasing his dreams. The extraordinary details of his life, including many connections to Wisconsin and Milwaukee, are endlessly fascinating, and Maraniss makes them exceptionally smooth reading. He wraps Thorpe's life into the story of America, and he’s blunt about our cruel contradictions in such an intelligent way that my progressive anger feels completely validated. This is a top-flight history lesson that separates the truth from the myth of a legendary and iconic American!"

And now, paperback picks.

Tim keeps it rolling into paperback land with his glowing (so bright as to be near nuclear) review of Colson Whitehead's novel Harlem Shuffle: "Whitehead starkly defines his characters' world as he unwraps their stories with a direct, graceful style and unique symbolism. I met him once at a Boswell Book Company event. I saw the genius in his eyes; the sincerity, too. And he’s funny! Once again, he drops us into another time. Harlem, 1959, was a much harder place than the one where I was born (that same year). Ray Carney is a loving family man with a small furniture company and modest ambitions for upward movement. He stays at the edges of the hustles all around him, but everything heavy pulls at the edges. He “was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked" until his beloved cousin Freddie draws him into a heist. I like Ray, and in Whitehead’s masterful hands he becomes real. I haven’t read a better American novelist, living or dead. He stands with James Baldwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and E. L. Doctorow. Back-to-back Pulitzers ain’t bad. By giving us the past, Whitehead leads us toward the future. He's the new King of American historical fiction, the new voice as powerful as Doctorow’s. The torch of greatness has been passed."

Now back over to Daniel for Kal Penn's memoir You Can't Be Serious: "I have always been intrigued by Kal Penn, not just for his acting, but for his detour into civil service, which unlike other celebrities, did not involve running for office. While You Can’t Be Serious doesn’t have a coming out chapter, its revelation that Penn is engaged to a Nascar-loving Mississippian named Josh earned headlines upon the book’s publication. I was also very interested in reading about Penn’s struggles finding good roles as a South Asian and why Harold and Kumar go to White Castle was so groundbreaking. For every celebrity memoir I read, there are five others I put down within 25 pages. I need to like the voice, I want some interesting stories, the author must have something of substance to say, and if I’m promised humor, I better be laughing out loud. You Can’t Be Serious has all of that!"

Until next week, when we return with more recommendations, read on dear readers.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of August 2, 2022

New week, new month, new Tuesday, new books! Lots of them. Let's get to the recommendations.

First Daniel Goldin on a Milwaukee-set debut novel by Sarah Thankam Matthews, All This Could Be Different. Daniel says: "All Sneha really wants when she relocates to Milwaukee is a circle of friends, a special someone, and a steady income, but even those goals turn out to be a harder to achieve in this debut novel. She’s got a few friends and a possible love interest, though most of them are struggling with goals and money, plus both her contractor boss and the flat manager turn out to be, well, two pieces of work. Plus, contract work kind of sucks - you’re in the company (it’s obvious to any Milwaukeean where she works, but it’s never spelled out in the story), but not really of the company, much the way that Sneha must navigate her life in Milwaukee as a queer South Asian woman. There’s almost a chaotic feel to the narrative - will Thom forgive Sneha, will things with Martina work out, can Tig get her commune together, and just how much money is Amit going to spend trying to save a drug-addicted friend? – but to me, that’s just the way things feel during the kind of quarter-life crisis that Sneha is experiencing.  And props for getting the Milwaukee details right circa 2016, considering Mathews never lived here, though she went to school in Madison. Milwaukee is usually used as a no-place-in-particular setting, but here, Mathews plays off oddly Edenic history of socialist mayors that is meaningful to some millennials, even if the contemporary city struggles with prejudice and crime. Even the name-checked restaurants reinforce the narrative – not necessarily fancy, but a little too expensive for the unsteady paychecks of most of this crew, particularly Tig, who generally orders the most expensive thing on the menu. In the end, everything’s going to work out. Right?"

We host a virtual event with Sarah Thankam Matthews in conversation with Dawnie Walton for a virtual event on Thursday, August 11, 7 pm. Click here to register.

Next it's The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty, as recommended by Chris Lee: "Wow. The Rabbit Hutch is wonderful, insane, and brilliant, and I love, love, love it. Rust belt, Indiana. The denizens of a crumbling apartment building are desperate to transcend their crumbling lives; to transcend trauma, forgottenness, and fame, to transcend the emptiness of material circumstances. To transcend the body. This book is ALIVE. The lives within it pop, scream, and bleed off the page."

Tess Gunty appears In-Person at Boswell on Wednesday, August 10, 6:30 pm in conversation with Chris Lee. Click here to register. We did a great little 5-minute mini-interview with Gunty, too - click here and watch that video now.

Now, Rachel Copeland on The Proposition by Madeleine Roux: "Clemency Fry thought her fears of marriage were unfounded when she became engaged to a man who appreciated her rebellious spirit - until she finds out that her fiancée has a dark past with multiple victims in his wake. When the mysterious Audric Ferrand comes into town on the hunt for her fiancée, Clemency has no choice but to participate in Audric's plan to bring the scoundrel down. This is my first time reading Madeleine Roux, but I wasn't surprised to find that she usually writes in the horror and science fiction genres. The Proposition has a sinister edge to it that kept me turning the pages. The real standout is the prose - Roux fits right in with Austen and the Brontës."

