Sunday, November 29, 2020

2020 Top 5 Picks - Part 6, the Last

Today's the day - our final Boswellians roundup of top 5 picks of the year. Hope you've enjoyed this series of posts, and perhaps if you haven't yet found a new favorite book to check out, today is your day. With picks from Kay, Margaret, and Chris (me!), we've got a wide variety of books for you to explore. So then, away we go:

Kay stays on top of her staff recommendations, both her ever-rotating shelf of favorites here at the store and her virtual shelf on the Boswell website (check that out here) - she's one of our most voracious readers and her taste brings us some of the most wide-ranging recommendations. As she says on that staff rec page: Kay’s go-to is science fiction, but she often dips into off-beat (i.e. dark) fiction, and both fiction and non-fiction about nature, the environment, art, gardening, adventure, and unusual minds. I can vouch for all of this! So let's get to her picks.

#1 Florida Man by Tom Cooper. I'm not sure it's possible to overstate how much Kay loved this book - I've heard her telling person after person about it - and I also don't think I've ever heard her talk about it without laughing out loud at it again. It's that good. Here's what her rec says about it: "An amazing stroke of good luck followed by years of miscues - often attributable to procrastination - mess with Reed's life on the west coast of Florida, where he runs a barely surviving jungle tour and a small hotel. Add odd locals, a few rescued migrants, and an over-the-top crazed assassin, and you get a story filled with adventure, a touch of madness, and some very endearing moments. Take an unforgettable, vicarious vacation in Florida with Reed, aka Florida Man. Lifetime memories pretty much guaranteed."

#2 Highfire by Eoin Colfer. Here's another one I've overheard Kay recommending a lot to folks while laughing. Indeed, she's making more guarantees in this staff rec: "Colfer mixes poverty, mystery, crime, hilarity, and heart in this one-of-a-kind book set in the Louisiana bayou. Don’t let Vern, the Netflix addicted, vodka drinking, dragon keep you from reading this gem that’s mostly a tale about good versus evil. I promise you’ll close this book with a smile."

#3 Kay is the second bookseller, along with Jenny, to put Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore on her list. That's right, we've got a double rec here, folks. Kay says, "Imagine living your adult life never knowing how old you’ll be when you wake up on your next birthday. This is Oona’s life, starting with what should be her 19th birthday, when she 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, such as attempts to adjust her fate and to right past wrongs, feel surprisingly believable. This is a unique, fun, and thought-provoking book."

#4 Leave the World Behind, the National Book Award Finalist by Rumaan Alam. We had a few good reads on this one at the store, including myself and (I believe, she'll tell me if I'm misremembering) Jen. But Kay was the one who elevated it to Top 5 status. From her staff rec: "Two very different families reluctantly agree to temporarily share a remote Long Island house owned by one of the families. Over the course of three days, all six individuals encounter odd phenomena, usually while alone. Eventually, they all are well-aware that something strange is happening, but no one can articulate what it is. Rumaan's portrayal of a world suddenly turned upside down, and his characters' unfolding reactions to it, are unsettlingly credible."

#5 Kay leaves the fiction world behind for her final pick: The Reign of Wolf 21: The Saga of Yellowstone's Legendary Druid Pack by Rick McIntyre. I know Kay loved McIntyre's precursor to this book (it may have been in her Top 5 pick in a year past, though again, that's based upon a vague recollection, so Kay, correct me if I'm wrong) and says of this follow-up: "I was skeptical that McIntyre could write a second book as beguiling and insightful as his first about the wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone. Wow, was I wrong. This book is equally captivating as The Rise of Wolf 8 (which you must read before 21). "

Onto Margaret, who once said to me, "oh I just don't read that many books." And then turned in a list full of surprises, including things I didn't realize she'd read. Not that I keep a running tally of every book that every Boswellian ever picks up (that would fully tap out whatever is left of my memory, anyway), but it's always cool to see surprises on these lists, especially surprises like "whoa you read way more stuff than you made us all think you did."

#1 on the Margaret list is We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry. This book got a lot of love when it came out early in the year, and for good reason. Margaret calls it "an empowering tribute to the decade of the ‘80s, girlhood, and women of all sorts. The story follows the 1989 varsity girls field hockey team of Danvers High, ready to start another season after an impressively long losing streak. This time, however, they are going to do whatever it takes to get to States - even if it means following in the footsteps of those teen girls that lived in their town three centuries ago by dabbling in a bit of witchcraft. Told from the point of view of all the girls at once with the collective ‘We,’ Barry introduces us to each of these teen girls that signed their name in the devil’s book (which is actually just a spiral notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover), giving us their hopes, struggles, and reasons for turning to darkness. Except, are dark forces really at work here? Or is it just the ever-constant, ever-changing ordeal of being a woman? Barry expertly weaves a tale with big hair, outrageous fashion, and rocking music without being over-the-top cheesy, giving us a story that every girl and woman has lived through while at the same time being entirely unique."

