Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Top 5 Picks, 2023 - Part 5

It's our last top 5 picks roundup post of the year! Our final four book pickers include some bonus picks from buyer Jason and proprietor Daniel, plus faves of the year from Oli and Ingrid. What a year of books it's been!

First, Jason's faves - his top five and then some!

#1 A City on Mars: Can we settle space, should we settle space, and have we really thought this through? by Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith. Jason says: "The Weinersmiths take a deep dive into the realm of space travel and colonization. They want to pump the breaks on the expectations of leaving a climate-ravaged Earth in hopes of a better future. We have forgotten to consider a couple of points that are necessary. One, space is not full of life, and it wants to kill us. Two, the human race still doesn't know enough to predict what will happen to prolonged living in space; that’s not even consider babies and future generations, though that's a serious issue to consider as well. There's the great emptiness and vacuum of space, solar radiation, inhospitable planets, plus the small living quarters that could lead you to annoying your fellow travelers. And, if that wasn't enough, even if we are able to conquer all the technological and health problems, then we will have to contend with laws and corporations fighting for control of land on these planets – and premium interplanetary land is scarce. This all seems like so much to complete in a short amount of time; it will probably take generations. This book is insightful and hilarious and will easily interest armchair science enthusiasts everywhere in the solar system."

#2 The Earth Transformed: An Untold History by  Peter Frankopan. This revolutionary new history that reveals how climate change has dramatically shaped the development and demise of civilizations across time. Jill Lepore, writing for the New Yorker, says: "An essential epic that runs from the dawn of time to, oh, six o’clock yesterday."

#3 The Deluge by Stephen Markley. We've done the hardcover link before, but this also recently came out in paperback, so this is the paperback link! Jason says: "I wish I could call this book a post-apocalyptic or dystopian novel, but unfortunately it’s all too real and grounded in the world we live in. We have climate change and disasters, political strife and corruption, economic disparities, and population displacements. Stephen Markley weaves together about 10 different characters living in the upheaval of America from 2004-2040. Everything we are experiencing now - the wealthy and politicians blocking environmental regulation and carbon impact and beyond - happens in this book. Markley, sadly, quite accurately imagines us handling these very real cataclysmic issues. I found it very true to the nature of humanity, as I believe in the best and the worst of most people, and Markley followed the logical path. Such a gripping and phenomenal read, I absolutely loved it!"

# 4 The Future by Naomi Alderman. Jason writes: "Naomi Alderman writes a world of the near future on the brink of environmental cataclysm. Alderman ties together the good, the bad, and the ugly of social media platforms; the way they can manipulate and change the subconscious of the world at lightning speed is truly frightening. If the heads of those platforms don’t have the best intentions for the world in their ethos, then the world is truly doomed. Which is where this book takes place. At the beginning, three tech giants and their families are alerted that that a cataclysmic event is in the process of happening. They extract themselves and head to one of their bunkers to wait out the end of the world. Alderman then takes us back to show us all the behind-the-scenes action that happened before the lead up. It is a wild ride, and I wish that the outcome could happen to our world as well."

#5 Girlfriend on Mars by Deborah Willis. Jason recommends this funny, poignant, and page-turning debut novel that skewers billionaire-funded space travel in a love story of interplanetary proportions. People magazine calls it: "A sharp, funny take on capitalism, climate change, and our lifelong mission to be loved."

# 6 (aka bonus pick #1) Gone to the Wolves by John Wray. Pulitzer-winning author Andrew Sean Greer calls it: "A hair-raising, head-banging, meet-the-Devil epic tale of love, youth, and rock ’n’ roll."  Wray dives deep into the wild, funhouse world of heavy metal and death cults in the 1980s and 1990s to lay bare the intensity, tumult, and thrill of friendship in adolescence—a time when music can often feel like life or death.

