Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Staff Recommendations, Week of September 14, 2021

The staff reading and recommending doesn't slow down this week, as we've hit the fall's favorite book release month. Let's begin:

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

Mary Roach's newest sciencey extravaganza gets two recommendations this week. Of Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, Daniel Goldin says: "Can a cougar go to jail? They can in India, where there is a three-strikes rule for putting down an attacking animal. Prior to that, they’ll be put in cages with limited free time in a facility that is not open to a public. What does that sound like to you? Intrepid (and often amusing) science journalist Mary Roach travels the world looking at how we handle conflicts between humans in nature, from bear attacks to falling trees. Elephants, stoats, monkeys, bears, gulls, and more fight with humans for habitats, invasive species (also generally thanks to humans) compete with indigenous ones, and NIMBY-ism runs rampant – we want to protect animals, except when they are bothering us. A fascinating read! And don’t skip the footnotes, or you’ll miss some of the funniest lines and asides."

And Kay Wosewick adds: "Human encounters with wildlife - bears, blackbirds, backyard poisonous plants, and so much more - are increasing as land development shrinks wildlife habitat. Roach recounts dangerous engagements, some head-shaking practices, and plenty of laugh-out-loud turf wars."

Roach joins us for a virtual event in conversation with Roman Mars on Monday, 9/27 - click here for more info about that.

One of Conrad Silverberg's favorite writers returns with a new novel - it's TC Boyle with Talk to Me. Conrad says: "Unknotting topical issues that raise complex ethical questions is Boyle's specialty. So are crafting hysterically flawed and self-deluded characters who think that they rise above and are the best ones to take on such dilemmas. Here Boyle confronts the unethical treatment of animals with the plight of a chimpanzee being taught sign-language. Everything is fine as long as the chimp remains young and cute, but once adolescence hits, his future becomes increasingly bleak as he grows larger and stronger and wilder. His handlers want to save him, but their motivations are selfish and self-serving, especially when they think they are most altruistic. Can he be saved?"

James Kennedy gets three recommendations for his new book, Dare to Know. Jason Kennedy (no relation) says: "James Kennedy bent my brain into odd shapes with his stellar novel, Dare to Know. The protagonist works for a company that can tell you when you are going to die. Down to the minute. It takes a lot of math and an understanding of physics, particularly of thanatons, a particle that is present when each person dies. The big no-no in the company is looking up your own time of death – but when the protagonist is stuck in a situation where he thinks he has the potential to die, he runs the assessment to find his death date, only to find out that he already passed it and died minutes ago. Which can’t happen; the math is never wrong. Except that it is. This knowledge leads the reader down the rabbit hole of how this death-telling business came to be. We follow the protagonist through his life in flashbacks, from his summer with Renard in science camp to his girlfriend, Julia, in college, and on to his early days at the company. They have puzzling, bizarre effects on him as he makes his way through a new non-death world. I couldn’t put this book down, and I had to reread the end twice to figure out the mind melting conclusion that the author spun."

Jenny Chou adds: "Once the top salesperson for a phenomenally successful tech company called Dare to Know, the unnamed narrator’s career has crashed and burned, leaving him short on funds and desperate to close a deal. Dare to Know sells death dates. That’s right, their formula will predict with 100% accuracy exactly when their client’s time is up. Stealing their potential clients is a company that will predict not only when, but also how. Yikes! Are people really interested? You bet they are! After a nightmare sales call and a spinout into a snowbank during a blizzard, our embittered narrator violates the very first rule of Dare to Know: he calculates his own time of death. What follows becomes an unnerving slide into chaos, because the formula is never wrong, and it predicts that he died twenty-three minutes ago. And while there is someone from his past smart enough that she might be able to make sense of all this, well, unfortunately, he broke her heart decades earlier, lending a whole lot of self-realization and regret to our narrator’s current mess. Twisty, thought provoking, and delightfully quirky doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of this wild thrill ride of a novel. Set aside a day and the better part of a night, because putting your copy of Dare to Know aside won’t be an option."

And Kay Wosewick rounds it out with: "Once flying high at Dare to Know, a company that calculates a person’s precise time of death, the narrator is still pedaling the product after an upstart started selling a person's time AND method of death. Depressed after he botches a sale he badly needs, the narrator calculates his own death, an act strictly forbidden by company policy. He learns he’s been dead for almost half an hour. In a panic, he flies to San Francisco, home of corporate headquarters and the woman he once loved and stupidly lost. The story becomes mind bending, mythic, and full of rabbit holes. After about 30 minutes of rereading, I think I get it! Kennedy pulls off a wonderful trick. Then again, I could be totally wrong..."