#2 Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. This one was an instant NYTimes bestseller and, along with We Ride Upon Sticks, also made our Gift Guide this year (check it out right here online, if you haven't yet during these posts, what are you waiting for, last chance, better click here now!) and has more than one fan at the store. In fact, most of Margaret's top 5 picks have more than one fan at the store, which must mean that if Margaret likes it, you know lots of people are going to. Which brings me to  -

 #3 The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata, a book that I absolutely loved and (not to pat myself of the back or anything, but) encouraged Margaret to read because I thought it was just the kind of story-about-stories that she might like. And so I was thrilled to see it on her list this year. She says, "A little bit of sci-fi, a little bit of history, and a lot of love for stories is what makes The Lost Book of Adana Moreau a truly amazing novel. Zapata weaves a tale of intertwining lives, from New Orleans to Argentina to Israel to Russia and back, all centered around the people that brought Adana Moreau’s words to life. Zapata skillfully bounces back and forth between the stories of two men and everyone they come in contact with, showcasing a wide variety of refugees and people, without making the narrative overwhelming and confusing. He pays tribute to science fiction and quantum physics by touching on the vast amounts of universes found right in front of us; everyone has a story to tell, everyone is a parallel universe unto themselves, and history is only relative to those that still remember." And guess what - Jen is a fan, too!

#4 Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots. The trend continues - indeed, if you've been following these blog posts faithfully, then first of all, thank you, and second of all, you know that Hench also made Jen's top 5 this year. Indeed, Jen and Margaret, two literary peas in a pod. It's something like The Boys meets My Year of Rest and Relaxation - a smart, imaginative, and evocative novel of love, betrayal, revenge, and redemption, told with razor-sharp wit and affection, in which a young woman discovers the greatest superpower, for good or ill, is a properly executed spreadsheet.

Margaret goes her own way with her #5 choice: He Must Like You by Danielle Younge-Ullman. Margaret says it's "a stunning YA novel about sex, sexual harassment, power, and realizing when enough is enough. Libby is our high school senior heroine, dealing with harassment in more points of her life than she thinks. Her father, an astoundingly aggressive and selfish man bulldozing over the family, drops the double bomb on Libby that a) he spent all her college money, and b) he is going to turn their house into a B&B, making Libby homeless in six months. Suddenly, Libby is trading dreams of college for a waitress job. She's also crushing hard on her best friend Noah, but her past hookups keeping interrupting their possible romance in her memories and flashbacks. And were those past hookups even consensual? It's no wonder that, when one of the gross customers gets a little too handsy, Libby snaps. Too bad that man she just dumped a pitcher of sangria on has half the town in his pocket, and someone was filming. Will Libby crumble under the pressure coming from all sides of her life, or will she rise to the occasion and finally stand up for herself to her friends, family, and the whole community? Taking place over the course of a week, He Must Like You shows a wonderfully real take on passive harassment, dubious consent, and straight-up jerks that women and teenage girls deal with all the time, without being too dark. A must-read for everyone!"

And finally, the last Boswellian of all the top 5 posts - ME! As you know now, this is Chris, compiling and offering what I hope are are some helpful notes for all my fellow Boswellians' choices. And I've saved what (I think are) the best books of the year for last. Let's be honest - my taste hovers pretty much smack in the middle of the world of literary fiction. Not that I'm a total snob about it or anything, though you will note I'm the only person with a (gasp!) short story collection on my list. I kid, and I'll also be the first to tell you that 'literary' really is just another genre on the shelves. When it comes down to it, what I'm always looking for are books that make me feel a bunch of feelings and think a bunch of thoughts. Perhaps you, too, will find one of these books does that for you.

If you read our newsletter or any other of the Boswell communications, you might know that #1 on my list is The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe. We're doing a virtual event in which I'll chat with her this coming Wed, 12/2 (click here to register) that you might know about, too. This is one of the books on my list that is so jaw-droppingly good I had to go back and read all of her other books. It's is an intimate, articulate, violent book about good and bad people and good and bad things and all of them just happening to each other all the time for no reason except that they can. So much of the novel is about examining morality – how do you judge a person’s moment at the edge, how do you put it into context? – but those questions are put into sharp relief when juxtaposed against the book’s numbing understanding (is this the new nihilism?) that no matter what they do, this generation is going to end up worse off than the one before them. Does it even matter if their futures are dashed? What’s left are a couple of kids clinging to each other to whom Thorpe gives the enviable, pitiable, beautiful, and ugly depth of real, living, breathing human beings. Are they moral? Who cares - they are ALIVE.

#2 Broken People by Sam Lansky. This is the other book that so knocked me out that I had to read everything else the author had written (easier in this case, as Lanksy's only published one other book, the memoir The Gilded Razor, though I'm definitely looking forward to whatever comes next from him). Lansky’s novel is rangy, searching, and razor-sharply self-critical autofiction about Sam, a (self-described) broken young writer desperate to be healed via a weekend ayahuasca trip led by a bougie middle-aged white guy shaman who promises (then spends the whole book infuriatingly, hilariously hedging) to fix everything that’s wrong in three days or less. Lansky’s sickness is a symptom and a symbol; a cultural signifier, a self-manifested punishment, and simple bad luck. Sam relives layers of memory (particularly his relationships and sexual history, his sobriety and identify as an addict) rediscovering and recontextualizing the stories he tells as an act of self-definition. And so what if, at the end of three days, Sam isn’t fixed? Lansky makes this question feel breathtakingly, viscerally life-or-death until, beautifully, it isn’t, and the real question emerges: can a broken person accept that he doesn’t need to be fixed?

