Thursday, April 30, 2020

Gene Luen Yang Visits Virtually

Jenny recaps our first virtual school visit from author Gene Luen Yang. 
From Jenny: Here at Boswell we love bringing students and authors together for school visits. Authors talk about their journey to becoming a published writer, which usually started when they were kids. They mention what inspires them to write and the research they did on their book, and they tell students about hundreds of other interesting things ranging from Dakota Territory in the 1850s to rain forests to sled dog racing to how to craft a newspaper article. Since the cancellation of all our spring in-person events, we’ve been working with schools and publishers to make visits virtual.

Students at one local school had an opportunity to virtually meet award-winning, New York Times bestselling author and artist Gene Luen Yang over, and I got a chance to follow along.

Here’s my take away from his presentation on Dragon Hoops, a graphic memoir about Yang's life, his family, and the high school where he taught for seventeen years.

At Bishop O'Dowd High School, basketball is all anyone can talk about. The men’s varsity basketball team, the Dragons, is having a phenomenal season that’s been decades in the making. Each victory brings them closer to their ultimate goal: the California State Championships.

Gene Luen Yang never thought he’d spend five years of his life writing and drawing about basketball. He hated basketball as a kid, and because he never paid attention to where the ball was, he almost always ended up getting hit on the head. So he grew up imagining there was a wall in between him and basketball. Until the day basketball started invading his life.

First, his son joined the basketball team. And then it seemed like basketball was everywhere. Writers like Kwame Alexander wrote YA about basketball, and Asian American player Jeremy Lin became a star with the New York Knicks.

So, Gene decided to learn more about the sport, but at the school where he taught, the “nerdy teachers” like Gene (computer science), didn’t hang out with the PE teachers and coaches. So it took effort, but eventually he became friends with the boys’ basketball coach. Lou Richie was the first African American head coach at Bishop O'Dowd High School. Through their friendship, not only did Gene begin to grasp the importance of basketball in the context of American History, but he also found out that watching a game could be thrilling!

Gene spoke to students about the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone and getting to know folks who on the surface you think are different than you. He learned that Lou loved books, and that he was so great at memorizing sports statistics that other kids used to call him “The Professor.” Turned out the basketball coach was a nerd, too - a nerdlete!

By following the team for one season, Gene found out how sports are a source of stories, and he discovered there are parallels between sports and the superhero comics he loved. Both are people in costumes doing superhuman feats. But the difference is that in comics, you know the outcome. Superman always wins. But even the best sports teams sometimes lose. Pretty big stakes for a young person. He was so impressed that the students on the basketball team were willing to step into uncertainty. Gene follows this theme of being brave enough to step into the unknown over and over in his book.

Do the Dragons end up winning the California State Championships? As Gene said, “Read the book and find out!”

Questions from students & teachers:

QUESTION: What has been the international response to your books?

GENE: The book I’m most well known for is American Born Chinese, and that’s been translated into a bunch of languages. So, the response has been really positive!

QUESTION: What is the main message you hope your readers are going to take away from Dragon Hoops?

GENE: Lou [Gene’s friend, the basketball coach] was a history major and was always talking about history. He said “that things that happened in the past still affect us today.” In order to move forward, we need to have a deep understanding of what happened before... One of the lessons we can learn from World War II is that sooner or later the crisis is going to end, and it’s going to be time to rebuild, and you need to rebuild well or you’ll see the ramifications last for decades... What does it mean for us to rebuild fairly and rebuild justly?

QUESTION: What are you working on now? And what are you reading now?

GENE: I’m in a weird spot where I’m putting together proposals and ramping up promotion for [the new comic, on sale May 12th] Superman Smashes the Klan. And right now I’m reading a graphic novel called Check Please by Ngozi Ukazu, which is about a college hockey team. It’s super fun.

QUESTION: Do you have any interest in recreating some of the Chinese classics? How much has Chinese lit influenced your work?

GENE: I did a series for DC Comics called New Superman which is about a Chinese Superman, a kid in Shanghai who inherits some of Clark Kent’s powers, and one of the side characters has heavy ties into The Legend of Lady Whitesnake, a really famous Chinese story. I have thought about doing straight up adaptations of Chinese literature, but my feeling is that a lot of that’s been done, and it’s been done really well by Chinese cartoonists... Maybe the best approach is to find the best adaptations in the Chinese market and translate them into English.

Is your school interested in hosting a virtual author event? Would you like to set up an in-person author visit once school is back in session? Please contact Jenny and I’ll add you to my distribution list.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Conrad's Quarantine Reading Synchronicities

From Conrad: We are living through difficult times. If climate change, school shootings, and the day-to-day barrage of horrifying news weren’t enough to reduce us all to quivering jellies of nervous exhaustion, along comes a global pandemic to seal the deal. Reading has always been a solace and means to gaining perspective, and this is true now more than ever.

I recently came down with a cold. Bad timing. Where once I would have shrugged it off as a minor inconvenience, this time I had no choice but to sequester myself. In my two weeks of confinement, I read a few books which, coupled with a few more I had also recently read, seemed to form a kind of pattern. While it is human nature to find structure in random chaos, I seemed to be able to link these books into a grander scheme.


One of the more enjoyable things about being an avid reader is developing a stable of writers whose careers you follow closely and whose works you greedily devour as soon as they are out. Three of mine have new books this year: Arthur Phillips, Christopher Moore, and David Mitchell. Another perk is discovering new writers: some who are literally debuting, and others who have escaped notice until now: Steven Wright (debut), Daniel Kehlmann (his sixth book), and Tom Cooper (his second).

The King at the Edge of the World is Arthur Phillips's latest novel and, boy, it’s just great! As Elizabeth I of England lays dying, Protestants and Catholics scheme to determine just where her successor’s loyalties lie. Is James Stuart a Catholic, like the rest of his family, or is he, as he professes, a Protestant. The truth could mean a bloodbath for whichever side loses. Our main protagonist is, however, neither. He is a Turkish doctor and Muslim, abandoned in dreary barbaric England as a result of his own countryman’s petty scheming, who is forced to bear witness to the inscrutable conflicts between Christians, and play his own role in determining the outcome.