#7 (aka... you get the idea) The MANIAC by Benjamin Labatut. Jason says: "Labatut’s The Maniac offers up an in depth exploration of the causes and effects of math and science’s transition from theory to practical applications (ie, the nuclear bomb) and the influence of individual madness. Labatut tells the story of Jon von Neumann, from his beginnings to his immigration to the US as he fled Nazism to the Manhattan project to his ultimate death. He also follows a British boy-genius, bored with being a chess master, who, upon reading von Neuman's thesis, goes on to help create Deepmind and the beginnings of AI. Benjamin Labatut explains the complex evolution of AI through the 20th Century, from exceptional math breakthroughs to mayhem, and he makes it compulsively readable to boot!"

#8 The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller. Jason writes: "Fuller gave me PTSD at the very outset of this book as Neffy went into a vaccine trial to combat a pandemic. When virus mutates rapidly (cue more PTSD), and Neffy wakes up from fighting off the virus with the experimental vaccine, the world is gone. But there are other people trapped with her in the medical building, and this is the heart of the story: how they relate to and end up relying on one and other. It's a novel about the human condition during a crisis, but Claire Fuller also looks at the trip Neffy took to get to this point. The future is a frightening place, but we can't live in the past."

#9 Rouge by Mona Award. Jason says: "At the heart of this cerebral, hallucinogenic, and haunting new novel lies a relationship story of Mother and Daughter. And beauty and beauty products. Belle comes home to bury her mother, who accidentally fell into the ocean. It all begins innocently enough, but when Belle begins to pack up her mother's things, her mother's pair of red heels seem to guide her to an opulent, strange spa called Rouge. Trust in Mona Awad to take you on a bizarre, fairy-tale story that has seriously horrible things to say about the beauty industry. It’s also a wonderful story about miscommunications and missed moments between parent and child. Rouge never let me go - this is Mona Awad's best yet!"

Why 9 and not ten? I don't know! It's the list he gave me. On to the next recommender.

And that would be Oli Schmitz, who raves about the following five.

#1 A Day of Fallen Night (The Roots of Chaos) by Samantha Shannon. Oli says: "Samantha Shannon delivers the best of epic fantasy once again, in a standalone novel worth all eight hundred and eighty pages. I was hooked on this glorious, sprawling tale from the start. The lives of four main characters - one each from the North, South, East, and West - are about to change: a long-slumbering evil wakes, bringing fire, plague, and a draconic army raised against humanity. Set 500 years after The Nameless One rose from a mountain of fire and was vanquished, and 500 years before the events of The Priory of the Orange Tree, A Day of Fallen Night is rich in history, legend, and depth to both the world and its characters. I'm obsessed, and you should be, too!"

#2 The Weaver and the Witch Queen by Genevieve Gornichec. Oli's rec: "Powerful bonds of sworn sisterhood are tested in this immersive journey through tenth-century Norway. In childhood, sisters Oddny and Signy take a blood oath with their friend Gunnhild, swearing to always help each other. After years apart, Gunnhild reunites with Oddny to search for a kidnapped Signy. This is a story of love and power: from chosen family to tender care and enemies-to-lovers slow burn romance; from political intrigue and tough choices to resilience and self-determination. The landscape of this pivotal era in Norse history is infused with magic and folklore, brought to life in Gornichec's enchanting voice. Complex characters and a captivating plot make this one of my favorite books of 2023. The Weaver and the Witch Queen is an excellent fit for readers who loved Circe and historical fiction that humanizes figures of myth, spinning new meaning from their stories."

#3 How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler. And of this, Oli relays the following: "How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures is a brilliantly executed work of science writing and memoir that highlights the interconnectedness and complexity of ocean life and human experience. In each chapter, journalist Sabrina Imbler relates their own identities, relationships, and experiences to the world of a different fascinating sea creature, with tremendous vulnerability and stunning prose."

