Thursday, March 26, 2020

Rachel Vs. Nonfiction

I confess, nonfiction and I aren’t friends, or even really casual acquaintances. But if my super-useful liberal arts degree has taught me anything, it’s to be open-minded to new ideas (or at least pretend), so here I am, trying my hardest to expand my knowledge base. Here are some nonfiction selections that are novelistic and worthy of consideration from my fellow fiction snobs.

When I started reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Jason said “how 2003 of you!” But at this point, it’s something of a classic, and I can see why. It reads like fiction, with the extra fun of making you practice self-control by not “spoiling” historical events with a quick Google search. Larson’s latest, The Splendid and the Vile, about Winston Churchill's first years as prime minister, is at the top of my list for what to read next.

Currently, I’m in the middle of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (how extremely 2010 of me!). One of my best friends, a science teacher, (Hi Holden!) recommended this to me because, while it’s about “arguably one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century,” it’s also a very human story about a marginalized woman and her family and how science as a field has a lot to answer for, ethically speaking. I think what sets this book apart is the presence of Skloot in the narrative; her dedication to digging into this story and finding the humanity behind it is admirable, especially since the Lacks family was so completely neglected in the wake of Henrietta’s staggeringly important contribution to science.

My more well-read colleagues have some suggestions for me as well. Tim recommends The Furious Hours by Casey Cep, about Harper Lee's attempt to write a true crime book about Reverend Willie Maxwell. If I had realized this book was about Harper Lee, I would have been all over it! I had no idea that she did research for a true crime novel of her own after her BFF Truman Capote was met with such success with In Cold Blood (another excellent classic, this time from 1959!). Tim says Cep "gives us remarkable depth in biographical pictures of Maxwell, Lee, Capote, and others, and along the way she captures the mood of both the landscape and the politics of civil rights era Alabama and New York, where Lee split her time." This seems like the perfect book for fans of true crime, and who doesn't love true crime these days?

Jenny recommends An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives. I love what she has to say about this: “There is nothing more engaging than a nonfiction book about medicine that’s written with the pace and tension of a thriller and doesn’t require more than a vague memory of high school biology. Even better if I come away wishing I’d paid more attention in class!” The book weaves together the lives of four people who experience various immunity-related issues. In the age of COVID-19, this is definitely a must-read.

Finally, Madi recommends Black Death at the Golden Gate by David K. Randall, saying that it's "a necessary book to remind why medicine needs to be respected and acknowledged. Randall's detailed history of how racial profiling and an unwillingness to listen to medical professionals nearly doomed San Francisco before it could flourish. Black Death at the Golden Gate gives insight to the spread of disease and how misinformation strengthens it." There's nothing I can add to that - I can't think of a more relevant book to read right now.

Please, go forth and read, and hopefully someday our current crisis will be a distant memory dredged up by a beautifully-written bestselling novel.
- Rachel Copeland

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Kay’s Favorite Recently Published Books

Boswellian Kay Wosewick reads a lot. Like, a lot a lot. So how about a roundup of her favorite recently and semi-recently published books - check them out!

Highfire is unlike any other book I’ve read. Author Eoin Colfer brings to life a character straight out of fantasy and flawlessly mixes him with good-hearted, hard-scrabble bayou folks and black-hearted, bad-ass government and criminal types. The result is a hilarious, hair-raising, maddening but ultimately joyful tale. This book will lift your spirits and revive any lost belief in the power of karma. And I promise you’ll be totally won over by Vern, the last vodka-loving, Netflix-addicted dragon alive, living a pretty comfy life on the Louisiana coast.

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore is more of an emotional roller-coaster ride than Highfire, though it, too, is ultimately upbeat. Oona lives her adult life never knowing how old she’ll be when she wakes up on her next birthday. Starting with what should be her 19th birthday, Oona wakes up 51 years old. Before the book ends, she flips through seven more birthdays, ranging from 19 to 53. Oona’s reactions to this craziness include attempts to adjust her fate and to right past wrongs. Oona is a delightful and thought-provoking adventure.

If you are searching for a saga-sized escape, Greenwood by Michael Christie fits the bill. A first generation lumber baron in the early 1900s eventually gives rise to a fourth generation forest guide in one of the planet’s last standing old-growth forests in 2034. Most members of this family lead edgy lives in varying degrees of pain - yet these characters dig hooks in you and press you to read onward. Unresolved relationships and personal journeys, within and across the generations, slowly achieve closure as the chapters shift almost seamlessly from 2034 to 1908 and back to 2034. The characters will stay with you long after you close the book.