Conflict between Protestants and Catholics also forms the backdrop to Tyll, the new Kehlmann’s novel. We have moved a few decades forward to the height of the Thirty Years War, one of the most destructive conflicts in human history (it’s estimated that at least 20% of all Germans perished during this war, in some territories, over half the population died). Tyll Ulenspiegel is a legendary trickster from German folklore, but is probably based on a real person. He was a traveling performer, a bawdy vagrant who moved from village to village, court to court. For a time, he was the court jester for “The
Winter King” Frederick, so called because his reign barely lasted one season, after Catholic aristocrats drove him from the throne. This spark ignited the Thirty Years War. His Queen was the daughter of James I, the protestant king of England. As court jester to the now former King of Bohemia, Tyll revels in his role as gadfly and the only one who can speak plainly about the king’s pathetic fall from grace.

Shakespeare, who wrote during the reigns of both Elizabeth I and James I, made use of a jester to also speak plainly about King Lear’s descent into madness. Christopher Moore has now written his third satire based on the Bard’s plays, and employing Pocket the Fool as the migrating character. The first book, Fool, was a satire of Lear. The second found Pocket moving from the 8th Century Britain to the renaissance Italy of The Merchant of Venice. In Shakespeare for Squirrels, Moore has transported his fool to the ancient Greece of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (well, it might be Elizabethan era Greece, no one is certain, there IS a character named Theseus). Like everything by Moore, Shakespeare satire or otherwise, this book is shot through with bawdy humor and bumbling supernatural creatures. There’s always a bloody ghost!

Speaking of which, David Mitchell’s new novel Utopia Avenue, has plenty of ghostly hauntings. He seems to be writing one gigantic novel, as he freely moves characters from one book to another (this is his eighth), and has a carefully mapped out alternate universe that threads its way through each book, whether set in 18th Century Japan or a Polynesian island a few centuries from now, or (as here) in the 1967 Swinging London. Each time and place continues the story of sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent time traveling spirits. Utopia Avenue is the name of a psychedelic rock band that is just hitting the big time when their world collides with Mitchell’s universe. Their struggles and triumphs are mirrored by their guitarists’ sinister possession.

If the summer of love is an example of incurable, if drug addled, optimism, electoral politics is a cold slap in the face antidote. Election campaigns are often run by people who have slipped into a deep and abiding cynicism about its purposes and methods. You think you know cynicism? The Coyotes of Carthage will show you the true meaning of the word, and will have you on the floor laughing at the same time. A down on his luck and given a last chance political consultant fronts for a well-healed mining company that wants to get control of publicly held land in South Carolina. How do you get the flag-waving, god-fearing locals to vote against their self-interests? You get them to sell themselves out.

Just below South Carolina is Florida. If you google the words “Florida Man” up will pop a rogue’s gallery of misfits doing horrifying and horrifyingly stupid things. It seems that Tom Cooper did just that and pasted together the results to form his plot and characters in his novel, Florida Man. That may seem a bit too gimmicky (and may not be what he did at all), it nonetheless works incredibly well here.

I just googled Florida Man:
Florida man charged with assault after throwing alligator through Wendy’s window.
Florida man wears t-shirt insulting the police to court appearance.
Florida man attacked by squirrel during selfie.

Maybe laughter is the cure we all need.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Jenny Chou has Five Questions for Author Joy McCullough

Today on the blog I’m thrilled to welcome Joy McCullough, author of the newly-released middle grade novel A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Joy’s luminous writing first caught my attention two years ago with the publication of her first book, a YA novel entitled Blood Water Paint. This enthralling novel tells the story of Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi. At age seventeen, she was the apprentice to her father, a mediocre Italian painter, and she secretly filled his commissions. Written for teens who will feel empowered as they root for Artemisia, adult book clubs would enjoy a lively evening discussing her choices, too. Booklist called Blood Water Paint “captivating,” and it received a nomination for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. And made my list for Top Five Books of the Year (and I read a lot of books!)

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a delightful read, full of humor and warmth, with an unexpected outdoor adventure. I especially loved how the two main characters, Sutton and Luis, figure out over the course of the novel that they’re much braver than they thought.

Jenny Chou: Welcome to the Boswellians Blog, Joy! Can you tell us about the challenges Sutton and Luis are facing in A Field Guide to Getting Lost? And what inspired you to tell their stories?

Joy McCullough: Thanks so much for having me! Sutton and Luis are two very different kids. Luis is imaginative and social, but he’s allergic to a ton of different things, and his very protective mom keeps him a bit isolated. Sutton’s mom, on the other hand, is all the way in Antarctica, and while she has a lot of other great adults around her, she’s really bummed Mom won’t be home for her tenth birthday. Their story first sparked for me when I was taking a walk with my visiting father who made a joke about being lost in the park. At first I thought it was a picture book, but it grew into middle grade!

JC: So cool to see girls embrace STEM, and I really appreciate that Sutton’s retired neighbor was a female computer scientist at a time when the field was just getting started for everyone. I’m guessing you are more like Luis, who is writing a Harry Potter inspired novel, with his own unique twists. But you did a great job showing Sutton’s interest in robotics and her knowledge of all kinds of scientific details about the world. How did you go about researching her love of science and robots?

JM: You are correct: I am much more of a Luis (though I do relate to Sutton’s introversion). I kept the coding research fairly simple, but I did a much deeper dive on penguins in Antarctica, which is what Sutton’s mom is studying and Sutton references a fair amount. There could be no research more fun than watching penguin documentaries (unless I’d found a way to interact with actual penguins).

JC: Please let us all know if you find a way to interact with actual penguins so we can join in too! Your background is in theater and playwriting, which I see you studied here in the Midwest, at Northwestern. How did the skills you learned writing plays and acting translate into writing fiction? What were some of the challenges?