#4 The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost #1) by CL Clark. Oli writes: "A gripping, layered fantasy with worldbuilding inspired by history, The Unbroken is a postcolonial reckoning with power and belonging, set against resistance to empire and its backlash. Touraine struggles with loyalty between the empire who raised her as its soldier, the motherland she was stolen from as a child, and the princess she's spying for; Luca works to uphold the throne's rule in the face of rebellion while searching for the divine magic her own empire has forbidden. The future of nations will be shaped by the actions - and mistakes - of these two complicated women. CL Clark delivers an emotionally resonant debut, imbued with commentary on the deep impact of colonialism, in this first installment of the Magic of the Lost trilogy."

#5 Bookshops & Bonedust (Legends & Lattes) by Travis Baldree. Oli declares: "Sidelined by a battle injury, stalwart orc Viv is forced to recuperate in a tiny seaside town. There she meets a mousey bookstore owner, spitfire gnome, dwarven baker, and a literal bag of (reanimated) bones. Baldree’s return to his realm of cozy fantasy is a quiet triumph, conveying beauty in the mundane, the joy of sharing a book together, and the sweet melancholy of how some people who only briefly pass through our lives can nevertheless be carried in our hearts for a lifetime."

Now onto Ingrid Muellmans and her fave four of 2023.

#1 Yellowface by RF Kuang. The one and only Stephen King calls it: "Hard to put down, harder to forget." Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars. But Athena’s a literary darling. June Hayward is literally nobody. Who wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks. So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers during World War I. With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface grapples with questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation, as well as the terrifying alienation of social media. R.F. Kuang’s novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable. 

#2 Happy Place by Emily Henry. In this romcom, a couple who broke up months ago pretend to still be together for their annual weeklong vacation with their best friends. It's a glittering and wise new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Emily Henry. From the Washington Post: "Wit, charm and heart, satisfying to the last page."

#3 Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson. A a smart, escapist novel that sparkles with wit. Full of recognizable, loveable, if fallible, characters, it’s about the peculiar unknowability of someone else’s family, the miles between the haves and have-nots, and the insanity of first love, all wrapped in a story that is a sheer delight. From the New York Times (and clearly written at the beginning of summer): "The season’s first beach read, a delicious romp of a debut featuring family crises galore."

#4 Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. In this blazingly smart and voracious debut novel, an artist turned stay-at-home mom becomes convinced she's turning into a dog. From the New Yorker: "Yoder sees a new way into the baser kinks of our animal selves, the ineffable bodily transformation of a woman into a mother. What is fiction for, if not blowing life up into the freakish myth it appears to be?”

And finally, our proprietor Daniel Goldin's top ten books of the year. Sometimes we do this as its own post, sometimes his picks get tossed in the mix with everyone else's. And this year, it would have screwed up my whole "the number 5" theme to do a sixth post, so there you have it.

#1 Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward. Daniel says: "It’s hard to put into words how I felt while reading Jesmyn Ward’s fourth novel. The outer life of Annis, an enslaved teenage woman, is one of constant struggle. Starting at the plantation where her White father separates her first from her mother and then her closest ally, she is marched from the Carolinas to New Orleans, where she is put up for sale at a slave market, only to land at an equally dire sugar plantation in Louisiana. Along the way, she communicates with Aza, a spirit who has taken the name of Annis’s warrior grandmother. Let Us Descend might be more of a historical than its predecessors, but it shares the exquisite poetic language, a setting that is alternatingly bleak and ethereal, and memorable characters, centered by the unforgettable Annis."

#2 Wellness by Nathan Hill. Daniel writes: "Jack Baker and Elizabeth Augustine are two people who meet in college in 1990s Wicker Park and fall in love. Thirty years later they are hoping to move with their son to a condo in a wealthy Chicago suburb. That’s a good story in and of itself. But Hill’s second novel, following The Nix, is also about parenting, religion, sex, real estate, Minecraft, placebos, art, controlled Prairie burns, bats, psychology, cleanses, coyotes, conspiracies, and class. Wellness asks the question: do our stories reflect our reality, or do they create said reality? And with all that to cover, 600 pages actually seems a little too short. I loved this novel."