#3 is that story collection I warned you of: Cool for America by Andrew Martin. Once again, I read this and immediately snagged a copy of Martin's novel, Early Work, which is at the top of my to-be-read pile. And look, absolutely nothing about this book should work or appeal to anyone. It's a book of stories about a bunch of lost millennials, for god's sake, who move back and forth between Missoula, MT and the cities and their exurban territories of the East Coast. These are people beginning to understand that their lives of diminishing expectations and returns are just going to keep happening to them, and maybe they can do something about it, but even their best intentions may not improve matters. It’s also streaked through with people feeling just plain old alone. But don’t worry, because it’s also pretty funny, and not in the dumb, goofy “check out this zany idea” way so many contemporary short stories rely on for funny. There are moments of real compassion, connection, and tenderness, made all the more precious by how impossible those things can seem in the so-real world that Martin writes. Most of all, these stories have something I’ve been wishing for in book after book of recent short stories: real, honest-to-god, emotionally resonant, capital-E endings, something that so many lesser writers, especially with material like this, will just gesture toward at best. But not Martin – he sticks landing after landing. There’s just nothing else to say except: these are really great stories.

#4 leaves fiction land for a walk through the land of satirical essays that take oh so necessary pot shots at the monsters and rubes currently in charge of the country: Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why by Alexandra Petri. Petri glares into maw of the American abyss, and the abyss stares back, but then Petri smirks, and the abyss kinda chuckles, and everybody says, aw, jeez, and gets to have a laugh at our horrible, horrible mess. If good comics punch up, then Petri is firing a bazooka at the sky, blowing up the bad faith charlatans in charge with a direct and deviously brilliant trick: asking you realize just how baldly, absurdly evil the president and his sycophants are if you take them and their lies at face value. Petri doesn’t flinch in the only book about politics this year worth the time it takes to read. Standing ovation.

#5 returns us to fiction land - specifically, an entry into my favorite genre: The Great American Novel. Yes, really. Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. Ron Charles, my favorite book critic, already called the Pulitzer shot for Akhtar in his review. I'll add on: Certainly it’s one of the boldest books on existing in this country post-9/11. Not since Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (and those in the know will know what I mean) can I recall a novel in which a writer was so unashamed to expose the ugliest parts of his country and of himself to create a portrait of an American living in, with, and against America. It’s about how history, geography, education, economics, medicine, and yes, Donald Trump, put a father and son at odds with each other, with themselves, and with their country. Most of all, it is an exhaustive examination of that most base, central question in a time when it’s most needed - what is to be an American? This novel is astounding.

And that's all she wrote. Thanks for following along this year with our favorites. I hope you found a new book or two to try along the way, and maybe had some of your own biases confirmed about the greatness of a book or two you read this year. And here's to a holiday season of book sharing and a coming new year of reading, too.

Friday, November 27, 2020

2020 Top 5 Picks - Part 5

Guess what? Okay, you guessed it. I've got more top 5 picks from Boswellians for you today. I suppose the image to the right of this sentence and the post title above this paragraph don't exactly make for a suspenseful introduction. Oh well. Hopefully, you've spent the last few days without a Top 5 Picks Post in enough suspense that you'll be excited - relieved even - that without further ado I introduce you two three more booksellers and their favorites of 2020! Say hello to Madi, Jen, and Parker!

Madi loves true crime, campy horror, fiction you might call fierce, memoirs by comedians, and lots of books you might find in between those categories. First on her list is Luster - in fact, this is a double first, because it's on Parker's top 5 list, as well! We'll get to Parker soon, promise.

#1 Luster by Raven Leilani was a super buzzy novel this year, and according to both of these booksellers, for good, good reason. The novel centers on Edie, a young black woman working in New York publishing and barely making rent each month, who finds herself navigating a suburban white couple’s open marriage. Madi says, "I was hesitant to read this at first - an open marriage? I don't do romance - Nope! This book is So. Much. More. The sheer amount of women supporting women is reason alone to read it - Highly Recommend!. Parker also loves Edie's voice - it's a powerful one that grabs hold of you and won't let go until her story is told.

#2 on Madi's list is a bit more traditionally what I think of as a "Madi book" - The Last Book on the Left: Stories of Murder and Mayhem from History’s Most Notorious Serial Killers by Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, Henry Zebrowski, and illustrator Tom Neely. Madi says, "To no fan's surprise, the boys of Last Podcast on the Left have created something awesome. With nine chapters on the most notorious serial killers in true crime history, this book is not for the faint of heart, but then again, neither is the podcast. For fans of the show, like myself, this book is a wonderful reevaluation of the killers, but told completely fresh - all the content was written originally for this book, both the facts and the jokes. While it is a gruesome topic, the humor and commentary intercut in the narrative (thankfully) provide some comic relief. It's a truly unique true crime book, including the cartoon illustrations throughout. Whether you are just getting into true crime, want to read a fresh take on these killers, or are just a fan of Last Podcast, this book is a must-have."