Now we have Jenny Chou on Hummingbird by Natalie Lloyd. Jenny's take: "Olive is one of those lively middle grade narrators whose voice pulls readers right into her story. She’s creative and funny and determined to live a life full of adventure. At age twelve, her brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, has kept her home from school, but she dreams of attending Macklemore Middle School and finding a BFF. Olive may be fragile, but that doesn’t mean she’s not capable. Even so, convincing her protective parents that it's time to let go turns out to be easier than actually fitting in once she gets her chance. Hummingbird is a terrific novel of friendship and sacrifice, and I loved this story for the characters that captured my imagination. But the believable way the author weaves magic into the story makes this book a real gem."

Back to Daniel we go for his take on Cyclorama, the latest novel from Adam Langer. Daniel says: "Since you asked, cyclorama is a theater backdrop and not a velodrome, as I first thought. And what a theater novel this is! The story centers on the North Shore Magnet High School production of Anne Frank, helmed by a very inappropriate drama teacher, with a cast of ten extraordinary students, in which events are set in motion during the rehearsals that have repercussions thirty-some years later. Langer’s latest harkens back to his over the top, Chicago-centric epics filled with intricate plotting, an unforgettable cast, and lots of humor. Muley Wills from the much-loved Crossing California even gets a cameo. The story can be cringe-funny in a Tom Perrotta way, but also exuberant in a Gary Shteyngart way, and powerful in a, well, Anne Frank way. A joy!"

Kay Wosewick gets in on the recommending with her write-up of a new Tin House paperback original, The Wild Hunt by Emma Seckel. Kay says: "The setting is dark: an isolated Scottish island whose residents are deeply haunted by WWII losses. Residents enact a ritual every October 1st to pacify a massive population of crows who terrorize the island for exactly one month. The ritual goes awry this year. Perfectly drawn moments of horror are eventually redeemed by genuine healing of the residents. Your heart will race, it will break, and it will finally rejoice."

Finally, Tim McCarthy wraps up our new book recommending with a great new middle grade novel called My Life Begins, a posthumous release from Patricia MacLachlan. Tim says: "Jacob Black's life begins at nine years old, when the “Trips” are born: his identical triplet sisters. He wanted puppies instead. They're cuter. He was actually lonely, but the babies will be his parents’, not his. He studies them for a school research project. They change every day, becoming individual selves. When Lizzie stops crying to look at him, he picks her up, and she suddenly smiles straight at him. That’s it. Life begins again! I absolutely love Jacob's voice. He's honest in a calm, matter-of-fact way. He's funny. He's wise. He's the creation of a talented, Newbery Medal-winning author, and he'll be a joy for any reader near his age! It’s a loving story of friends and family and new beginnings."

But wait, that's not all! We've got four paperback picks for you this week. These books were released once before, but now their cover is soft and light, perfect for toting about.

Our first two paperback picks come from Daniel. The first is All the Lonely People by Mike Gayle. Daniel says: "Hubert Bird is an 84-year-old widower living in Bromley. Every week his daughter Rose calls from Australia, and he entertains her with stories of his friends. Only one problem – he’s lying. So when Rose tells him she’s coming to visit, he realizes he’s got a limited time to make some real friends, perhaps starting with the new neighbor, a single woman, and her daughter. The story jumps back and forth and time, where we learn that he once had a wife named Joyce, a best friend named Gus, and a son named David in his life. What happened to them? And what will happen to Hubert as he’s slowly roped into a town-wide anti-loneliness crusade. This story, equal parts sad, happy, and funny, also shines a light on the indignities that a Jamaican immigrant would have suffered in London. Hubert’s spirit, despite numerous incidents that would break another person, is what keeps him going, the same spirit that makes All the Lonely People compelling reading."

Our Readings from Oconomowaukee series of virtual events hosted Gayle when this book came out, visiting all the way from England. Check out that video right here.

Daniel also offers this write-up for We Are Not Like Them, the novel cowritten by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza: "An aspiring television reporter and the wife of a policeman, friends since childhood, find their relationship frayed by the shooting of a young Black man. This powerful story is sure to start a lot of important conversations. The authors do a great job creating sympathetic characters in Riley and Jen (though to my thinking, Riley is the true protagonist), with lots of interesting family dynamics and revelations both past (a lynching in Riley’s family) and present (Jen’s pregnancy complications) move the plot along. There’s some humor too, and even a little romance. I’m not giving anything away by saying there’s no way to have a completely happy ending, but maybe, just maybe, there’ll be at least understanding."

We were able to host a virtual event featuring authors Pride and Piazza for this book upon its hardcover release. Click here and watch the video of their great chat.

Now over to Jason Kennedy for his recommendation of All's Well, the second novel from Bunny author Mona Awad: "Miranda’s brilliant career as a stage actor was halted by a fall that broke her hip.  After surgeries and therapy, she is still in chronic pain. Hobbled, she has become a teacher for a theater department, and they put on a Shakespeare play every year. Everyone seems to have written off Miranda’s pain as in her head, and they (her ex-husband, her best friend, and her physical therapist) can barely hide their disbelief that she has any pain. After a mutiny lead by student who wants a different Shakespeare play, Miranda is distraught and in pain. She drowns her sorrows at the pub, where she meets three mysterious men who know all about her and her pain. After a golden drink, Miranda is able to start transferring her pain to others, and her life takes on a new light. Much like Mona Awad’s Bunny, All’s Well starts to get more and more surreal and fantastical. I loved every minute of this crazy, amazing novel - Mona Awad is madly creative and inventive. Bravo."