Heading in a somewhat darker direction, just out in paperback is Dave Eggers’s The Parade, a strange story (maybe a little Kafkaesque?) of two markedly different men assigned to quickly build a road in a recently war-torn country. Eggers’s spare prose is so sharp, taut, and vivid that I’m nearly certain it burned a long series of permanent afterimages in me. Check back in 10 years for proof. While I don’t have a formal literary education to back up this pronouncement, I think this book is a masterpiece.

I also recommend Dave Eggers’ recent hardcover release, The Captain and the Glory, which smartly satirizes Trump's presidency. There are plenty of giggles and groans. And I love that Eggers lets NO ONE, including Trump foes, off the hook.

If you aren’t getting your fill of bio-hazard stories on the internet or TV, Cold Storage by David Koepp is the most recent book in this genre. This page-turner reminds me of The Andromeda Strain (OK, please keep in mind I read that book almost 50 years ago). The bio-hazardous remains of an old government cover-up (creepily and vividly described at the start of the book) have escaped what was designed to be permanent containment, and are on the verge of escaping secondary containment. The only two operatives with intimate knowledge of the bio-hazard are quickly pulled out of retirement to stop the escape. While story feels almost as believable as Covid, I can’t possibly imagine a foe as adaptable, freakish, and repulsive as the one in Cold Storage. Thank goodness this is just a novel.

I’ll close with a smart little book you can easily dip in and out of at your leisure. Awkword Moments, by Ross and Kathryn Petras, is subtitled "A Lively Guide to the 100 Terms Smart People Should Know.” It just may shift you from using ubiquitous and quotidian words to using the mot juste J.

Have fun and stay healthy. - Kay Wosewick

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Tim McCarthy on Histories Personal and Literary

I’m Tim. I’ve been a Boswell bookseller for four years, but my personal history includes more than 30 years of loving Schwartz Bookshops and Boswell. I’m clearly an autographed book hound, dating all the way back to my first Schwartz author event with Mickey Mantle at the store on Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue. The waiting line wrapped around an entire city block, and gentleman Mickey stayed to sign every last person’s copy of his memoir All My Octobers!

My previous life included 30 years of teaching in Waukesha public elementary schools, with more than 20 years of teaching 5th graders American history. I’ve always been fascinated by our past and have always said that history, despite what we sometimes hear from kids and adults, is never boring if we’re learning true stories about incredible, complicated people. My students seemed to agree. We were committed to studying American cultures from a variety of perspectives, at a level appropriate for ten-year-old kids. We learned together about the First Nations on this continent, and about the growing acceptance at Monticello that the man who wrote the assertion “all men are created equal” had children with Sally Hemings, a woman he owned.

Today, the books being published about our nation’s history, both fiction and nonfiction, are incredibly powerful. We’ve never had greater access to the truth, being written by very smart people with a commitment to sharing it in all its glory and sometimes terrifying reality. With that spirit in mind, here are just a few of the books that have recently broadened my understanding of us.

A former teacher, I can't help but love great histories written for young readers. One of my recent favorites include Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963, Sharon Robinson’s account of the year she turned 13 in January of 1963, a world-changing, heartbreaking year for the civil rights movement, and she lived at its center with her father, the baseball legend and lifelong activist Jackie Robinson. This is an enlightening story of the pivotal year in American history, but it's equally a tender story about the loving family of an American hero and the story of a girl becoming a young woman and being involved with the social change happening all around her.

Newbery Medal winner Linda Sue Park has written a gem of American historical fiction for middle grade readers called Prairie Lotus. To reconcile the attitudes of Laura Ingalls Wilder's characters toward people of color while honoring the books, Park gives us 14-year-old Hanna, the half Asian daughter of a white father and a mother who was both Chinese and Korean. After her mother's tragic illness and death, Hanna and her father leave California in 1880 for the Dakota Territory, where four Little House books were also set. Hanna is a strong, determined girl who will search for ways to treat everyone justly, and to find just treatment for herself. This is richly developed Americana, and I am deeply grateful!

Jacqueline Woodson was named our National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and she's a perfect choice. I am amazed by the power of her simple, direct, graceful style in Harbor Me. Her characters have experiences and conversations that suddenly trigger in me the deep emotions which they feel. This novel was a profound experience; Woodson tore my heart out and then gave me most of it back.