Madi's #3 is Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America's Most Dangerous Amusement Park by Andy Mulvihill and Jake Rossen. Another notable feature of "Madi books" are their long subtitles. Her recommendation: "There never has and never will be another place like Action Park. In his memoir, Andy Mulvihill, son of founder and operator of Action Park, recounts the inception, operation, and eventual closure of the park that shaped not only his adolescence but his adulthood as well. This book hilariously details how the infamous New Jersey park was his father's way of allowing people to be as dangerous as they might want, which, apparently, was extremely. The first-hand account of the home-grown, family run park brought some humanism to a place frequently labeled as a ticketed death trap, though the risk for injury and even death was very real. As a person mildly obsessed with amusement parks, I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone who loves non-commercial parks; my hometown park even got a shout out (hey, Kennywood!). While it's a family narrative at its core, the stories in this book are sometimes terrifying but usually hilarious. There really is nothing in the world like Action Park."

#4 is Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine. With her award-winning poetry book Citizen, Rankine started a new conversation about existing in America, and now, with Just Us, she invites us all to join that conversation. As everyday white supremacy becomes increasingly vocalized with no clear answers at hand, how best might we approach one another? Rankine, without telling us what to do, urges us to begin the discussions that might open pathways through this divisive and stuck moment in American history. "This consciousness-raising, bravura combination of personal essays, poems, photographs, and cultural commentary works on so many levels and is a skyscraper in the literature on racism." - Christian Science Monitor

#5 Save Yourself by comedian Camoren Esposito. Madi says, "This is the perfect bundle of female empowerment, gay pride, and comedy wrapped in one. Though she has spoken of her childhood in her stand up, I was not prepared for the depth of this memoir or the complicated issues addressed, from struggles within Catholicism to eating disorders to coming to terms as well as coming out with her own sexuality. This memoir is wonderfully written, emotional, and hilarious. It is an essential reminder that women and LGBTQ+ people can and will carve out their own space to thrive among a society that too often tries to ignore, or worse, silence them."

Next on our list of Boswellians for today's post is, as mentioned before, Parker! And as also mentioned before, on their list is Luster - I won't re-link it here, but if you got to this part of the post and are thinking to yourself, "I really do think Luster sounds great" - why not scroll back up to the top of the page and give that book link a click? So then, moving onto Parker's recommendations:

#1 Bonds of Brass: Book One of The Bloodright Trilogy by Emily Skrutskie. The opening volume of this space opera fantasy has earned lots and lots of praise from authors and critics alike. A young pilot risks everything to save his best friend - the man he trusts most and might even love - only to learn that his friend is secretly the heir to a brutal galactic empire.  Does he save the man who’s won his heart and trust that his goodness could transform the empire? Or does he throw his lot in with the brewing rebellion and fight to take back what’s rightfully theirs? Caitlin Starling, author of The Luminous Dead, calls this "a high-octane galactic adventure replete with heart, drama, and a keen edge of pain."

#2 The Montague Twins: The Witch's Hand by By Nathan Page, illustrated by Drew Shannon. This one had a few staff recommendations - from Chris and Jen, too - and the best summary is this: think The Hardy Boys meets the comic Paper Girls, with just a little bit of Scooby Doo tossed in for good measure. It's a graphic novel adventure about two brothers who are teenage detectives and maybe, just maybe, are dabbling in a bit of magic, too. After a strange storm erupts on the beach, they discover there is more to their detective skills than they had thought. Their guardian, has been keeping secrets about their parents and what the boys are truly capable of. At the same time, three girls go missing after casting a mysterious spell, which sets in motion a chain of events that takes their small town down an unexpected path. They discover there are forces at work that they never could have imagined, which will impact their lives forever.

#3 Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth, illustrated by Sara Lautman. This New York Times bestseller is, as Ron Charles says in The Washington Post, "A delectable brew of gothic horror and Hollywood satire." Which sounds just about perfect for Parker's reading list, so I can see why they chose it. The award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes her adult debut with this highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls - a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit.

#4 the last on Parker's list is Tweet Cute by Emma Lord. Parker says, "Pepper's family started Big League Burger as a mom-and-pop shop when she was a little girl. Now they have gone corporate and, possibly soon, international. Now Pepper is in at an elite private school for the children of business moguls, where she is expected to make high grades, all while her mother asks her to write snarky tweets for the company. Enter Jack, a classmate of Pepper's whose family has owned the local deli, Girl Cheesing, since his Grandma started it. Soon Big League Burger announces a new line of grilled cheeses, one of them using the exact same (secret) recipe as Girl Cheesing's most popular sandwich. Jack takes this attack against his beloved Grandma to Twitter, sending a tweet at Big League Burger’s account. Twitter war commence! Pepper and Jack find themselves going head-to-head and tweet-to-tweet to defend their families’ businesses. Little do they know that they have also been talking to each other anonymously via Weazel, a messaging app Jack developed for the students at their school. I knew I was going to love Tweet Cute as soon as I hit page two. Emma Lord's debut is fantastic! I was incredibly invested in Pepper and Jack's stories, from their family and school dramas to their romance, I haven't wanted two characters to get together as badly as I did with them. Emma Lord's writing is extremely witty, which led to perfect banter and hijinks between the characters. I loved this book with every fiber of my being, I can't recommend this one enough!"

Okay, how about one more Boswellian's worth of top 5 recommendations? I bring you Jen, our gift buyer and runner of the in-store (well, in-Zoom these days) Books & Beer book club, which has been a great showcase for her eclectic taste in books. 