And now we return to Chris for his thoughts on Out of Mesopotamia by Salar Abdoh: "In what should well become an essential portrait of the fight against the Islamic State, Salar Abdoh’s novel reinvigorates the way we write about war. Saleh, an Iranian journalist and reluctant drama-as-propaganda television writer, travels between the urbane art world of Tehran and the battlefields near the northern border of Syria and Iraq, where he’s gotten more involved than a reporter is supposed to be. The novel digs into Saleh’s meditations and struggle to understand: why do we choose to bloody our hands? The answers are many, uneasy and contradictory, but as Abdoh riffs on the Western canon of war – the adrift disillusionment of Hemingway, the absurdity and commerce of Catch-22Out of Mesopotamia is nothing less than profound."

We were so lucky to host Salar Abdoh for a virtual event when this book first came out in hardcover, in conversation with the sadly now late Meg Jones. What a fantastic, special conversation they had! Click here to watch the video.

Until next week, read on dear readers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of July 26, 2022

Happy new book day. Hooray for Tuesday!, as say The Minders. But nevermind that. On to the new book recommendations from the Boswellians.

First up is Jason Kennedy on The Awoken by Katelyn Monroe Howes: "Alabine Rivers receives a cancer diagnosis just as her adult life is about to start. She’s working a job she hopes will lead her into public office, and she's just started dating someone that could be the one. Everything is good until the cancer's hard stop. She decides to take part in a cryogenics study and preserved until a time that society can cure her disease. Fast forward a hundred years; upon waking, Alabine finds a world that looks nothing like the one she left, and she has enemies hunting her. I found Katelyn Howes descriptions of how the American century could unfold fascinating, bleak, and all too believable. Looking at what is happening in our world right now, the divisiveness that cryogenics and the fear of the unknown ignites is all too likely to occur.  Miraculously, Alabine wants this new world, and with her lucid dreams of her previous life, she strives for survival and acceptance."

Next, Kay Wosewick on The Last to Vanish by Megan Miranda: "A small town near the Appalachian Trail attracts curious visitors who hope to solve the mystery of vanished tourists. Three months ago the seventh person in 25 years disappeared without a trace. An almost claustrophobic setting where everyone has secrets helps build tension to the twisty end. What a ride!"

And out in paperback this week, we've got recommendations from both Tim McCarthy and Daniel Goldin for Brood by Jackie Polzin. First, from Tim: "Give it some time. That’s my advice about Brood. Let the book peck at you for a while and you’ll be rewarded. I didn’t know that I completely loved it until the last three pages. Then I suddenly knew. Completely. This book is all of life told in the story of four backyard chickens. Our narrator’s voice comes straight at us - a bit sassy, sly, mostly sure-minded - even as she maintains a subtle neighborhood diplomacy. The contrast is wonderful. Chickens help her tell us boldly about loss and the inescapable hardships of living, but she’s not bitter. She sees the beautiful workings of her simple birds, and of people: her chicken-hesitant friend Helen, her staunchly independent mother, her very reasonable husband Percy, the awkward neighbors, and how all of life creates dust. Mix in Minnesota’s climate extremes and a changing neighborhood. You’ll get a growing sense that you’re reading something very special, richly human. Let Brood peck at you. There’s nothing quite like it."

Next, from Daniel: "When our nameless narrator muses that her four chickens – Miss Hennepin County, Gloria, Darkness, and Gam Gam – have no memory of the past or anxiety about the future, it is meant with desire, not disdain. Our heartland chicken keeper must confront both large and small losses all while making sure she’s got just the right kind of pellets. I’m not giving anything important away in this hauntingly meditative yet often funny novel by saying there’s a sort of an And Then There Were None element to the plotline - my inner voice kept trying to cajole the narrator to just buy another chicken. Several folks have compared the voice to Jenny Offill and Olivia Laing, but my thoughts ran to another Minnesota sleeper that was a bookseller favorite, Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members."

These are the recs! (And this is the song to which I always sing that sentence to myself.) See you next week, dear readers.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of July 19, 2022

Have new books been published this week that the Boswellians recommend? Resoundingly: YES.

The first is a two-rec'er called Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Milwaukee author Ben Riggs. First, a recommendation from Jason Kennedy: "A good portion of my youth was spent playing D&D and reading Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels. I went to Gen Con and ate up all that was RPG culture at the time. Before reading this book, all I ever knew of TSR was their initials on the spines of their products. Ben Riggs has done a deep and extensive dive into TSR history, charting their beginnings in Gary Gygax's basement all the way to Wizards of the Coast rescuing their legacy with an epic buyout. He discovered that it was not just one mistake or symptom that caused the unraveling of the Lake Geneva gaming company but a series of them that over time trapped them in a corner with no way to free themselves. First, though, Riggs tells the story of the rise of TSR, how they broke ground and started something that people desperately wanted. Then TSR doubled down on their ingenuity to start a publishing book line to help deepen the lore of their products, which brought us some of the greatest writers in their genre and era. That small town in Wisconsin housed some of the greatest creatives and artists working in the gaming industry. Riggs does an amazing job of highlighting both the success and failure of one of the great iconic gaming companies."