And a few of my recent books of history and historical fiction for adults include 
Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, by Candacy Taylor, who has done America a great service by documenting the history of The Green Book, a guide for black travelers, published from 1936 to 1967. A smart and deeply affecting look at black people's long and agonizing struggle to get basic respect and justice, Overground Railroad made me understand the endless obstacles put in the way of basic living, solely because of skin color. It's a powerful book. I'm already eager to read it again.

My sense is that this first novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer, will immediately add "great American novelist" to his resume. Coates shows us with intricate and haunting detail the human cost of slavery to everyone involved, and his writing is rock steady but bold. At once magical and profoundly real, this novel has a rare feeling of both completeness and greatness.

Finally, let me tell you about This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger. 
Four children run from the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota, which trains children to give up their culture. This is a classic American novel of the Great Depression (1932). The beauty of this novel is in the deeply developed children characters, who got into my heart and have stayed there. Krueger is the type of writer who reaches for wisdom and truth. In this book, he often finds them.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Chris Previews the Horror Section

You know we were super excited for a bunch of our events which have since been cancelled or postponed, and one of those was with Danielle Trussoni, author of The Ancestor (out 4/7), who was going to help us inaugurate our new horror section. We thought Trussoni, the horror columnist for The New York Times, to be the perfect person to dive into the dark with us, and her latest, a novel of family secrets, genetic mysteries, and inheritance was just the gothic kickoff we needed. Daniel says, “the twists and turns of The Ancestor are as tortuous as a ragged mountain pass, and Bert is just the companion for this exciting journey into the land of gothic horror.” We’ll have copies of The Ancestor available for curbside pickup and delivery, and you can preorder it online or by phone.

So maybe you’re thinking, a new Horror section at Boswell? Just what might we find?  How about some new (and new-ish) horror that we love? Like:

Bunny, by Mona Awad. This one made it onto a few staff recommendation shelves when it landed last summer, after being passed around the staff. If I recall correctly, Parker, Rachel, and Margaret all read it, and I’m pretty sure someone else is going to say to me “I did too!” when they see this sentence. Rachel sums it up pretty nicely – “full of frat boys running around who are so cute and so headless,” and really, what more could you want?

Paul Tremblay is arguably one of the buzziest horror writers of the moment, and his new novel, Survivor Song (out July 7 - mark your calendar! preorder! celebrate!), is definitely not going to stop that. I was a big fan of his Cabin at the End of the World (I say it’s The Strangers meets Sophie’s Choice, ay yi yi). I think what Tremblay does best is take a classic high horror concept and execute it with intimate, frightening, this-is-all-too-real surgical precision, and his new virus novel is no exception.

A Cosmology of Monsters was one of Jason’s favorites of this past fall. Stephen King says “If John Irving ever wrote a horror novel, it would be something like this.” And Jason calls it “the ultimate homage to classic horror like HP Lovecraft and his kind. Hamill brilliantly unravels the story over the course of many encounters, which caused me to doubt what I thought I knew about the story, and the end was a sucker punch!”

I really liked Iain Reid’s first novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a creepy psychological horror, and Kay was a big fan of his second, Foe. Kay says, “A couple live in an almost dream-like state. Their world feels off-kilter from the beginning. Then a man makes an unannounced late night visit. Tension in the household becomes almost unbearable even as it remains explicitly unrecognized. Just when it looks like the story will turn left, it turns upside down. This is a delightfully disturbing book.”

In our horror section, you’ll also see the classic monster mash – Dracula, Frankenstein, and say hello, Cthulhu. Plus, Stephen King, the most-adapted-to-film author alive, and all his pals. His family, too – hi, Joe Hill. How about taking a stab (get it?!) at a cult-y writer like Thomas Ligiotti or Stephen Graham Jones? Or, if you prefer your screams of terror blended with chuckles, there’s books like My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Meddling Kids, a couple of books that Margaret and I love, and believe me, if the two of us can agree on them, it’s proof pretty much anyone will dig them.

Right now, the real world is a little too much like some horror novels, but we’re looking forward to the day when we can show everyone our favorite new section of the store. And don’t worry, we’re still going to have that problem of what goes in the section and what doesn’t – the original reason we didn’t separate out the books in the first place!

PS – let me give shoutout to the Horror Writers Association, which cosponsored the Trussoni event. Members Anthony Hains and Dean M King were going to join us to read short excerpts of their work. Why not check them out here ( and here ( ?

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Escapist Speculative Reading to Take You Out of Our World

Okay, so it’s St. Patrick’s Day, but it will be the most unusual one in our lifetimes (hopefully). With the shop closed down to browsing, we would still like to share some of the great books we've read. If any of the books look interesting below or on future Boswell posts or if you have your own reading needs, please call us  (414-332-1181) or email us ( or visit our website (, which never closes, our store hours for getting a hold of us is 10-5 daily. 