#1 on Jen's list is Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a book that made the 2020 Boswell Gift Guide - link right here, because you knew you wouldn't escape it! - Jen says, "When Noemí Taboada’s father receives a most troubling letter from his niece, he sends Noemí as the family’s ambassador to determine if Catalina is in any danger. Immediately upon arrival it is clear to Noemí that she is an unwelcome visitor. Her cousin’s new family are the Doyles; an English family that lives in High Place, a crumbling mountaintop estate where nothing is what is seems and something sinister lurks. Mexican Gothic has everything you want in a gothic novel - gloom and doom, mystery and romance, monsters and nightmares. Silvia Moreno-Garcia cranks up the melodrama to thrill and delight readers. Unputdownable!"

#2 Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots. We had a great virtual event with Walschots (check out the video here) in October, where she chatted with Jason. Margaret, whose picks we'll see in our next post, loved this one, too! So what does Jen have to say? This: "This was so fun to read! Becoming another causality of a "superhero" rescue, Anna loses her job and is laid up on her friend's couch for weeks. Healing from her encounter with the world's most indestructible hero, Anna starts thinking of all the money she's lost by being out of a job, not to mention the dead coworkers left behind; she's inspired to create a formula to determine the cost of years lost not just for herself but for the world. What does it cost when the most powerful superhero flies in to save the day? Armed with her data, Anna starts to gain a following online and finds herself recruited by one of the most elusive villains there is. Hench delightfully twists the perspective on superheroes. You will think twice next time you root for those caped heroes!"

#3 is Afterlife by Julia Alvarez. This one made a few lists this year - several must read / most anticipated lists during its pre-pub-push, as well as being named a Time magazine Must Read of 2020. It's the first adult novel in almost fifteen years by the internationally bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.  Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including - maybe especially -members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost?

#4 is The Eight Detective by Alex Pavesi. It's a novel about books and murders and maybe a little bit of fiction and the real world blending - all ingredients that make something a solid Jen pick. Jen says, "Thirty years prior to living in self- imposed exile, Grant McAllister wrote The White Murders, seven murder mysteries that cover his seven mathematical rules to detective fiction. Now, Julia Hart, editor of Blood Type Books, has come knocking on his door. After discovering Grant's book in a box of secondhand books, Julia's publisher would like to reprint The White Murders for a new audience. As she reads Grant's stories and the more time she spends with him, Julia begins to suspect that there is an all too real mystery to unravel. With alternating chapters between editor and author and the seven whodunits from The White Murders, The Eighth Detective is a one-of-a-kind mystery!"

#5 The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune is Jen's final pick. Jen says this one "charmed me from the very beginning. Linus Baker is your typical by-the-book company man, so when he is given a classified assignment - go to a secret location for a month and observe the six children of the orphanage and its head master - you could say the unflappable Mr. Baker may be in over his head. Especially when one of those children is the antichrist. After a shaky first meeting with the children, Linus meets the children's caretaker, Arthur Parnassus, an enigmatic man who will challenge Linus's way of thinking. TJ Klune delivers a heartfelt, down-right delightful, and engaging novel. It will have you laughing out loud too!" Shoutout to Kelli O'Malley, another Boswell-associated fan of this one, too!

Well, that's one more installment of top 5 choices! Keep your eyes peeled, our sixth and final installment of the Boswellians top 5 picks is coming soon to this space. Thanks!

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

2020 Top 5 Picks - Part 4

The Top 5 choosing continues. Today we'll feature picks from Jane, Kira, and Ogi, which means a delightfully eclectic mix of books. A good, old fashioned 'there's something for everyone' kind of mix. And who doesn't love that? (You don't? Really? I don't believe you!)

Let's begin with Jane, whose lifelong passion for reading has bloomed into more than twenty years spent bookselling. One the many downsides of this year has been a lack of Jane's handselling skill in the shop. She's particularly adept at, and finds some of her best moments in, matching readers with just the right book. Here are her favorites of 2020, which will surely be a match for many readers.

#1The Color of Air by bestselling novelist Gail Tsukiyama, also the author of one of Jane's all time favorite books to recommend, The Samurai's Garden. Tsukiyama's latest is the story of a young doctor returning to his childhood home in Hawai'i, whose arrival coincides with the awakening of the Mauna Loa volcano. The volcano's dangerous path toward their village stirs both new and long ago passions in their community. Jane says, "With the pen of an extraordinary storyteller, Ms. Tsukiyama creates a remarkably soulful portrait of richly drawn characters who, in the face of uncertain times, shows the strength, wisdom, forgiveness, and enduring love that will embrace the heart of every reader."

#2 A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende - this was a particularly good year for novels coming out that were written by authors that Jane loves, and Allende's no exception to that rule. This novel tells the story of an unlikely couple, thrown together by fate into a marriage neither of them desires, who must embrace exile as the rest of Europe erupts in world war in the late 1930s, as Spain is gripped by civil war.

#3 The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs. If there's one kind of book that is, well, an easy sell on Jane, it's a story set in a bookshop with a whole lot of heart. Garth Stein, the New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, says, "A wonderful exploration of the past and the future and, most importantly, of what it means to be present in the here and now.  Full of the love of words, the love of family, and the love of falling in love, The Lost and Found Bookshop is a big-hearted gem of a novel that will satisfy and entertain readers from all walks of life.  Lovely!"