JM: The most obvious answer is that dialogue comes easily to me, as a playwright. But more broadly, I had a solid understanding of story arcs and character development before I ever began writing fiction. I also learned from theater not to read my reviews! And how to handle rejection! In terms of challenges, I definitely had to learn to think more visually as a novelist. When I’m writing a play, I’m only responsible for the dialogue, and there are actors and designers and the director to create the world the audience sees. In novels, I am playing all those roles.

JC: Every writer seems to have a different path to publication. Some writers might have several books go out to editors before one manuscript finds the perfect home while others sell their first novel at an auction (when editors bid against each other). I’d love to hear about your publishing journey. And then can you tell us what’s next for you?

JM: How much time do you have? My journey to publication was loooong. My debut novel was the tenth one I wrote. I wrote the first five before getting an agent. Then I had five books go on submission to editors before one sold. But now, here I am a couple years after my debut, and I’ve got YA, MG, and even a picture book on the way!

JC: Wow! That’s so inspiring.

JM: As for what’s next, my second middle grade novel, Across the Pond, is about an American girl whose family inherits a Scottish castle. That will come out in 2021. My second YA also comes out in spring of 2021, but the title is unannounced. It’s a combination of contemporary prose and historical verse about the legendary knight Marguerite de Bressieux.

JC: Those new projects both sound amazing. My ancestors came from Scotland to Nova Scotia to America. Maybe there’s a Scottish castle in my future. And while we’re imagining, let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day! Are there any new releases you’d suggest to middle grade and YA readers?

JM: A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat is a book I am going to be raving about for a long time. It’s a middle grade Les Miserables retelling and it is utterly stunning. Chirp by Kate Messner is an empowering, engaging mystery, with a pitch-perfect approach to #MeToo for MG.  In YA, Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold is a Little Red Riding Hood-inspired novel that defies description, except to say it’s super compelling and deeply feminist.

JC: I loved Red Hood! In fact, here’s a link to my review.

Follow Joy on Instagram and Twitter @JMCwrites. She posts a lot, often with great ideas for what to read next. Be sure to check out A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which is perfect for kids in grades 3-6th. Thanks so much for joining us on the Boswellians Blog, Joy!

JM: Thanks so much for having me!

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Chris Interviews Rufi Thorpe, author of The Knockout Queen

From Chris - I'm lucky enough to get to interview the author of my tip top, #1, most favorite novel of the year - The Knockout Queen. It's a frighteningly smart take on the old 'unlikely friendship between teenage misfits' genre. I can't say enough good things about this book, but just know that if you only take one recommendation from me all year, if you only read one book all year, this is the one. So let's get to it -

Chris Lee: First of all, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. Your book is by far my favorite thing I’ve read this year. It’s seriously some sort of magic trick, the way you cram so much, so many ideas and feelings, into one book, and while you are of course under absolutely no obligation to reveal the secret recipe to the Boswell blog, I can’t help but return to your book and ask - how? How is this even possible?

Rufi Thorpe: This question made me cry? My kids are shirtless and smeared with cream cheese on the couch watching youtube videos so stupid I’m not even sure I can explain what they are, but let’s just say they are minecraft adjacent. If I managed to cram a lot in there - okay, well, here is an anecdote. With my first book, I got to go to a lunch with sales reps and I had zero practice at pitching my book, no understanding of publishing, had nothing prepared. And a nice man at my table asked: “What are you most proud of about this book?” And I said, I’m not kidding, this is actually what I said: “I just really tried to put a lot of stuff in there.” He looked… concerned. It was not the right answer. But it was true then, and it is true now, and so the idea that someone read my book and thought: gosh, how did she cram so much stuff in there?! It’s a literal dream come true!!!!

CL: This questions is a bit ’where do you get your ideas'-ish, but I have to ask it anyway. Three sentences into the book, I was in tears laughing so hard, and I spent the entire book alternately laughing, crying, and gasping along with your narrator Michael, who might be the drollest teenager of all time. He reads the world so clearly, and in some ways he's scarily self-assured, but at the same time, he's so full of hurt, so raw and tender and capable of being damaged. I can't think of another book in recent memory that’s captured such a fully realized, so alive human being, so, I have to know - where did his voice come from?

RT: Well, so I had been trying to write this book without him for about a year and it just wasn’t working, and then I got the idea for him kind of in a flash and started writing a few sentences from his point of view and it was just an explosion, what had been plodding and difficult and dry was now blown sky high on a geyser of oil or something. It would be really fun to pretend that Michael was some ghost or astral entity communicating through me, but the fact that he kept bringing up aspects of my own biography that I was uncomfortable with leads me to other conclusions. Michael is kind of a hyper concentrated fun house version of me. Life has always struck me as so sad and so funny, and Michael is the same. He’s my lil shadow self buddy.

CL: You've said a part of the inspiration for this book was the desire to write about a physically powerful female character - throughout the novel, though, we see her through Michael's eyes. Can you tell me about how you see Bunny, and maybe also about the ways you see the world looking at her?

RT: Well, I think the culture has become moderately healthier now, but when I was growing up in the 90s heroin chic was big and the ideal body structure for women was sort of split between child-waif and sex doll. And oh how I longed to be one of those empty doll women! But oh, how gross I also felt about that! It was like being sick with want for something you knew would also be very bad for you.

Still, I always identified as big (because I was fat) and strong (for a woman I am unusually strong), and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood how… completely stronger men were. I knew they had different Olympic events! I knew everyone said they were stronger. But when you find yourself in a physical altercation with a man, you really realize: oh, wow, my will is entirely circumscribed by my ability to enforce it. And, let me tell you, I can beat every single woman in my extended family at arm wrestling, and then they had me take on my (average size) fifteen year old nephew in-law, and he beat me so easily it took my breath away.

So Bunny is a fantasy. She is a form of wish fulfillment, because she has the physical power to enforce her will, and she also fails to be one of the empty doll women, but not because she is fat. Not being one of the doll women because you are fat is more complicated and the shame is still really confusing for me. That’s a whole other book, one I hope one day to write. But in this book, Bunny  is kind of a violent repudiation of the empty doll women. They pop and hiss and deflate under the pressure of her.