#3 Dearborn by Ghassan Zeineddine. Daniel proclaims: "An out-of-work night watchman teams up with a former drug addict to sell recordings of the Qu’ran in English. A family saves their cash stuffed in frozen chickens hoping to use the money to buy a place in the old country. Or how about a change-of-pace Titanic story in which an 86-year-old woman recalls how she (but not her husband) survived the crash while immigrating to America. Ghassan Zeineddine’s debut collection centers on the Lebanese Muslim community in the Detroit suburb with all their dreams, fears, and quirks, but his observations about human nature, family, love, and community are universal, too. With so many memorable characters and so much wit and heart, this had to be my favorite story collection of the year."  

#4 All the Sinners Bleed by SA Cosby. Daniel distills it: "For once, Cosby’s hero is neither a current nor reformed outlaw, but a sheriff. Not just a sheriff, but the first Black sheriff of Charon County, an area where the troubled past is still simmering. Concerned that his biggest problem is a march by Christian Nationalists, Sheriff Titus Crown is blindsided by a school shooting, where the victim is a beloved teacher, and in addition, the shooter, killed by a trigger-fingered officer. This does nothing to ingratiate Crown with the formerly supportive Black community, led by an activist minister. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg; before this story is fully told, there will be plenty of secrets revealed and, as promised in the title, shed blood. Edge of your seat thrills, masterful storytelling, and what a voice – another winner from SA Cosby!"

#5 While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence by Meg Kissinger. Daniel dishes: "In this engrossing memoir, long-time journalist Kissinger chronicles life in an old-school Catholic family in the Chicago and Milwaukee suburbs. Kissinger grew up with seven siblings, about four or five more than her mom could handle. With both parents self-medicating, it’s no wonder mental illness manifested in many of the next generation, to sometimes heartbreaking effect. If you loved Hidden Valley Road but wondered what it would have been like to hear the story from one of the children, While You Were Out is the book for you."

#6 The Secret Book of Flora Lea by Patti Callahan Henry. Daniel explains it this way: "On her last day working at an antiquarian bookstore, before moving on to a more prestigious job, Hazel receives an autographed children’s book that has become a hot commodity in the States, along with some original illustrations. Intrigued, she soon realizes that this novel is based on the stories she used to tell her younger sister Flora when they were sent away to the country during the London Blitz. How could this be? Her sister drowned and Hazel never told these stories to anyone else. The novel jumps from ‘present-day’ 1960 back to the 1940s, when the mystery unfolded. All the elements come together - World War II fiction, an amateur detective story, a bookish historical – for an entertaining, thoughtful, and heart-warming read. Now wonder it has become an indie bookstore phenomenon."

#7 Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urrea. Daniel notes: "Irene Woodward and Dorothy Dunford bond in training when both join the Red Cross to support the troops by running a coffee wagon. They are supposed to work in teams of three, but they just can’t seem to keep a third – maybe it’s because their friendship is so strong that there just isn’t room for one more in the truck. Outside the truck, their lives are filled with vibrant characters, some romance, and of course, the horrors of war. Urrea’s new novel is classic historical fiction, a change of style, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to fans – his prose has veered from journalism to magical realism to domestic dramedy. And I don’t really want to give anything away here, but I kept thinking it will all be worthwhile if Urrea stuck the landing, and I’m happy to say he sure did!"

#8 A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them by Timothy Egan. Daniel comments: "National Book Award and Pulitzer winner (the latter for his newspaper work) Timothy Egan takes on the second (and probably not last) coming of the Klu Klux Klan in America. In the 1920s, a combination of factors, including the migration of Confederate sympathizers and a White population scared by new waves of immigration, emboldened by the success of Prohibition, led to a resurgence of this organization that was most profound not in the South, but in the Midwest and West. Egan focuses on Indiana, a state that had perhaps the most KKK domination (though one should not exclude Ohio, Colorado, and Oregon, which have their own stories) and in particular, on D.C. Stephenson, who wound up having much of Indiana under his control. A ruthless criminal, a sexual predator, and a charlatan, Steve, as he was known, was seemingly unstoppable, until maybe he wasn’t. Egan’s meticulous research and lively storytelling combine for a powerful work with obvious contemporary parallels. I’m definitely going to be reading more Egan!"