#4 The Second Home by Christina Clancy, Milwaukee's own debut author and Boswell bestseller. We had three great staff recommendations for Clancy's novel, which tells the story of three siblings and the push-pull over the fate of their family's Cape Cod home. But as much a beach book as this is, it's also a loving paean to growing up in Milwaukee and our city. Jane says, " Clancy's heartfelt new novel, raises so many ideas in a book that’s positioned for summer escapism, making it perhaps the perfect book for reading group discussions. I love house stories. I’m fascinated by how the family dynamics shift in connection to the house site: how a family can have different reactions to a primary and secondary residence, and how social class can impact that perception; how succeeding generations create, disrupt, and restore; how proximity can affect intimacy and vice versa; and how a planner and a non-planner can come to loggerheads over important family decisions."

#5 The Writer's Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives, edited by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager. This one made our 2020 gift guide (link to browse online RIGHT HERE!) and is an insightful collection of essays from authors like Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Donna Tart, and Louise Erdrich about the books that made them think, brought them joy, and changed their lives, which is just the sort of thing Jane loves. In fact, if there's one thing she might enjoy more than just reading, it could just be reading about reading, especially when its her favorite authors (hello there, Amor Towles) writing about it.

On to the next - and the next is bookseller Kira, who offers a list with variety and surprises. 

#1 on Kira's list is our second recommendation of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Kira agrees with Rachel on this one (Rachel's top 5 list appears in this post). In fact, Bennett's book made many, many best of lists this year, as well as being named a Notable Book by both The Washington Post and The New York Times. This is the story of twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds, one black and one white.

#2 is Anxious People by Fredrick Backman, a novel I admit I was little surprised to see on Kira's list. But just like judging books & covers, we shan't assume a top 5 pick because of a bookseller's other recommendations, I suppose. And the latest novel from the author of the beloved A Man Called Ove is one that Kira calls "an onion of a novel that's kind of about a bank robbery gone wrong, kind of about a father and son, and kind of about all sorts of anxious, endearing characters who are really just trying to find their footing in the world. A novel full of ridiculous, complex characters and that truly perfect blend of depth and levity that Backman has perfected in his novels. I can't think of a better book coming out in 2020, and I can't wait to make all of my friends read it too."
Addiction, and Love by Nina Renata Aron is a scorching memoir of a love affair with an addict, weaving personal reckoning with psychology and history to understand the nature of addiction, codependency, and our appetite for obsessive love. From David Canfield in Entertainment Weekly: "If ‘co-dependency is a girl’s song,’ as Nina Renata Aron writes, her scorching memoir proves it can be a beautiful one, too... Aron details the spiral, of screaming matches and vomit and things thrown across rooms.... A gritty tribute to the women who stick around too long."

#4 Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier. This one has a few fans in the shop - I read it and loved it, as did Jen - but Kira's the one who decided to make it official and put it in her top 5 this year. It's a fresh update on the classic slacker novel, a coming-of-age story about a pregnant pizza delivery girl who becomes obsessed with one of her customers. Just like the wide variety of readers this book found at Boswell, it also got blurbs from quite an array of authors, including Bryan Washington, Richard Ford, and Julia Phillips. And from PW's starred review: "This infectious evocation of a young woman’s slackerdom will appeal to fans of Halle Butler and Ottessa Moshfegh, and will make it difficult not to root for the troubled and spirited pizza girl."

#5 (sort of) - Kira was going to have a traditional top five this year until the fifth book on her list had its publication date pushed into next yeah. Oh well, at least that's something to look forward to, right? In place of that, I just asked Kira what else she might want to add to her list and she said, with no hesitation, that I should tack on Two Dollar Radio Guide to Vegan Cooking: Recipes, Stories Behind the Recipes, and Inspiration for Vegan Cheffing by Jean-Claude van Randy and Speed Dog (with Eric Obenauf). Bon appétit!

Finally, for this post, we wrap up with selections from Ogi. If we allowed booksellers to pick a top 5 each year that included backlist from years past and repetition, it's a safe bet that Ogi's top five would just be Brandon Sanderson's novel The Way of Kings five times in a row, every single year. Unfortunately for Sanderson, we don't allow that. Which was fortunate and fun for the rest of us, because when Ogi turned in his list for 2020, we were all surprised, as we didn't even know he'd read some of these books. So, here is the sneakiest list of the year!

#1 is Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks. Ogi's write up is fantastic, so I'm reprinting it here in full: "The two things you're going to learn from this review is that, one, I'm a judgmental idiot, and two, this is my book of the year. I wasn't familiar with the authors other works, I knew he had written World War Z and a Minecraft novel, so when I saw that this book was about Sasquatch, I picked it up on the off chance it would give me a good laugh and something to complain about. I was expecting it to be cringe, what I got was disillusionment with life in the urban sprawl, how shallow some people can be in contrast to how deep your humanity can go before it's skewed into something else, a critique on our "society of convenience," and how ignorant some people are to the dangers of nature. Oh, and constant allusions to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia (which hit a bit too close to home for me) and how to make a spear. This book taught me how to make a spear. I can now feasibly make a spear. With Halloween on the way, this book is an exceptional read for the season, and will have you wondering if we, the humans, are the real monsters. (And learning how to make spears!!!!)"