So Bunny is a kind of fantasy, and that fantasy appeals to both me and Michael, but does cause other characters in the book to find her upsetting and distasteful, monstrous even.

CL: The book keeps returning to questions of morality, and everyone in it takes moments to ask: is this okay? Am I a good person? Is he/she? Can I still love this person after what they’ve done? I love how in spite of this constant questioning, it seems like it’s ultimately just this swirl of good and bad people and good and bad things, and they just keep happening to each other just because they can. Could you talk about how you see morality in the novel?

RT: For me the novel is kind of philosophy with tables and chairs and fruit and sex in it, and so those big questions about how to live, how to be good, how we know what is true— those are what the novel is there to explore. But if we are being totally transparent, I probably only think that because I myself am deeply confused about how to be good, what to do with my love for people I know have been bad, what punishment is or should be, and so I seek interesting ruminations on these things in novels, both when I am writing my own and as a reader of other people’s. And you have phrased my basic confusion really well, which is that I can’t separate out the good and bad in people. It seems so densely interwoven to me, I am really not sure how we are supposed to actually make ethical judgments. And yet, we have to, we have no choice, because sometimes the people we are thrown through time with, who we love, who we see so deeply that the sight of them scars us, who we are sewn into, are also trying to kill us. And our sympathy can only extend so far in such a case.

CL: And following that - you never shy away from the overwhelming influence of money, class, and power in the characters’ lives and that ‘this is good, this is bad’ decision making. How central are those pressures to who gets to make those ‘good/bad’ judgement calls and how they’re made?

RT: Well, in the case of the legal system, I think the influence of money and class is almost overt. Like, it’s not a shadowy problem that needs to be exposed, it is something we all know to be trivially true. The rich guy is somehow always able to get off with a slap on the wrist, and the poor kid with twenty bucks of drugs in his pocket gets three years. So we really have to ask: what is it we are trying to punish through the legal system if the severity of the crime and the size of the punishment are often inversely related?

CL: This isn’t the first novel you’ve set in California, and you make North Shore this sort of combination place - it’s suburban LA, it’s a beach town that’s outgrown itself, and it’s even something of an ‘Anytown, USA’ all at once. What in particular do you like about writing about this place?

RT: When I first started thinking of myself as a regional writer, as a specifically Californian writer, it was a major artistic breakthrough because it narrowed the scope of my focus. The particular town of North Shore is fictional, but heavily modeled on El Segundo, which does have a really unusual small town feeling. And I LOVE small town gossip. I’m super interested in mid-size groups of humans. Like, Jane Smiley’s Greenlanders is sweet ambrosia to me. Long standing grudges between neighbors? YES PLEASE.

CL: I said it before, I’ll say it again, there are just so many ideas packed into this novel, I feel like I can barely scrape the surface with a few questions. Is there any idea or theme in the book you feel like readers aren’t picking up on that you want to give more attention?

RT: Gosh, no. If anything it’s been the opposite, where every bookseller quote and every review has made me cry like I’ve been stranded in a space station all alone and finally received a radio transmission. It has just blown me away to have people respond to the ideas in the book the way they have, it’s the biggest gift imaginable.

CL: Finally, let me ask you to be the bookseller for a moment, because the old ‘it’s X meets Y!’ is the classic Hollywood sell line anyway, right? so, fill in the blanks - The Knockout Queen is _____ meets _____ !

RT: I am bad at these!!! Okay, okay, maybe Ghostworld meets Girlfight but with gay sex and murder???

The Puzzling Allure of Puzzling

Something a little different today - a two-part post from two booksellers - first, our Puzzle Buyer Jen on what influences what she brings into the store:

I’m not a puzzler, so when it comes to buying puzzles for the store, I rely on some of the booksellers. I’ve come to value Kay and Aaron’s input and advice when it comes to puzzles. I’ve learned to consider the quality of the pieces as well as the quality of the image.

Pomegranate Puzzles are popular for their museum-like images. I’ve also noticed that puzzles published by Galison have garnered quite the fan following. Phat Dog’s Vintage Library Puzzle is one of our all-time bestsellers, and it all started with a recommendation. One day our bookseller, Conrad was helping a customer and she recommended this puzzle to him. Conrad purchased the puzzle and enjoyed it so much that he created a shelf talker for it and asked me to bring more copies in. It’s been on our display for 2 years now. I haven’t seen anything like it!

I think people are especially drawn to puzzles right now because puzzling can be enjoyed alone or with others. I’ve heard that puzzling is quite meditative, and finding solace with your loved ones during these times can perhaps be better enjoyed gathered around a puzzle.

And now from Kay, one of our expert puzzlers & puzzle recommenders:

In addition to being a bookaholic, I'm also a long-time puzzleholic. I've found myself drawn to puzzles more than books over the past few weeks; I guess doing puzzles is a somewhat more peaceful activity right now. Here are some of the 1000 piece puzzles I love, roughly ordered from easiest to hardest (warning: I do like some crazy-hard puzzles, but none of these qualify for that label). Keep in mind that I don't look at the puzzle photo when I do puzzles - I don't go through them as quickly that way. Using the picture may make some easier than my ranking suggests (Sea Anemones for sure).

Vintage Library (linked above) is a fun puzzle of colorful book spines, many with gold foil. This is pretty easy, but not a breeze.

Book Shop is a painting of Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. Warning: it might get you thinking about everything Paris: sidewalk cafes, baguettes, fresh fruit tarts...

Eleanor's Room is a calming, peaceful puzzle. It's helpful to have a good eye for greens when you are working on this.

Sea Anemones has fabulous colors and forms. I LOVE this puzzle. But not looking at the picture made moving nearly finished anemones around a bit challenging.

Night Flight also has beautiful, happy colors. The toughest part of this puzzle is that many of the butterflies are only slightly different from others. This was put together butterfly by butterfly. The purple and orange bodies gave me the most trouble (aka the most FUN).