And if you want a non-D&D'ers perspective, here's Daniel Goldin's endorsement: "So here’s the thing. I’ve never played a game of Dungeons & Dragons in my life. And I’ve also already read Of Dice and Men, the D&D history that is the jumping-off point for this work, which promises to uncover some of the less-known dealings of Lake-Geneva-based TSR’s downfall. And yet I found Slaying the Dragon thoroughly enjoyable, partly because of the near-local setting, and partly because Riggs is a good storyteller who also highlights the corporate missteps in a way that I think will appeal to folks who read business narratives. And to think, Milwaukee finally has enough hotel rooms to keep GenCon, only 19 years too late."

And the next book also comes with dual recommendations. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, the author of Mexican Gothic and Velvet Was the Night. First, from Jen Steele: "Silvia Moreno-Garcia does it again! This time we're transported to 19th century Mexico, in the lush Yucatan peninsula. You feel the suffocating heat of the land, the burn of the alcohol, the desire of a getaway, and the chill on the back of your neck that something is not right. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is the captivating historical fiction read that you need this summer!"

And further convincing from Kay Wosewick: "Moreno-Garcia imagines a somewhat kinder Island of Dr. Moreau set in 19th century Yucatán. A wealthy Mexican landowner finances an estate, labs, and materials for Dr. Moreau, whose job is to create hybrid human/animals to replace unruly Mayan laborers. Twenty years later, Dr. Moreau has two modestly successful hybrids who are his daughter’s playmates and best friends; all other hybrids are seriously defective and unable to work. Moreau’s financer loses his patience just as Carlota turns 18, throwing everyone on the estate into jeopardy. This fascinating, fast paced, genre-defying novel will appeal to readers of thrillers, horror, gothic fiction, romance, and even sci-fi."

Next it's Chris Lee with a recommendation of a writer from across the Atlantic Ocean - Jem Calder, who debuts with the story collection Reward System. Chris says: "Jem Calder’s Reward System chronicles the deadened existence of the new lost generation. Pleasantly moment-to-moment, the stories meander through the current ordeals of being alive: The commodification of interactions and the inescapability of capitalism within even our most intimate relationships. The banal horror and ever-growing number of existential crises of background concern. Roommates, coworkers, university chums. Bad luck, mental health, diminishing momentum. Smartphones. Smartphones. Screens. Smartphones. Trajectorial prospects. The earning potential of adults under forty. And a question: exactly how futile is it now, today, right now, to try to start over? These are excellent stories, written with surgically precise language, that will fundamentally shift your understanding of how we do and don’t understand ourselves."

Madi Hill on a memoir by Laura Chinn: Acne. Madi says: "Acne is Chinn's story of growing up with divorced Scientologist parents, practically raising herself while heavily smoking and drinking her way through her late adolescence and teens. Through the divorce, relocating to Clearwater, Florida where she struggled with her biracial identity, understanding her class standing, a near-mute alcoholic step father, and her older brother's brain cancer, Chinn has one concern above all else: her cystic acne. There is so much going on in this memoir that Chinn's obsession over her skin condition seems to be one of the only things grounding her in the swirling chaos of the rest of her life. Chinn's writing is witty, smart, and heartbreaking, and will especially resonate with those who know the agony that comes with chronic acne."

And a bit of romance, courtesy of Rachel Copeland, who suggests The Bodyguard by Katherine Center. Rachel says: "Hannah looks like an ordinary young woman, which is a great advantage in her profession as a bodyguard. Dumped by her boyfriend/coworker the day after her mother's funeral, she's determined stay professional and prove herself to her boss - but then she gets assigned to Jack Stapleton. You know him, of course - twice voted sexiest man alive, blockbuster movie actor, and recently the subject of a death threat or two. With his mother's health in question, Hannah has no choice but to pretend to be Jack's girlfriend in order both keep him safe and not worry his family. Now she just has to do her job... and guard her heart. What a thoroughly charming book this is! Hannah's matter-of-fact voice is so funny that I could listen to her talk about security and guns all day, and Jack is so wonderfully quirky (always misses when throwing away trash, does tricks on horseback) that I couldn't help but fall for him along with Hannah. Center's writing style is super charming and adorably weird (there's a character named Dog House!); I was laughing the whole time."

In paperback this week, there's  Katie Kitamura's novel Intimacies, which gets a Kay Wosewick rec: "I love Kitamura’s writing. She writes quietly about powerful people and intense situations. Intimacies portrays an employee at The Hague who is translating for an African dictator accused of atrocities. The dictator seems to have taken a liking to his translator. Meanwhile, the translator’s relationships with both her best friend and her boyfriend run afoul. Even drastic situations come off almost gently through Kitamura’s unique voice. You’ll barely know you’ve been punched!"

Kay also recommends the out-now-in-paperback book This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan: "Pollan takes us on three journeys: one with opium, one with caffeine, and one with mescaline. The opium and mescaline journeys are likely new for most readers, but who doesn’t know all about caffeine? YOU, ME and ALMOST EVERYONE ELSE!! Caffeine is by far the most widely used drug in the world (~90% of humans use it), yet few of us think much about it. As he always does so well, let Pollan enlighten you."