Onto our recommendations for YA and Kids books, which begins with a two-recommender.

Veera Hiranandani has written YA novel 
How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, and of it Jenny Chou says: "It’s 1967, and interracial marriage has just become legal in all fifty states. Ariel Goldberg’s big sister elopes with a grad student of Indian descent (he’s an American) and her parents freak out! No one will tell her where Leah is, and Ariel is devastated when her sister doesn’t call or write. On top of all that, her teacher thinks Ariel has a learning disability. Ariel’s narration is spot-on eleven-year-old, and I love the poetry she writes to make sense of her life. While not excusing racist behavior, Veera Hiranandani sensitively portrays Ariel’s parent’s feelings about her sister’s marriage and the importance of their Jewish faith following the Holocaust. How to Find What You’re Not Looking For is semi-autobiographical. Hiranandani has a white, Jewish mom and her dad’s family immigrated from India. I can see this book starting important discussions about faith and identity in a way that appeals to kids because the characters are so engaging and relatable, and the author blends in just the right touch of humor. An excellent follow-up to the Newbery Honor-winning Night Diary that will definitely have a place on my staff rec shelf!"

Daniel Goldin adds: "Ariel Goldberg’s family lives in suburban Connecticut, where they run a not good but not particularly successful Jewish bakery in a not particularly Jewish town. She’s struggling with school, what with her chicken scratch handwriting that might indicate a learning disability, as well as harassment from a class bully. But her troubles threaten to be overwhelmed by her older sister Leah’s secret: that her new boyfriend is Raj, a young Hindu man who works at the local record store, and they are planning to elope. The timing of the story is essential, just after the Loving v. Virginia case. And I love how this lovely novel is suffused with Sergeant Pepper and other 1968 references, bakery treats, and Ariel's poetry."

We've got a touch of fantasy from Brigid Kemmerer's Defy the Night, with this rec from Jenny Chou: "Tessa Cade, the heroine in Brigid Kemmerer’s exciting new fantasy series, is full of rage but also just enough hope to throw herself into danger for the survival of her country. Though she feels the weight of responsibility that a ruler should have, she’s actually an apothecary in a land whose citizens are dying of a plague. And the real rulers are hoarding the Moonflower leaves that offer an antidote for a few lucky citizens in the upper classes, leaving the poor to struggle and die. Helping Tessa is the fearless Weston Lark, a mysterious Robin Hood-like character, who appears at night. Together they make perilous trips to the royal lands to steal whatever Moonflower leaves they can find. Weston is keeping one really big secret though, one that changes everything when Tessa finds out. Defy the Night has plenty of adventure and heart-wrenching romance, but it’s the courage that both Tessa and Weston show when faced with deceit that really keep the pages turning."

Rachel Copeland recommends Kemmerer's book, too: "In the kingdom of Kandala, people are dying, and Tessa Cade is risking her own safety to bring medicine to those who need it. With King Harristan and his brother, Cruel Corrick, in power, it seems as though only the elite will have a chance of surviving the strange sickness that's persisting throughout the kingdom. But all is not as it seems, and the enemy in the shadows might be the key to saving a kingdom. I thoroughly enjoyed this one! Kemmerer deftly balances the perspectives of her main characters while giving the right amount of weight to the issues of illness, poverty, and the improper use of power and authority. I will be waiting impatiently for the next book in this series."

That's another one where we've got an event coming - this Friday, September 17, a Hybrid event, to be exact. More info here on the Boswell Book Company website.

Kay Wosewick recommends Paradise on Fire by Jewell Parker Rhodes: "Six New York City kids spend a couple weeks at a ranch deep in the California mountains. The ranch owner and two college-age counselors push the kids to take on more difficult challenges each day, in preparation for a final 3-night camping trip with the counselors. On the first night of the trip, the smell of smoke awakens a camper; soon they are all groggily watching a forest fire advance toward them. As the group argues about the best escape route, fire separates three kids from the others. Both scary and exciting, Rhodes has penned a blazingly good story."

And Jen Steele offers up picture book praise for Bear Is a Bear by Dan Sanat: "Bear Is a Bear is the most heartfelt picture book I've read this year! A tender story about childhood with your most treasured toy with gorgeous illustrations by Dan Santat. This is a picture book for all ages, guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings. Grab your teddy bear or favorite stuffed animal and read this at once."