The Tangled Garden was put together at least 20 puzzles ago, so my memory is a bit fuzzy on this. I don't remember it being particularly challenging, but the muted colors are repeated around the puzzle, so it may be harder than I remember. I loved seeing how the painter used a variety of colors to create wonderful depth in the plants.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Tim's Comfort Books

It’s Tim again. My last Boswellians entry was all about American history, and I mentioned that our history can be both glorious and terrifying. We’re certainly living with unexpected and scary twists of fate these days, so I think it’s a good time to remember that, along with taking care of our responsibilities, we stay healthier if we can laugh and have some fun. Let the kids be kids and the adults feel a little like kids, too. With that in mind, I have some book suggestions for children and adults that have made me laugh or just been comforting and warm. The characters still live with life’s serious issues, but an uplifting spirit prevails, along with some belly laughter that we can all use right about now.

For letting the kids be kids.

My favorite recommendations for the youngest kids and earliest readers (up to age 5 or so) are Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books. These sweet, silly, themed books about play and friendship have enough snarky humor to make the adults laugh along. And there are many books in the series to keep you going, including two recent Biggie volumes (#1 and #2 here) with five stories each.

For middle grade fun and suspense (up to age 12 or so) , there’s nobody I turn to more than Carl Hiaasen. (He writes for adults, too! But I’ll get to that below.) Squirm is his latest kids novel, about a boy who knows how to handle snakes. His father has started a new family out west and is apparently a spy. Meanwhile, his mom keeps moving him and his sister around in Florida, resettling wherever she can currently find an eagle’s nest to watch. It all comes together, in typical Hiaasen fashion, with wacky characters, environmental themes, mystery, suspense, and quick chapters. What could be better? Try his Hoot, Scat, and Chomp, as well.

I also love Chris Grabenstein's Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library, an exciting and literary tale of a rich, eccentric game designer who builds the coolest interactive library ever and holds an overnight contest for kids. It's a wonderful series of books. Grabenstein has done a lot of fun middle grade work, and just recently he collaborated with his wife, JJ, to write the book she always wished she'd had as a child, called Shine! It's a warm, uplifting story of a middle school girl entering a Prep Academy and wondering how she can possibly fit into a place where wealth and talent look so intimidating. Can her love of astronomy and her loving heart be enough to let her shine?

And don't ever forget about the book that just became a film, Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl! It's about a high school girl and the boy who falls for her, but I read it to my fifth graders every year because it's so wonderfully appropriate. Stargirl is a home-schooler who arrives at an average high school, and is toooootally different. She defines "random acts of kindness." It's one of the great books of all times!

For letting the grown ups feel like kids again.

As I mentioned, Hiaasen is where I often turn for adult fun. He’s been a Florida journalist for a long time and has seen a lot of development, so his characters often exact hilarious revenge for environmental destruction. His Sick Puppy got me started, opening with a front end loader of dung beetles being dumped into a developer’s expensive convertible car. And his adult novels are mysterious, too! Skinny Dip is about a man who throws his wife off an ocean liner, but the former Olympic swimmer survives and ends up on an island, where she plots her revenge with a reclusive ex-cop. There are many more adult Hiaasen novels to keep you laughing, too! Next up on my to-read list is Razor Girl, highly recommended by readers I trust.

My favorite comfort book for adults is Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander. This novel, by the author of Peace Like a River, is also a favorite of our owner Daniel, a young Boswell bookseller named Kira, and many of our customers. Virgil lives in a small Lake Superior town that needs a comeback. He needs one too, as he's recovering from brain trauma after accidentally driving his car over a barrier and into the lake. The book gets mysterious when a Norwegian man with a talent for making and flying unusual kites arrives, looking for a son who was much loved before disappearing from the town. There's a quirky quality to the story, equally matched by its warmth and wisdom. One of my all time favorites!

Finally, perhaps you'd like to have an appropriate reason to chuckle at "Uncle Joe" Biden.  Andrew Shaffer's Obama and Biden mysteries, Hope Never Dies and Hope Rides Again, are a lot of fun and also solid whodunits. The dated puns, the snarky political references, and the reluctant, eye-rolling friendship that the Obamas have with Biden just might be a salve for the political ugliness we're enduring these days.

Take care, and best of luck with finding a smile!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Chris Interviews Author Steven Wright

Today (Wed, April 15th) was the day - our event with Madison's Steven Wright, author of The Coyotes of Carthage, was planned for this evening. Well, that's not happening, and more's the pity, as Wright's novel is one of my favorites of 2020 so far. It's dark political comedy, a grimly hilarious assessment of one microcosm of the American body politic. Dre, a political fixer desperate to save his career, has a quarter million in dark money to convince a small town in South Carolina to let a company strip mine the local nature preserve and poison the water.

Allow me to heap on the outsider praise, in case you don't want to take my word for it: Tod Goldberg, with a glowing review in Monday's USA Today, calls it "a crackerjack debut," and Wright's book earned a starred Library Journal Review. John Grisham, noted king of the legal thriller, even adds, "With this splendid debut, Steven Wright announces his arrival as a major new voice."

In lieu of our in-store event, we still wanted to give you a chance to hear from Wright, so I sat down (virtually) to ask him a few questions about his work, writing, and this fantastic book. So let's get to it.

Chris Lee: Steven, thanks so much for taking the time to reply and answer some questions about your novel, one that, let me say, I absolutely love.

Steven Wright: First, thanks for having me. I'm heartbroken that we won't be able to meet this April in real life. I love Milwaukee and I love Boswell, and I had a bunch of former students, now prosecutors and defense attorneys in Milwaukee, each of whom had promised to attend the event to lend their support. I'm very proud of them, and I hope we'll still be able to talk about the book together at Boswell.

CL: Your book takes us behind the scenes of a Washington consulting group’s meddling in a hyper-local election - in fact, you could have maybe titled it “The Corporatist's Guide to Buying Elections.” What’s something in the book, or maybe didn’t make it in, that you wish the average American, regular voter or not, knew about the electoral process?