#2 The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe. I was both excited and surprised when Ogi put this novel on his list, as I had no idea he'd even read it. It's my favorite book of the year, too. In fact, Ogi reading it brought us to at least 4 in-store reads on this novel, which is a funny, moving, shocking story of friendship between two outsiders in the California suburbs. And something that all of us who've read it agree upon is that Thorpe's characters are deeply realized and brought to life in these pages. Ogi says - "I didn't realize characters could feel so real - genuinely, I felt like I've known them my whole life."

#3 Axiom's End by Lindsay Ellis was another chance for Ogi to stretch his reading a bit. He says, "I don't think I've ever given the science fiction genre its due. I've always leaned more towards fantasy. I guess it made more sense to me in a way, you know? Swords are swords, magic is magic; what the heck is an “Alderson disk” or “Clarke's Three Laws?” My point is, a lot of the science fiction I've tried reading is more “sci” than “fi,” too obsessed with its own mechanics to get me into the actual story. Axiom's End is an easy sci-fi read because it's approachable. It's a story that revolves around communication and miscommunication, all pushed forward by interesting and eccentric characters. If you're looking for an easy introduction into Sci-Fi, this book is a good place to start!"

#4 is A Burning by Megha Majumdar was another pick we didn't see coming from Ogi, but then again, who are we to judge readers and make book assumptions - the theme of this blog post, apparently! Majumdar's novel follows the lives of three very different people who find their lives entangled in the wake of a catastrophe in contemporary India. Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party. Lovely is an irresistible outcast with an exuberant voice and dreams of glory who has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear.

#5 The Shadows by Alex North. Of this supernatural thriller, Ogi says, "Keep the lights on for this one. The Shadows capitalizes off that feeling you get when you're home alone, it's eerily quiet, and you think there's something moving in the darkness from out the corner of your eye. It's not outright terrifying, it's tense and unsettling, which is arguably worse. North knows how to balance the natural and the supernatural with smooth, no nonsense prose. The ritualistic killing of a teenager 25 years ago spawns multiple copycat killings. Characters find themselves circling the darkness, getting closer to the unsettling truth, and daring to confront what's patiently waiting for them deep within The Shadows."

And that's it for this post! Keep an eye on the blog for at least two more top 5 pick posts in the coming days, and until then, keep reading books!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

2020 Top 5 Picks - Part Three

More top five picks you say? More top five picks you get! Today, we see the selections of Rachel, Jenny, and Tim!

Starting with Rachel, who brings us an eclectic mix of books with her top 5. Let's dive right in:

#1 on Rachel's list is the #1 New York Times bestselling novel The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Rachel isn't the only one who loves this novel - it's been named a best of the year by many a magazine, like EW, GQ, Vanity Faire, and the list goes on. By why take their word for it, when Rachel says, "We split in two sometimes: move to a new city, change a hairstyle, gain a new nickname. The other half vanishes, unused, like a dream, or perhaps a box of pictures in the attic. Desiree Vignes lost her other half years ago, when her twin sister Stella decided to pass as white, leave her family behind, never return. From start to finish, Brit Bennett's follow-up to The Mothers is a revelation. This is a novel you want to savor, even as it unfolds so naturally and beautifully that you can't help but devour it."

#2 Omni Vol. 1: The Doctor Is In, from writer Devin Grayson and illustrator Alitha E. Martinez. This is the first trade collection (generally five monthlies gathered together into one paperback volume) of the comic book that asks that age-old question, what would you do if you could think faster than the speed of light? Rachel says, "It's crazy how much Grayson and Martinez pack into these first four volumes of this new series, incorporating weighty subjects like climate change, microaggressions, detention centers, and disenfranchisement of veterans into a superhero narrative in a way that feels timely and oh-so-relevant."

#3 takes us in a completely different direction (told you these were eclectic picks!) with Dress Coded, a powerful middle-grade debut novel by Carrie Firestone. Rachel says, "In her crusade to eliminate the school dress code, Molly and her friends discover what true friendship is all about. What an incredibly timely and important book! Despite the fact that the book has a clear rhetorical purpose, the characters and the situation feel all too real. Firestone perfectly captures the problems of enforcing a strict dress code on young people, from stressing over the expense of school-appropriate clothing to being targeted for wearing normal clothes while having a developed body. This should be required reading in schools."

#4 is Providence by Max Barry. Rachel takes a turn to sci-fi horror crossover town with this one - a favorite of Boswellian Jason Kennedy, too - from the author of Jennifer Government and Lexicon. Of Barry's latest, Rachel says, "Having been a Max Barry fan for a while now, I have to say - I love this book even more than I hoped I would. It's way more science fiction than his previous novels. Four people on a battle-ready spaceship run by AI, hunting down murderous alien lifeforms - what could go wrong? Besides being a space adventure, the book also highlights relevant topics, such as replacing human intelligence with AI, developing military at the expense of civilian life, and using media to create a narrative. You won't be able to put this book down!"

#5 Shorefall, book number 2 in the The Founders Trilogy, by Robert Jackson Bennett. Rachel sums up the immense questions asked in this epic fantasy installment: "What is reality, when symbols can divorce body and mind, when the death of thousands can make endless midnight, when love can rip whole civilizations apart? This book broke my heart in the best way possible; this series is a must-read!"

Our next Boswellian on the list is Jenny! Jenny is one of our YA heros - in fact, she's not just reader, she's a YA writer herself. That doesn't keep her from reading widely, though, so check out her top 5 selections for a bit of YA, a bit of magic school for grown ups, and even a bit of accidental time travel.