Until next week, read on, dear readers.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of July 12, 2022

The summer rolls on, and with it, much more good summer reading. Here are the books that we enjoyed and believe you, too, will enjoy reading:

First, our most-praised book of the week, the latest from Dark Matter author Blake Crouch, Upgrade. From Jason Kennedy: "Logan Ramsey is attempting to live a life that makes up for his Mom's ultimate failure, which caused a massive famine and killed millions. Twenty years later, he is part of a government organization that hunts down scientists and others modifying DNA. On a mission to recover an illegal package which they think contains altered DNA of some form, Logan is caught in a bomb blast. The blast introduces a virus into his system that begins changing his DNA. Logan's life is about to turn upside down as he must flee from family and friends for their safety. Blake Crouch uses this novel as a platform to express our collective anxiety of the future of homo sapiens and Earth. The science is fascinating as always with his books, and the dire warnings are completely well researched and accurate. Another blast of a book from Blake Crouch."

From Kay Wosewick: "Crouch has outdone himself. Upgrade is masterful story about a tiny group of people illegally testing massive genetic alterations on a few people - without their knowledge. You’ll fly through this book, gaining insight into faults in our thinking, sensing the elation of having a perfect body, and perhaps vicariously feeling the power of thinking deeply about multiple complex subjects at once. The scope and depth of Crouch’s research is the engine that makes Upgrade feel vividly real."

And from Jenny Chou: "Not only is Upgrade a fast-paced thriller, but author Blake Crouch takes a deep dive into the science of DNA. Since I find our genetic code fascinating, I couldn’t put this novel down. Main character Logan answered for the catastrophic destruction unleashed on our planet by his scientist mother, and he served time in prison following her death. After his release, several decades in our future, he’s a detective investigating labs suspected of modifying DNA, which has become illegal. When a mysterious virus targets him specifically, he recovers to find he’s now an upgraded version of homo sapien, with increased strength and speed and the ability to recall everything he’s ever read and process new information instantly. Who did this to him and why? The answer seems to lie with his sister, who also received an upgrade. They’ve seemingly been handed the task of saving humanity from a decimated planet, but along with these skills comes an ability to think critically without letting emotion guide them. So much of this book is food for thought. Perhaps the biggest question of all: if saving our species means giving up what makes us distinctly human, is it worth the price?"

Event alert! Blake Crouch is In-Person at Boswell on Friday, August 12, 6:30 pm, in conversation with Jon Jordan. Click here for more info and the registration station.

Next, from our proprietor, three new books with his seal of approval. First, Big Girl, a novel by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan. Daniel says: "When Malaya and her family move from a cramped apartment to a Harlem brownstone, the future looks bright, especially with a slot at the prestigious Galton School. But parents Nyela and Percy are working more and communicating less, and Nyela and her mom Ma-Mère are increasingly obsessed with Malaya’s diet. Malaya’s only got a few friends, and then her closest buddy, Shantiece, starts losing weight. Can this childhood be saved? Sullivan does a great job immersing you in 1980s and 1990s New York and Philadelphia and effortlessly balances carefree moments with some very serious observations about race, gender, body image, and gentrification. But whatever the tone, it is Malaya’s high-spirited voice that drives the narrative, and it’s the key to Big Girl’s success."

Next, Daniel's words on The Poet's House by Jean Thompson: "Here’s a quarter-life crisis for you: Carla is a landscaper in Northern California, and one day, she’s sent to do some planting for an almost-mythical poet named Viridian who lives in the woods with assorted hangers-on. Pulled into their orbit, the world of poetry is opened up for Carla, only with one problem – her ADHD makes it very difficult for her to read. As she untangles the stories of the poet’s lives, can she figure out what’s important about poetry and what is surface gloss? And while she’s at it, maybe she can find some legendary poems that have gone missing. Thompson is sometimes called a writer’s writer, which translates to great reviews but modest sales, and perhaps a bit of inaccessibility to the general reader. But in The Poet’s House, a book that’s literally about writing, Thompson has opened the door to all of us in a disarmingly entertaining novel that’s sure to be savored."

Event information! Jean Thompson appears in conversation with Christina Clancy, In-Person at Boswell on Wednesday, July 20, 6:30 pm. Click here to register and find more information.

Thirdly, Daniel recommends Crying in the Bathroom: A Memoir, by Erika L. Sánchez: "Crying in the Bathroom explodes on the page in all its glory, writing about her working-class first-gen upbringing and her academic and personal journey. I love how bookish she is and how her inspirations range from Virginia Woolf and Sandra Cisneros to Lisa Simpson and George Carlin. She can call out racism and patriarchy and lookism and well, many other things, with humor and pull-no-punches frankness. Sex, sexual health, mental health – nothing is off the table. And through it all, comes her rich writing voice, which folks will recognize from her acclaimed novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. To be clear, this is not a YA collection, but I can still imagine many adult fans of that novel luxuriating in this wonderful collection, chanting yes, yes, yes, as they make their way through."

More event info? More event info! Erika L Sánchez appears In-Person at Boswell for the Rose Petranech Lecture, Friday, September 16, 6:30 pm. Click here and register now.