SW: To answer your question: I want to start with a picture. Take a look:

You probably saw it on Twitter. This picture shows the border between two Florida Counties, and the image conveys the story of two local governments. Duval County, on the bottom, the sand without people, decided to shut down its beaches to prevent the spread of the virus. St. John’s County, on the other hand, chose to stay open. And thus, you can see, on the St. John's side of the border, plenty of beachgoers enjoying the surf and sun. 

This picture shows why local government is important. Local governments make decisions that impact people's lives. Local governments pick the books our children read in school, and local governments pick the laws our police officers choose to enforce. Today, we are beginning to realize and appreciate the role that local governments play in our public health policy and our response to the pandemic. Just look at the beaches.

And yet, despite their importance, local governments are woefully underappreciated. Most people don't vote in their local elections. I've seen local elections with turnout as low as five percent. Frequently, local elected officials run uncontested, and, in my experience, the candidates in contested races usually don't have huge war chests. 

We think a lot about federal elections: the president, our senators, members of the US House, but I wanted to remind people that local elections are important too. We rightly worry about corporate money influencing politicians in DC, but we should also worry about corporate money influencing our local elected officials.  

CL: Your novel feels so real and is so obviously written by someone who knows the intricacies of what’s going on. That said, as I was reading it, I kept catching myself shaking my head, mumbling, no way!. So I can’t help but wonder - what’s made up? Or rather, what I really want to know: is there anything that seems completely unbelievable in the book that’s totally real?

SW: The novel was influenced by my experience as a trial attorney, working for the US Department of Justice Voting Section. Duke Boshears is a composite of a type of local politician I would often meet. He likes to project that he's a strong business success and that he's a great leader, but he's run his business into the ground and he's a terrible leader. Everyone hates him, including his wife. 

He thinks he's beloved. He thinks he has all the answers. He can’t fathom that anyone wouldn’t vote for him. But he's completely oblivious. He's so self-absorbed, so self-confident, a lesson in the perils of parents teaching their children to believe in themselves. You meet these types of men a lot: in politics, in law, in academia. 

CL: You’re far from ‘just a writer’ - Associate Professor at UW Law, you co-direct the WI Innocence Project, you spent years as a trial attorney in the Voting Section of the US Dept of Justice and litigated cases to enforce things as important as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and you’ve written and provided commentary for places like NYRB, Wake Up Wisconsin, and WPR. I think it’s fair to say that you’ve spent much of your career working within and writing about the intersections of race, law, and politics. So with this book, what did you set out to say or what did you find you were able to explore about those subjects and where they meet that maybe you haven’t before?

SW: I’m a big believer that people learn best through narrative. Stories - no matter fiction or non-fiction - help people better understand and appreciate problems. Stories also help us better understand each other. So, when I wanted to convey many of my experiences - visiting poor, desperate communities like Carthage, or talking to black men who’ve been changed by their experience in the criminal justice system - I knew I could only share and explore my experience through a novel. 

CL: There’s a lot of cynical, dark humor (and it is often, let me say, a hilarious book, and that’s no easy thing to write!) about the electoral process throughout the book, but to me, so much of the book’s beating heart is hope - that maybe Dre can salvage his career, or set right some things from his past, or maybe even just the hope that he can recover some of the decency and humanity within himself. So, without spoiling anything, what do you hope for him? What’s the one piece of advice you wish you could give Dre?

SW: That's very kind of you to say it’s funny. The strange thing about writing the book - especially writing a book with humor - is that I didn't know whether a line or scene would get an actual laugh. I knew some lines were funny to me when I wrote it. I knew some lines were still funny to me when I revised. But I had no clue whether the reader would find it funny. Part of me wants to ask every reader - did you laugh at the joke on page X? Was it a big laugh? A smirk? An acknowledgment? 

A quick aside: I have two dogs. And every day I write, and every day I read them what I've written. They sit at my feet, while I write and read, and I ask them: What do you think? Is that funny? Obviously, they don't answer (I’m not sure I’d want their honest opinion anyway), but I've had extensive conversations with them about whether a line is funny or not. 

So, to answer your question, what do I want for Dre? I think Dre is cynical, bordering on paranoid, and he clearly has trust issues. This experience, in Carthage, probably didn't help. So, I really hope that he finds friends and family in whom he can place his trust and faith. 

I took a workshop with the awesome Garth Greenwell a few years back. And I workshopped part of this novel. One classmate said: "I don't know if I like Dre, but I really just want to give him a hug." And that's really the reaction I wanted to get, and so, I don't know if I'd give Dre advice, but I'd definitely give him a hug. 

CL: Speaking of - a lot of the laughs from the political operators in the book remind me of the kind of gallows humor you get from journalists when they’re chatting off the record. What is it about staring at the way things work that brings out such a dark sense of humor in people?

SW: I’m not the first guy to get a chuckle at local government. Now’s a good time for people to catch up on Parks and Recreation. But I think, sometimes, politics - and local politics in particular - attracts eccentrics. And some of those eccentrics are power hungry. And some of those power-hungry eccentrics are deeply incompetent. And that’s a comedic dream: an incompetent, power-hungry eccentric. You’d be surprised how often you find this personality type holding offices of municipal leadership. I concede that this personality is terrible for local government, but the personality really is great for stories. 

CL: Finally, here’s the ‘you may also like’ portion of the interview, a little bit flipped. If you were me, and you had to convince someone to pick up your novel today, how would you finish this old bookseller's chestnut: You’re going to love The Coyotes of Carthage if you loved...

SW: Wolf Hall or the Sellout.

I cheated, which is what Dre would have wanted.

Speaking of bookselling, a final note from the bookseller - The Coyotes of Carthage is a current Boswell Best selection, discounted 20% off the list price! Snag a copy today - worth every penny, at any price!

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Five Questions for Author Cindy Baldwin

From Boswellian Jenny Chou:

I’m so happy to chat with middle-grade author Cindy Baldwin about her new book, Beginners Welcome. Cindy’s previous book, Where the Watermelons Grow, appeared on my bookselling radar when it came out in 2018 and received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Shelf Awareness, and School Library Journal - which also gave a starred review to Beginners Welcome! For those of us in the book world, that’s kind of like a baseball player hitting five home runs in the World Series. Read my review of Where the Watermelons Grow and find out why I suggest sipping an ice-cold lemonade while reading Cindy’s books right HERE.