Jen also has a recommendation for a book that came out last week, but we want to be sure to include it. Once Upon a Camel by Kathi Appelt. Jen says: "Once Upon a Camel is a heartwarming story about Zada, the last camel in Texas. When a big storm hits the desert, Zada is charged with watching two baby kestrels until they can be reunited with their parents. To pass the time and to keep everyone calm, Zada begins to tell the little ones stories of her life, and as Zada says, "even storytellers need stories." Once Upon a Camel is a soothing balm for story time and Zada is a character you're unlikely to forget.

And a paperback pick? Okay, how about one!

Becky Cooper's Ivy League true crime tale, We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, gets this recommendation from Madi Hill: "As a true crime reader, I can be hesitant to read a book about an unsolved case. Naturally you wonder - how will this end? There is no need for such hesitation in We Keep the Dead Close. Becky Cooper takes a case that has turned into Harvard myth and brought the investigation the victim deserved to fruition. Cooper, a Harvard alumna herself, details her time at the Ivy League school and her personal growth following graduation as it evolves into the study of Jane Britton’s murder in 1969. Her reexamination brings attention to Britton’s life, not just as a victim but as a woman with personality and accomplishments. This deep dive into a cold case reads as a slow burn, but I really enjoyed how Cooper handled her investigation with grace and dignity while still being incredibly thorough. We Keep the Dead Close is an extremely worthwhile read."

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Staff Recommendations, Week of September 7, 2021

A new month means new releases, especially September, the first month of the last quarter. Let's get to it.

Margaret Kennedy starts us with Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian. Margaret says, "Suspenseful and intriguing, Never Saw Me Coming had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. Usually in horror stories, the psychopaths are the ones we run away from, the ones waving the knife. It’s true for this book too, but with a twist – the unfeeling villains are in fact the narrators. The main story follows Chloe Sevre, certified psychopath getting a free ride to college by participating in a psychology study on people like her. It's a stroke of luck for Chloe, because the college hosting the program is the same college that the boy she is planning to kill attends. As Chloe plots “the accident,” however, someone else is plotting murder, too - and Chloe and her fellow psychopaths are the intended victims. The narrators aren’t exactly the good guys here, but as the book goes on and plot twists abound, you find yourself rooting for them anyways. A thriller of a different kind that kept me hooked!"
Kathy Herbst recommends Matrix, the latest novel by Lauren Groff. Kathy says, "In this engaging work of historical fiction, Groff creates a story for real life poet Marie de France, who was cast out of the French court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and sent to an ailing abbey to be its prioress. Angry and resentful at first, Marie slowly takes charge, transforming the abbey and empowering the women who live and work there. Wonderful blend of historical people and events and the author's vivid imagination."

Julio Garcia recommends Brothers on Three: A True Story of Family, Resistance, and Hope on a Reservation in Montana by Abe Streep. Julio says, "In 2018, a small basketball team of Indigenous high school students from the Flathead Reservation powered their way to the Montana State Championship, which they won despite being out-manned and out-muscled. Despite the success of this team, Abe Streep goes and tries to answer the question that looms for the team: What's next? Through following members of the team, Streep gives an in-depth and personal account on what this championship means for the community of Arlee, what the next step for the players are, and tries to answer the question: What are the Arlee Warriors playing for? This is a book of heartbreak, joy, and a new perspective on the coming-of-age tale."

Kay Wosewick and Daniel Goldin recommend L.A. Weather, by María Amparo Escandón. Kay says, "This LA-set story will quickly set its claws and pull you through a manic year in the lives of a well-off Mexican American family. Father, mother, and all three daughters have crises that vary from much ado about nothing to much-delayed ados about everything. You will smile gleefully as the family completes the eventful year with stronger bonds than ever."

And Daniel says, "Keila has been married to Oscar for nearly forty years, so when she sits down with her three daughters and tells them she’s getting divorced, her girls, Claudia, Olivia, and Patricia, are shocked and angry. And then, over the course of one year, the three of them see their own marriages self-destruct. But that just scratches the surface of what happens to this family, which has more secrets than you can imagine. I so enjoyed the author’s vision of Los Angeles and personally appreciated the Jewish references sprinkled in the story – Keila is the daughter of Holocaust survivors who resettled in Mexico City. Yes, L.A. Weather’s outrageous plot twists have a telenovela quality, as the Alvarados contend with just about every complication a family can face, except for maybe locusts. But they make it through (mostly), a little wiser for the journey, and it’s hard not to fall in love with them and all their messiness."

Kay also recommends Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women by Annabel Abbs. Kay says, "The absence of books about women recounting their walking adventures incited Abbs to hunt down some trailblazing women and replicate their walks as closely as possible. You will love hiking under often appalling conditions with fiercely determined and highly creative women and their accomplices. Along the way you will gain a fresh perspective of some famous women."