Now, over to Jen Steele for A Prayer for the Crown-Shy: A Monk and Robot Book (Monk and Robot #2, to be precise) by Becky Chambers. Jen says: "Sibling Dex and Mosscap continue their soul-searching quest in A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. Like the first book, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, our beloved characters have unanswered questions. As they journey across Panga, Mosscap is ready to meet humans and find out what they need. There’s a profound calm in reading the Monk & Robot series. Full of humor and quiet thoughtfulness, Becky Chambers exquisitely delivers an elegant philosophical fantasy."

Parker Jensen is next with a recommendation of What Moves the Dead by T Kingfisher. Parker says: "When Alex Easton receives word from one of their childhood friends, Madeline Usher, that she believes she is knocking on death's door, they race to her family's countryside manor. They expect to find a sickly friend, but Easton quickly realizes they may have signed up for more than they bargained for. Madeline looks beyond death and her brother, Roderick, is not faring much better. Not to mention that the manor is decrepit and falling to shambles, its residents are behaving strangely, a mysterious fungus grows around the property, and curiously enough, even the hares in the area are beginning to act peculiar. T. Kingfisher's What Moves the Dead is a modern gothic masterpiece, drawing inspiration from Edgar Allen Poe's classic, The Fall of the House of Usher. Kingfisher masterfully weaves the styles of modern storytelling with that of a gothic classic, as if she had ​channeled Shirley Jackson or Mary Shelley themselves. Perfectly atmospheric, unsettling, and just a bit grotesque, What Moves the Dead is not a scare you want to hide from."

Finally, Rachel Copeland discovers romance in A Lady's Guide to Fortune-Hunting by Sophie Irwin. From Rachel: "For some romance readers, every time we crack open a historical romance, we hope to find a spiritual successor to Pride and Prejudice. I would like to humbly submit that perhaps Sophie Irwin has managed to produce this holy grail: a novel of manners that brings the Regency era to life for a modern audience. After the deaths of her parents, Kitty Talbot has one option to save herself and her four sisters from destitution: she has to marry a man, the richer the better. When a chance encounter lands Kitty and her sister Cecily in the good graces of the de Lacy family, an advantageous match seems inevitable - until the elder de Lacy, Lord Radcliffe, returns to find his younger brother infatuated with a rank upstart. Today's readers can find much to relate to - wealth disparity isn't exactly a thing of the past, after all - while still enjoying nods to a bygone era. Make yourself a cup of tea - this is a story to savor."

And now, books that've just been released in paperback that we recommend.

First, a paperback original that comes with a legacy rec from former Boswellian Caroline Froh. Though Caroline isn't currently bookselling at Boswell, we still think she's got good taste, and she picks The Empire of Dirt by Francesca Manfredi, translated by Ekin Oklap: "In a rural Italian village there is a house set a little way from town, "the blind house," which is said to be cursed and home to three generations of women said to be witches. The summer we meet Valentina, she is teetering on the brink of adolescence: one day she discovers blood in her underwear, and her initial horror only grows when she finds that the crack in the wall of her room is bleeding along with her. The blind house has other secrets that crop up over the course of the novel, burdens that each woman must learn to bear in her own way as she carves out her respective place in the world. At its heart, this is a story about feminine chaos, intimacy, and desire set against the thick claustrophobia of a rural Italian village, all relayed in folksy magical realism. Deeply absorbing, a little unsettling, beautiful."

And what summer-y-er way to wrap this summer week's recommendations than with the paperback release of Wisconsin author Christina Clancy's Shoulder Season? Here's Daniel on the book: "Sherri Taylor is just an ordinary East Troy teenager, recently orphaned, looking for a job. On a whim, her friend Roberta, currently working at the Wooden Nickle in Southridge, suggests they apply for jobs at the Playboy Resort in Lake Geneva. And with that, Sherri is a legendary Playboy Bunny. Though it’s billed as a family friendly resort, the truth is a bit murkier, and Sherri will find herself going places and doing things she never would have expected. Will she follow in the footsteps of Dorothy and find her way back home to Kansas, I mean Wisconsin? This enjoyable story, seeped in the 1980s and with a cast of unforgettable fellow Bunnies, is a hell-and-back story, driven by Sherri’s spirit."

And from Chris Lee: "With her second novel, Christina Clancy is cementing her spot as the bard of heartfelt stories of strong, funky Wisconsin women. As a Playboy bunny picaresque, Shoulder Season delivers – there are peeks behind the scenes (and under the ears) of life as a bunny, including cocktail lists and crazy parties, handsy customers and perverted pool boys, celebrity dalliances and down-to-earth romances, and yes, even a few whiffs of cocaine in the air. It’s a book about escaping to a wonderland – I’ll spare you the ‘down the rabbit hole’ puns – and about what a woman will put herself through to ditch the past and grab onto the allure and glamor of a new life."

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of July 5, 2022

New week, new month, new recommendations. Lots of 'em.

First, a double rec - Chris Lee and Jason Kennedy on the latest from one of horror's hottest scribes, Paul Tremblay - The Pallbearers Club. The perfect freaky beach read. From Chris: "Tremblay’s latest is clearly a personal project for the writer, something like a self-portrait of an imagined self. Startlingly intimate, this book snuck under my skin and left me with the creepy-crawlies for a solid three days. Skittering across three-plus decades, a gangly loser recounts his encounters with the very cool, very terrifying girl who’s attached herself to his life – and in crafty notes in the margins, she replies to his 'memoir.' The Pallbearers Club is page-turning contemporary horror that contemplates poignant questions about storytelling, art, memory, friendship, and dependence, and the result is, pardon the pun, scary good."