JENNY: Can you tell readers about the challenges Annie Lee is facing in Beginners Welcome? And why did her story need to be told?

CINDY: A few months before Beginners Welcome opens, Annie Lee’s beloved daddy has died unexpectedly, leaving her and her mama alone. Annie Lee’s Daddy was always the “glue” that held their family together, and she and Mama are struggling to connect with each other without him there. Because of the grief she feels over her daddy, as well as the fact that in the wake of his death she drifted away from her two best friends, Annie Lee has decided that maybe she will become invisible, so that others can’t see her and connect with her - and potentially hurt her again.

Although I luckily still have both of my parents, I wanted to tell Annie Lee’s story because grief and the fear of further loss were big parts of my adolescent years. I was born with a genetic disease called cystic fibrosis, and I was thirteen when I learned that CF was life-shortening and that I might not live to middle age. That was a big thing to grapple with as a young teen! I spent years processing that understanding, and one of the central questions always in my mind was: if I knew there was this possibility that my illness was going to become severe enough to take a lot of things from me, was it worth creating deep and meaningful relationships, or was that just opening myself up for potential loss later on? That’s a struggle that I really wanted to explore through Annie Lee’s story. Although the circumstances for each of us are different, I think the balance between connection and loss is something we all have to navigate at some point.

JENNY: I know you’re a Harry Potter fan because Annie Lee talks about hiding from the world as if she’s wearing an invisibility cloak. So let’s find out the one bit information readers really want to know: Is Annie Lee a Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw? What about you? Why?

CINDY: Hmm, that’s a good question. My original thought was Hufflepuff, because I think Annie Lee fits a lot of the traditional Hufflepuff profile. But after pondering it more deeply, I actually think she’d be Gryffindor. Although she’s pretty shy and anxious, bravery is very important to her, and throughout Beginners Welcome she works to do some pretty courageous things. So in reality, I think she’s a Gryffindor in the mold of Neville Longbottom! As for me, I’m definitely a classic Gryffindor. I always forget to look before I leap (sometimes with disastrous consequences - ask me about my long history of foolhardy furniture-painting projects sometime!), I’m kind of hotheaded, and if somebody wrongs a person I love I will not hesitate to take them down. Often when I, um, shouldn’t.

JENNY: You live in Portland, Oregon, with your husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries, but your books are set in North Carolina. Your writing in Where the Watermelons Grow is so evocative of summer, and in Beginners Welcome readers feel the “sizzling August heat” right along with Annie Lee. What makes the South a perfect setting for your books?

CINDY: I grew up in North Carolina - actually, in Durham, just like Annie Lee! (I often played Christmas concerts in Brightleaf Square with my violin teacher’s other students.) I ended up moving away from NC as an adult, which has always been a source of sadness for me. In many ways, North Carolina will always feel like the home of my heart. I love the culture of the South, the lightning bugs, the heat, even the humidity, which feels like a warm hug! Writing books set in North Carolina is a way to vicariously revisit the places I love. And I think the South is such a rich, evocative place to set a book, as evidenced by the long tradition of beautiful Southern fiction!

JENNY: At the start of Beginners Welcome, Annie Lee has moved from a house to a small apartment, and she’s left her two best friends behind. One of the parts I absolutely love about the book are all her unexpected new friendships. Ray, Mitch, and Queenie are such richly developed characters. Reading your books is such a delightful experience because your characters truly come from your heart. Are any of them based on people you knew growing up? And what’s the secret to making characters come alive on the page?

CINDY: I’ve come to realize in the last few years that secondary characters are a big writing weakness for me. I’m not very good at things like character bibles, and I often put secondary characters into my book pretty quickly without developing them a ton. (I just have to get to know them through writing, I guess!) So inevitably, I end up focusing a lot on fleshing out secondary characters as I revise, which I think helps them really jump off the page. Secondary characters are so important to my books, which have a strong focus on community and found family. I wouldn’t say that any of them are specifically based on people I knew, but many of them are composites of characteristics I appreciated in people I have known. For instance, I was lucky as a teen to have several patient and loving mentors, who nurtured me in both music and writing. That theme of adult mentorship and special relationships with non-parent adults has come through in both my books.

JENNY: Finally, a bit of imagining - your wildest dreams have come true, and you are now an Indie bookseller. A customer is looking for books for middle grade readers. What titles do you suggest?

CINDY: Some of my favorite recent releases include What Stars Are Made Of by Sarah Allen; From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks; When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller, and Coo by Kaela Noel!

Beginners Welcome is a Boswell Best selection for April, and Where the Watermelons Grow is now out in paper. Cindy, thank you! - Jenny Chou, Boswell Book Company.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Kira's Adventures

If you’re anything like me, you might be heartbroken that your local climbing gym is shut down for the foreseeable future. You’re probably even more heartbroken that just as winter is letting us out of its grip, all your trips planned to wild and wonderful places (Moab in Utah, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Arkansas, The Red River Gorge in Kentucky) have come to a grinding halt.

Theoretically, it might be easy to stay socially distant outdoors, but you don’t want to be the guy who unwittingly brings Covid-19 into small, rural communities, do you? Rather than risk the communities I’ve come to love (I’ve been craving a slice of Miguel’s Pizza for months now), now is the perfect time to catch up on some reading. I’ve broken the list down into books I’ve read and loved, books with a spot on my “read these next” shelf, and a few classics that everyone should pick up, whether they’re adventurous types or not.

I. Tommy Caldwell’s The Push: Probably the best all around climber, Tommy’s memoir is one of my favorite books of any genre. His prose isn’t complicated, but his heart really shines. He’s faced tons of adversity, from being held hostage by terrorists, to losing a finger and almost losing his career along with it, but somehow maintains the most positive, inspiring attitude on and off the wall. He’s also been posting content about how his family is staying local and low-risk for the time being - if he can do it, we can do it.