#1 on Jenny's list is The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by VE Scwhab, an instant bestseller on just about every list that declares books to be so, along with being named a best book of the year by oh so many publications. Scwhab's genre-bending novel begins in France, 1714, when in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.

#2 Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon is something like The Hating Game meets Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Jenny says, "High school rivals Neil (valedictorian) and Rowan (salutatorian) have no idea how adorable they are together (or that everyone assumes they’re hooking up). The two go all out to best each other one last time before college in an all-night journey of self-discovery, non-stop bickering, and something that might be simmering passion (or just close proximity in too many dark places) as they race through the streets of Seattle to win a senior class scavenger-hunt known as Howl. Rich with a complexity of emotions and cleverly written, laugh-out-loud banter, Solomon’s new book is a gem." Speaking of people named Rachel, Boswellian Rachel is a fan of this one, too.

#3 Legendborn by Tracy Deonn is a contemporary YA fantasy that offers up a modern-day twist on a classic legend with a lot of Southern Black Girl Magic. Jenny says, "Legendborn twists and turns at a non-stop pace from page one! Not only are the magic system and the world building beautifully detailed, but Bree herself is insightful and smart, and the chemistry between her and Nick makes for lots (but never enough) swoony kissing. Are you ready for your next obsession? Because this is it!"

#4 Continuing with school is Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education, the first installment in her new Scholomance series. Jenny says, "If you like your magical boarding school fiction delightfully dark and scary (and who doesn’t?), then I have a book for you. El Higgins has survived the killer (literally) breakfasts and ominous monsters who feed on students to begin her second-to-last year at the Scholomance, a school that instructs students in the art of magic. Always wrecking her plans is the infuriatingly nice Orion Lake, who quest to save as many students as possible is stupid and hopeless, but maybe a little endearing too. The constant bickering between El and Orion create lots of laugh-out-loud moments in this creative mix of scorching humor and horror. Naomi Novik has a talent for creating fantastical settings, but the heartfelt way she develops prickly El into a character to root for proves her genius as a writer."

#5 Oona Out of Order is a top 5 pick for two of our booksellers (Kay loves it, too!), so you'll see more on it in a later post, but right now, Jenny gets the first word on Margarita Montimore's novel. Jenny says, "I enjoyed thinking about, as Oona learns to, what it really means to live in the moment, with consequences delayed for future Oona, who might be much more adept at solving her problems - certainly much better than past Oona! For anyone who’s been waiting seventeen years for a novel as engrossing as The Time Traveler’s Wife, this is the book for you!"

Finally, we'll end today's Top 5-ing with Boswellian Tim. A former fifth-grade teacher, a current history book buff, and a lifetime collector of autographed books and author event obsessive, Tim suggests five books that bring the history and others' experiences to life for readers young and old.

#1 Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford made the front page of our gift guide this year (browse the whole thing online right here - you didn't think you'd make it through a whole post without a gift guide link, did you?!) thanks to it being a Daniel Goldin pick - but Tim love, love, loves this beautifully written novel-in-stories, too! Tim says, "This is the story of four generations of Cherokee women and their men in Oklahoma and Texas. The words are uncomplicated, all the more beautiful for their graceful, plain-spoken style. The writing is easy to love, and so are the people. We feel their strength and sorrow, the excited warmth of new romance and the hot anger of losing it. Everyone is confused about the reasons everyone else does things. Welcome to humanity, but the simplest human joys are right there for you, for anyone who can see them and try to hold on. The book is just as gorgeous as the awe-inspiring mess of being alive."

#2 Prairie Lotus, the middle-grade novel by Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park. Tim calls her latest "a gem of American historical fiction for middle grade readers. 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. 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!"

#3 is Dear Justyce, Nic Stone's sequel to her smash success Dear Martin. Tim calls this one "flat out the best and most important teen novel I've ever read.  Vernell LaQuan Banks Jr. is just trying to survive juvenile detention after working so hard to be a good kid, while everyone around him seemed to want him to fail.  I think Stone wrote their story like nobody else could. The voices are urgent and real. Masterful writing, compelling, suspenseful, and vital reading for the urgency of now!"
#4 Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy Taylor. Tim says, "Taylor has done America a great service by documenting the history of The Green Book and what remains today of the locations it listed. Taylor’s details about the development and use of the book are fascinating, but her work entails so much more. She's created an impressive history of the African American economic progress which grew from having and working with automobiles, and from the increasing mobility and business opportunities they afforded. This book is a smart and deeply affecting look at black people's long and agonizing struggle to get basic respect and justice. It's a powerful book. I'm already eager to read it again."

#5 is the graphic novel adaptation of EO Wilson's Naturalist by Jim Ottaviani and illustrator CM Butzer. Tim says, "Wilson is highly intellectual and wise, one of the world’s premier scientists and writers. His lifetime body of Harvard research on ants and the evolution of species as they spread across continents is as revered as the body of books he's written about life on Earth. The graphic format is perfect for that man, who never grew out of his childhood 'bug period.' It's a beautiful book about a literally wonderful man!"

This is the third installment of our Top 5 picks blog posts - check out post #1 here, and post #2 right here. And you can browse all of the Boswellian's top 5 picks right here on our website.