#9  Owner of a Lonely Heart: A Memoir by Beth Nguyen. Daniel asserts: "What’s the nonfiction equivalent of a novel in stories? Why, it’s a memoir in essays! I am actually a big fan of this format, with all the detours that the structure allows, often preferring it to the straightforward memoir itself. Beth Nguyen’s Owner of a Lonely Heart is a great example of the genre, swirling around the mother-daughter relationship between two refugees in America, separated by distance, misunderstanding, and time. It’s only when Nguyen has her own children that she can truly revisit the relationship to make sense of this complicated relationship. This is a special memoir to be treasured."

#10 Tom Lake by Ann Patchett. Daniel states: "For every Jane Fonda or Rita Moreno, famous actresses into their eighties, there is a Kim Novak, who married an equine veterinarian and lived a quiet life in the countryside. Imagine if you had an acting career and then didn’t, but someone you know (the acclaimed Peter Duke) went on to a glorious career. Your family knows the story, but they don’t exactly have it quite right. More than that, each of your children has created their own mythology of the story. With the world locked down, Lara and Joe and their daughters Emily, Maisie, and Nell, are brought together to the family farm to unpack that story, set at a season of summer stock at Tom Lake, Michigan. I love how Lara’s career jump starts with a small production of Our Town, and that Thornton Wilder resonates through the rest of the story. And I love the way Patchett can write about the complications of families, even loving ones like the Nelsons. The story may be quiet, but it will stick with me for a long time."

Wow, that's a lotta great books! Hope you've found a few that you love for yourself and your giftees this year. And here's to another year ahead full of great reads! Until we reach it, read on.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Staff Recommendation, Week of December 12, 2023

Just one staff rec this week for a new release, from Tim McCarthy. He recommends the second Monster Hunter Mystery from Wisconsin author Annelise Ryan: Death in the Dark Woods. Tim says: "Morgan Carter is back! She's the Door County owner of Odds and Ends, a shop that sells very odd artifacts from around the world along with mystery books in which people always meet their end. She’s also a cryptozoologist with multiple college degrees who loves searching for legendary creatures while insisting that proof is necessary before she’ll believe they exist. Last time, she and her very cool dog Newt helped a local sheriff figure out why two dead men had strange bite marks suggesting the possibility of a Nessie-like creature in the waters of Wisconsin. Now law enforcement needs her again, in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, across the Green Bay, where a hunter and a fisherman were viciously killed, apparently by something huge and furry that moved upright on two feet. Could it possibly be? You’ll find out, and for me there’s nothing better than a cozy but deadly autumn adventure set in places where I’ve loved to vacation and then drove away again, fully alive. I’d just say watch your back up north on that next lovely leaf season hike."

And that, dear readers, is the last new book rec I currently have on file for 2023! Rest assured, if any last minute book alerts come from the Boswellians for new books coming in the next couple of weeks, I will dutifully post them in this space. And there's one more top 5 roundup blog coming this way soon, too! Until there are more recs (and there will surely be more staff recs), read on!

Friday, December 8, 2023

Top 5 Picks, 2023 - Part 4

Day four of the Top 5 roundups means many more great books for both reading and gifting. Let's dive right in.

First up, it's me, Chris Lee. Here are my most favorite faves of 2023. And since I'm writing this, I'll include some updated notes on each book as well as my original write-ups, because why the heck not, right?