II. Daniel James Browns’ The Indifferent Stars Above: The most compassionate and well-written book regarding the lamentable Donner Party, in my opinion. The author focuses primarily on one person, Elizabeth Graves, and her immediate family (including her fiancĂ©). The author actually visited every portion of the route the Donner Party took, which is a level of commitment I really respect. I definitely picked up this book for the travel writing and, y’know, the cannibalism, but this book actually left me with a profound sense of what it means to be human and to experience loss. It’s also a good reminder that things could be a whole lot worse for most of us right now.

III. Alex Honnold’s Alone on the Wall: This was written around the same time as Caldwell’s, and they both take place predominately in Yosemite Valley - totally different books though. Honnold cowrote with David Roberts, a prominent outdoor adventure writer, which means the book has a very distinct writing style, flipping between Honnold’s perspective and Robert’s, which echoes the sentiments of the general climbing community. If you’re a climber, I know it gets old to hear “Have you ever seen Free Solo?” but I promise, the firsthand account is worth a read, for climbers and non-climbers alike.

I. Colin O’Brady’s The Impossible First: Normally, I don’t immediately gravitate towards books centered around the poles (north or south, I don’t discriminate). However, Colin is purportedly the first person to cross Antarctica alone, and I read this article online recently about how he ate too many of his rations in a stupor at 2 A.M. one night, and then ended up sh*tting his pants the next morning and having to suffer all day until he got to camp. Is that the only reason I put it on my to-read list? Maybe, maybe not.

II. Mark Synnott’s The Impossible Climb: Not to be confused with The Impossible First, The Impossible Climb is all about Alex Honnold’s Yosemite free solo. I know I’ve already told you to read Honnold’s account, but you’ll want to read this one too. Here’s what the Guardian has to say: “Synnott’s book is also an attempt to understand what drives people such as Honnold to risk their lives on the world’s most dangerous mountains. One climber describes it as a primal experience: 'Everything is more intense.' Although he denies being an adrenaline junkie, Honnold clearly lives for climbing, the only thing that has ever 'lit his fire'. Climbers such as Honnold are only happy when they are hanging from a fingertip jammed in a fissure of rock a thousand feet off the ground.” Right up my alley.

III. Jedidah Jenkin’s To Shake the Sleeping Self: A firsthand account of a bike trip from Oregon to Patagonia. Biking is one of the only ways I’ve been staying sane during the pandemic, so this book immediately got pushed to the top of my list. From Publisher’s Weekly: “Much of his writing focuses on his internal feelings - a mix of emotional dives into his past, present, and future - rather than the physical journey. Still, there’s some fun and vibrant travel writing here, including stories about tripping on mushrooms, seeing a butterfly migration, and exploring Machu Picchu.”

I. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: What can’t Bryson write about? With virtually no experience and a good sense of humor, the author sets out to rediscover America along the entirety of the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. If you’re in need of some much-deserved levity and escapism, this is the adventure book for you.

II. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild: The account of a fresh college-grad who decides to leave the material world and venture into the unknown. Spoiler – he never comes back out. They find his body some months later in an abandoned bus off the beaten path in Alaska. If you haven’t read Into the Wild but you’re big on cult classics, I’d grab this one. It’s relatively short, but wildly impactful, and my personal copy is full of underlines and little notes because there’s so much to absorb. What started as an article for an outdoor magazine morphed into an obsession that Krakauer couldn’t leave unfinished. Once you’re done reading it, I’d recommend the film adaptation too — it’s directed by Sean Penn, and the score is sung by Eddie Vedder. What’s not to love?

III. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: This is the only fiction title I’m including, but it’s earned a spot on the list. The history of climbing is intertwined with the Beatnik spirit of the 1960s, so it only feels right to include it if alongside so many climbing sagas.

Venture outside my friends, but stay local. Explore those spots you always skip over for bigger adventures. Crack open a good book and appreciate the stillness. Most importantly - stay healthy y’all.

(Ed. note - Does anyone else read this abbreviation and think "who's Ed?" No, just me? Ok. Anyway. Photos by Kira!)

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Jen’s Favorite Publisher

It’s official. Jen Steele loves books! And she would like to tell you why -

It all started with the Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor. I was transported to a whole new, fantastic universe. Since then, whenever I see a new book published by, I immediately gravitate toward it. Sure, we all have authors we’re fans of, yet I never thought that I would find a publisher that inspired the same kind of fandom in me - but here we are.

Since that first book, I’ve slowly collected’s books, adding them to my to-be-read pile and passing them on to friends once I’ve finished them. Because when you adore a book, you have to pass it on, right? Can’t let your poor friends go until they’ve read all your recommendations.

So, you’re thinking, what does published? Their books are sci-fi / fantasy novellas that are among the most adventurous, diverse, and fun books I have read. These small books pack quite a punch, and have surely become my favorite go-to for a quick escape.

Pictured here: Jen shows off her collection. Book list below. Jen’s recommendation? Add one (or many!) to your to-be-read pile asap.

Flyaway, by Kathleen Jennings (pub date 7/28/2020): Liking reading a book of fairy tales! Set in Australia, an enchanted novella about family lore in a small town.

Binti, books 1 - 3, by Nnedi Okorafor: An amazing sci-fi story filled with beings from the far reaches of the universe and the one Earthling with the power and compassion to save humanity.

Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh: A book that should be enjoyed outside! Filled with the magic of  Green Man.

Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi: Tells the ferocious story of two siblings with remarkable powers. It’s an explosive, intimate story of love, grief, and family.

Empress of Salt and Fortune, by Nghi Vi: I’m very excited to read this local author. Described as a feminist fantasy set in a land inspired by Imperial China.

Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey: Heroic queer librarian spies saving the day in an alternative American Southwest.

Stormsong, by CL Polk: A much-anticipated sequel to Witchmark. The first ‘Gaslamp’ fantasy I’ve ever read. Not to mention, Witchmark was well liked by the Books & Beer Book Club!