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 app├ętit!

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!

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