And from Jason: "Art Barbara, not the real name of the protagonist, is a bit of an outsider growing up. How much of one? Well, he decides that a good extracurricular activity for his college applications would be to start a community service to help funeral homes with individuals that don't have anyone to mourn them. They will perform the role of the pallbearer. A bit odd. Not getting many other students to join, he almost has to shut it down when Mercy walks in. A friendship forms between them - a bit dysfunctional, also a bit odd - that follows them through their life. While reading Art Barbara's ‘memoir,’ Mercy adds her own notes into the margins that makes the reader question the validity of the memoir itself. This book will give you the creeps and make you question what everybody's reality really adds up to. Who actually witnesses the truth, or is it just our own truth that works for us? Another fantastic book by Paul Tremblay!"

Jason has two more recommendations this week. Next up is France: An Adventure History by Graham Robb. Jason says: "Graham Robb combines decades of experience into this interesting pairing of travelogue with French history. Each chapter in France is a self-contained story, focusing on a region or tale that Robb goes to explore. Some of my favorite sections included the inquisition and a map that details one specific tree. I learned a lot from this book on France that I had not known but found utterly fascinating. A fun read that makes me want to, well, not bike France, but perhaps ride the rails through France."

Thirdly, Jason recommends Hawk Mountain, a novel by Conner Habib. Jason says: "Todd, a high school teacher and single Dad, runs into Jack; his high school bully. Todd is hesitant to interact with him, but his son really takes to Jack. Remembering his high school days, Todd begins to seethe with pent-up emotions and feelings. His ex-wife is attempting to get a hold him (she misses her son and wants to reconnect), Jack reminds him of the humiliations and uncomfortable situations of the past, and his son is bonding with the man who made his life miserable. It's all too much, and what comes next is dark and horrific but only takes a moment. The spiral of the story whips the reader down and down until the final resting place is revealed in all its shocking and damaged depths. Hawk Mountain consumed me with its brutality and wonder."

We'll stick with recommenders with J names and go to Jenny Chou, who recommends Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. Jenny says: "Sadie Green lost her best friend, Sam, at age twelve. Did she betray him unforgivably, or was she just a kid caught up in a situation she didn’t know how to escape from? That question, and the concept of betrayal, haunt Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. Seven years later, Sadie and Sam crash into each other's lives again as college students while standing on a train platform in Boston, and they seamlessly pick up a conversation as if it had never broken off. These are two people who finish each other's sentences. Roommates and partners drift along on the periphery of their lives while Sadie and Sam obsess over the thing that brought them together in the first place: video games. Both are creative geniuses, and the first game they design together propels them from obscurity to fame in the gaming community. The result is messy, at times hilarious, often heartbreaking, and never without emotions that feel so raw they almost bleed off the page. Ultimately, this is a book about connections, the ones we find, the ones we lose, and the ones that nearly do us in. I’m not a gamer (though they’d probably love this book), but it doesn’t matter. Gabrielle Zevin drew me into her world with her flair for telling a powerful story and her mesmerizing take on what it means to love."

Now over to another triple-recommender, Kay Wosewick. Kay suggests Florida Woman by Deb Rogers: "A video gone viral titled 'Florida Woman' shows Jamie stealing dollar bills off the walls of the bar where she works, turning to find a pelican on fire near the door where it knocked over candles, then frantically charging out the door with the pelican in her arms. Jaime disappears for a couple of days. ‘Florida Woman’ indeed. Jaime gets a deal that sounds better than jail: serving her sentence working, ankle-cuffed, at a macaque sanctuary. There are monkey shenanigans, staff who get weirder by the day, and an end that will plaster a big smile on your face. Wacky fun."

Next Kay recommends The Displacements by Bruce Holsinger: "The Displacements is fantastic climate disaster fiction because it intimately portrays how a very well-off family (minus dad) deals with numerous traumas, starting with a last-minute evacuation due to course change of the first-ever category 6 hurricane, Luna. The family drives north with hundreds of thousands other evacuees. They experience the second crisis when they stop for gas and discover mom's purse was left behind - the fault of the young daughter and teenage stepson. No money. No credit cards. No food, fuel, or caffeine. They end up at a FEMA camp, this one a tent city of 10,000 in rural OK. The story reflects the amazing tolerance, flexibility, and resilience of many people."

The third Kay recommendation is a paperback original novel from Tin House entitled Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty: "This debut short story collection by Penobscot Indian Nation author Morgan Talty is soulful and hypnotic. Storylines of two boys/men alternate and flow elegantly over time. The stories are sticky; after closing the book, scenes continue to snap into focus unexpectedly."

Finally, we go to Madi Hill, our true crime connoisseur, for her take on Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World's Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson: "Unmask Alice by Rick Emerson is a debunking of the infamous “real life” diaries that began with Go Ask Alice and the woman that was responsible for their creation. While the title alludes to the more recognizable Alice journal, Emerson spends more attention on its successor, Jay's Journal, that was one of the largest powder kegs to set off the Satanic Panic. After a Utah teen commits suicide, his mother turned to Alice author Beatrice Sparks to spread awareness of teen suicide and the need to focus on mental health, but instead, she created a false diary which became a smear campaign that destroyed the teen's family. This is the true story behind a relentless fraudster who was desperate for recognition and used falsehoods and fear to get it. Unmask Alice is the perfect read for the casual true crime reader that prefers to avoid the gory details. Just remember to check your sources."