You want a third Kay Wosewick rec? You got it! Things Are Against Us by Lucy Ellmann, illustrated by Diana Hope. Of this, Kay says, "Lucy Ellmann’s witty, snap-crackle-pop essays drew gales of laughter (and a few tears) from me. Every essay is a singular joy. The title essay is a grand THING. The second essay worthily challenges eyeballs by employing a very clever form. The last two essays close with somber notes mixed with their humor. Ellmann uses a sharp knife to cut through society’s apparently ironclad skin to reveal a maelstrom rumbling inside: near-universal control subversively sustained by men, but with signs of tottering, and deeply buried denial maintained by women, perhaps on the verge of surfacing. WAKE UP WOMEN! Bonus: sketches accompany each essay to further enlighten and amuse."

Yes, Kay has been reading a lot. Which means we've got a FOURTH staff rec from one of our voracious-est readers - this one for Peter Heller's The Guide, which came out last week but gets its recommendation badge today. Kay says, "A very exclusive, very private lodge in the Colorado Rockies has pristine creeks chockfull of trout, and very wealthy clients. Jack takes a fishing guide job late in the season, replacing someone who left suddenly. Bad vibes hit Jack almost immediately upon arrival, but melt away as he enjoys an exquisitely relaxing day fishing with his charming client. Unfortunately, neither of them can ignore increasingly visible oddities suggesting the lodge is a cover for something else. Something sinister. Both are compelled to discover what's really going on; they do, and it's a nasty surprise. Prepare for lovely highs and grim lows, an increasingly common combination for Peter Heller, one of my favorite authors."

Daniel also has multiple releases to recommend this week. His next is Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City by Samira Shackle. Daniel says, "Journalist Shackle spent several years following Karachi residents, including a crime reporter, an ambulance driver, an educator and social activist, another advocate who maps the city’s resources and helps get things like sewers installed, and a young woman from a rural village watching a project for the wealthy encroach on their land. The Partition and other localized conflicts have created a megacity where Pashtuns, Sindhis, Baloch, and Mohajirs (Punjabis are a force in Pakistan, but not so much in Karachi) fight for land and resources, where each ethnic group has a political party which shares power with a criminal element. Underfunded police are almost incentivized to corruption. Social services are often underfunded or altogether absent; ambulances are run by a charity. Media channels are in fierce competition for viewers - with journalists putting themselves in great danger to get the best story. All this and The Taliban, too. Shackle’s detailed and sympathetic portrayal of life in this city of 20 million people is fascinating reading, always insightful, plus she’s a great storyteller. If you are one of the millions of people who loved Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, this book is for you."

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

How about a couple of picture book recommendations, too!

First it's Jen Steele for Mister Fairy by Morgane de Cadier. Jen says, "A charming picture book about finding your truth and accepting the uniqueness of you. The world would be a little less bright without Mister Fairy! I hope you enjoy this whimsical and clever picture book as much as I did."

Then Chris Lee says you must read Norman Didn’t Do It! (Yes, He Did) by Ryan Higgins. His rec: "When his best friend (Mildred, a tree) makes a new friend (a nearby tree sprout), Norman the porcupine learns a tough lesson about friendship, jealousy, growth, and tree-napping. The story is quirky and inventive yet still flows organically, and the almost comic-strip style artwork is bold, full of colors and contrasts, and quite friendly. I’ve never wanted to hug a porcupine so much!"

And a paperback pick? You know it - from our fair city's very own Lauren Fox, it's the paperback release of her New York Times bestselling novel Send for Me, and it's recommendation comes from Daniel, who says, "In Lauren Fox’s first work of historical fiction, Annelise is a young woman working at her parents’ bakery in 1930s Feldenheim. Life is fairly normal – school, work, friends, dating – but every day there are more restrictions on Jews. Christian friends and neighbors who were once friendly have turned cold. It’s possible Annelise can escape, but what will happen to her parents? Fox has a way of taking minute details and infusing them with life, from the highs of first love to the lows of increasing desperation. The story is told with glimpses into the future, with Annelise’s granddaughter Clare, under very different circumstances, also contemplating a separation from her parents. Fox has a deft touch bringing small details to flower, and while her humor is more restrained than in previous novels, there are moments where her quirky writerly charm comes to the fore. Contemplative, heartbreaking, beautiful."

Whoa! That is a great big list of great books. See you next week - you'd better get to reading in the meantime!