I do recommend that you check our website for our delivery options, which includes curbside and shipping (some of it by us and some by mail).

My first pile of books are ones that I would use to escape our reality, these all have speculative elements whether one is a historical revision, time travel, or virtual online personas. There’s one outright science fiction title, but it’s so good I had to include it.

The Calculating Stars ($18.99 our price $15.19) by Mary Robinette Kowal has been one of my major book-loves of this year. Yes, it came out in 2018 but I just made our local sci-fi book club read it because it was cleaning up all the awards this year. Quick synopsis: It’s 1952 and a meteor has hit the eastern seaboard of the US wiping out everything. The beginning has a very cinematic quality that is quite thrilling to read. Elma York, a wiz mathematician and WASP pilot, quickly learns that Earth will become uninhabitable. Thus, the world needs to ramp up the space program and get humanity out into the stars.

There is so much to talk about in this book! There’s racism, sexism, panic, anxiety, mourning and resiliency. Kowal does an amazing job of highlighting sexism/racism in the workplace, even after a catastrophe. It’s a bit like 9/11 and how everyone came together after that event, but given time, all the old prejudices rise back up. Elma York is such a powerful main character, whip smart and strong. The amazing way the world rebounds by building up the space program together is quite astonishing. This book is so much more than just sci-fi, I would love everyone to read this book! There’s a second book that continues Elma York’s journey in The Fated Sky.

Recursion ($17.00 our price is $13.60) by Blake Crouch messed with mind, and I loved every moment of it. Quick synopsis: People think that a disease is spreading that makes people have false memories (FMS: False Memory Syndrome) that drives them crazy. False lives never lived terrorize the effected. However, it’s not a disease, it’s something far worse and could tear our world apart.

Detective Barry Sutton starts gathering clues that something is not right, when he responds to a jumper at building. She tells him everything that she remembers of a life she has never lived. She remembers who her husband was, and who her child was that doesn’t even exist anymore. She remembers it so clearly and the loss is so painful she would rather jump and end everything. It’s nuggets of this conversation that drives Barry Sutton into figuring out what is going on. Where he goes from there is brilliant and astonishing.

88 Names ($27.99 our price is $22.39) by Matt Ruff was not the book I expecting from him. I’ve loved so many of his books over the years, from Fool on the Hill to Lovecraft County. So, you can’t pigeon hole him as a certain type of writer, which makes opening a new book of his is a real treasure. Quick Synopsis: John Chu is a sherpa (a paid guide to take people into the virtual world of online gaming), who does all the boring things so that his clients can just pay to play the best parts with the best weapons. When he gets a big paying client, Mr. Jones, all things go south quickly.

First off, you don’t need to be familiar with online gaming to read this book. Ruff does a great tutorial job explaining the different aspects and acronyms of the gaming world. Chu starts to suspect that People’s Republic of China might be spying on him with his new client, who could possible be a certain dictator from North Korea. Or not. Someone is not telling the truth or maybe they all are. The thing about virtual gaming, anyone can dress themselves as anybody or anything. The clock is ticking on his safety, and Ruff has once again delivered an unputdownable read.

Embers of War ($14.95 our price is $11.96) by Gareth L. Powell is full on Space Opera! The story follows the sentient warship, Trouble Dog that has lost its taste for war, Sal Konstanz who captains the de-weaponized Trouble Dog as a ship of humanitarian aid, and Ashton Childe who is looking for a poet (who might not be who they claim to be) that was on a missing ship in a weird region of space. When the Trouble Dog goes in search of the missing ship, things get thrown into upheaval as different races and governments also want to find the ship for their own questionable reasons. Lots of good talking points here: 1) how do you rationalize bombing a civilization away to save the lives of your own, 2) what if you were created to do that and not really part of the people that committed the genocide, 3) what is sentience? I absolutely devoured this book and the two sequels.

Keep an eye out for Providence ($27.00 our price is $21.60) by Max Barry, which publishes on 3/31/2020. It’s an intense look at first contact that does not go right, in fact, it goes violently wrong from the first second. Now humanity is in open warfare with an alien race we can’t even understand, but we do know how to adapt and kill. We send out ships into space to do just that and this story follows one such crew and all its encounters with the aliens and each other.

There’s just a few of the books that I loved—there are so many more to talk about in the coming weeks!