And paperback picks? We've got so many of them! Here's our recommendations for what's coming to the paperback table - aka books getting their second life this week.

Chris Lee picks Immediate Family by Ashley Nelson Levy, a book that was a goop book club pick, too! For goopers and non, Chris says: "Ashley Nelson Levy’s language-y, hyper-smart debut is a breathless confessional burst and big-family-questions book all at once. A confessionquestional, if you will. You ever talk to people in your head, imagine conversations and arguments? That’s the whole book. Here’s how it goes: the narrator’s brother begs a last-minute wedding toast of her, which sets her off down memory lane, recounting their life from his adoption in Thailand at 3 years old to the day of his nuptials. Along the way she questions, essays, and debates with herself about adoption, infertility, and cultural histories of both, plus race, addiction, theft, territory and country, motherhood, heritage and genetics, and those eternal biggies: what makes a family? What breaks one? All of it’s explored with the open-hearted intimacy of someone talking in her head to the brother she’s realizing she’s desperate to reconnect with. Lame pun hard sell: if you want a beautiful, intelligent family novel, buy this immediately."

Now Jason Kennedy on Appleseed by Matt Bell: "This story was amazing. Told through three alternating timelines: 1) In the 1790’s with a pair of brothers (one is a faun) trying to make their fortune by planting apple orchards ahead the coming expansion of humanity into the Ohio Valley; 2) one of the founders of a corporation attempting to save the planet from humanity basically cooking it to death, attempting to stop said corporation from playing god; 3) and way in the future, most of North America is covered in ice, there is a lonely person keeping watch and ready to reprint the world. Have we gone too far down the climate change path that our only option is to store up the natural world in computers in hopes of one day being able to repopulate? Have we ignored all the warnings that the world has sent us? I loved the way each of the stories played off the others, thematically and directly. It was pure brilliance. This will be on my list as one of my favorite reads of the year."

Daniel Goldin has three (3!) paperback picks for you this week. First, The Comfort of Monsters by Milwaukee-native Willa C Richards: "Peg felt so close to her sister Dee growing up in Milwaukee. When Dee goes missing, Peg is certain she had the answers, but being that her disappearance coincides with Jeffrey Dahmer’s killing spree in Milwaukee, there’s not much interest in pursuing the case. Come to think of it, there’s not much interest in the Dahmer case either among the police. The story jumps back and forth between 1991 and 2019, with Peg’s anxiety about the long-unsolved case leading to a downward spiral, making The Comfort of Monsters part of a library of Milwaukee novels (Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, A Door Behind a Door) framed as mystery/thrillers that are more existential character studies. I was impressed by how Richards captures the visceral discomfort that permeates the story, as she touches on many moments of violence, from toxic behavior to sexual assault and other horrors. A memorable story that could well cross over to true crime readers."

Next from Daniel, it's The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova. Daniel says: "In the remote town of Four Rivers, the matriarch Orquídea Divina has called the family together one last time, including raised-together cousins Marimar and Rey. They’ve been promised an inheritance, but their grandmother isn’t dead yet. There are complications, likely connected to a deal Orquídea Divina made when she was a young woman with a traveling circus. And then the relatives start dying. Just what is the family secret? And how is connected to the flowers that begin to grow out of their bodies? For the answers, they wind up journeying to Ecuador to unlock their grandmother’s past. This bewitching blend of family drama, adventure (the descriptions of Guayaquil had me contemplating packing a suitcase), and romance, is blended with enough magic to set hearts ablaze.".

What else does Daniel suggest? Yours Cheerfully by AJ Pearce, that's what. He says: "With the departure of Henrietta Bird from Woman’s Friend, intrepid would-be reporter Emmeline Lake (of Dear Mrs. Bird) has the opportunity to work with Mrs. Mahoney to make the advice column truly helpful to readers. But with the war raging on, the magazine is given a mission beyond ration-friendly meals and new looks for old clothes. With men being called to battle, the service magazines are asked to encourage women to take the jobs the men had to leave behind. A chance encounter on a train gives Emmy an in, but how should she act when what’s right for the war conflicts with what’s right for the women? Don’t worry, Emmy’s boyfriend Charles and her best friend Bunty have a role to play too. I’m not usually one for sequels, but Pearce’s combination of wartime drama with lots of historical detail, a dose of wry humor, and most of all, Emmy’s plucky spirit, works for me."

And now Kay Wosewick waves in with The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans by Cynthia Barnett: "Hints of the earth’s wild history are visible in rock layers embedded with fossilized shells in areas as diverse as Mount Everest and the Canadian Rockies. Remnants of man and seashells dating back many thousands of years can be found together along virtually every coastline worldwide, and often many hundreds of miles inland. Shells have been used as money in cultures as diverse as American tribal nations and Asia countries with sophisticated trade networks. Shells even had their own short-lived equivalent of tulip-mania. Alas, declines in economically and culturally important shell habitats are occurring around the world. Barnett’s portrait of the intertwined world of man and shells is fascinating and lively, even as it adds to the story of our degrading home planet."