#1 The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor. This book remains one of the most emotionally complex things I've read this year, and thought Taylor clearly would like his writing to be perceived as a bit timeless (and let's me honest, who wouldn't like that?!), this is sneakily one of the most of-the-moment books I've read in a while. My original write up: Brandon Taylor’s novel invites us into the world of Iowa City’s fledgling writers, dancers, and artists as they squabble, scrap, hope, love, and fight their way toward self-knowledge in a country that doesn’t have much more to offer them than, at best, indifference and economic insecurity. Art and sex, full hearts and empty wallets. A perfectly titled novel (each character so late to so many different parties) that deeply understands the roiling emotional landscape of lives of ideas as they’re lived in precarity. Truly impressive.

#2 The Dimensions of a Cave by Greg Jackson. This one has been a bit slow to move off the shelves, and I fear one of the reasons for that is readers who see it get an impression that's something like, 'oh, that's one of those dense and intellectual books that's going to be a super-heavy slog.' And, yes, it is dense and intellectual, BUT it's also a quite approachable book with writing that bops right along. It's the kind of immersive book that you just sink into and spend days completely absorbed. My original write up: Incredible, incredible, incredible! Jackson's tale of a journalist's odyssey into virtual reality, the forever war, and governmental lies returns you brilliantly to an age-old question: How do we perceive our own existence? (That old chestnut!)

#3 The Hive and the Honey by Paul Yoon - I've read a bunch of short story collections over the past year, and only one other even comes close. Man, this book is SO good. Original write up: Paul Yoon’s gorgeous, satisfying new story collection offers peeks into the lives of those among the Korean diaspora across centuries and the globe. In remarkably precise prose, Yoon carves out the essence of his characters’ lives. An ex-con in upstate New York, an abandoned boy in Russia’s Far East, a shopkeeping couple in London’s Koreatown, and a 17th century samurai – in each of them and others, Yoon captures the yearning for an unnamable something that exists in between the history they carry with them and the worlds they’ve left behind. Wonderful.

#4 The Deluge by Stephen Markley. This book is written like a (rising) ocean, wave after wave of moments and years and ideas crashing one after the other, relentlessly eroding the shores. An epic peopled with characters as real as any person you know, who’ll fill you up with hope and heartbreak. A feast of a book.

#5 Mister Mister by Guy Gunaratne. This is another one I'm struggling to find readers for, which is a shame. Beyond just being really well written, it's a truly emotional journey. If you've ever wondered how a normal, not-nuts, even big-hearted and good person can get wrapped up in religious zealotry and political violence, well, this is the perfect book. Original write up: Rotting away in an immigration detention center, Yahya Bas cuts out his own tongue – never again will he be misheard, misconstrued – and sets pen to paper to write his own story so it might finally be understood by his captors, by his god, and, ultimately, by himself. In a very loose riff on David Copperfield, Gunaratne follows Yahya from his childhood of poverty and abandonment in East London to his years as a poet capable of inciting violence, a fatherless jihadist, an exile, and a political prisoner. Yahya becomes a cipher for the world's broken logic at the onset of the West's forever war. The writing is vivid, visceral, and bracing; totally unputdownable. Yet at the same time, the book is tender and deeply humane. Gunaratne understands that violence, at its core, is never really political. His willingness to follow that understanding to very uncomfortable places makes this book so necessary. And so, Yahya tells his own story – one that’s not about finding his voice but rather about cutting out all the voices of others that have come to inhabit (to invade, colonize, and occupy) his mouth.

Next is Amie, with her top 4 for the year.

#1 Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. The first short story collection by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author and master of the form since her best seller Unaccustomed Earth.  Rome—metropolis and monument, suspended between past and future, multi-faceted and metaphysical—is the protagonist, not the setting, of these nine stories. From the New York Times: "Electric . . .  Elegant . . . The fluid transitions between Lahiri’s and Portnowitz’s translations elevate Roman Stories from a grouping of individual tales to a deeply moving whole."

#2 Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood. Truly it was a year of short stories for Amie. This is a dazzling collection that looks deeply into the heart of family relationships, marriage, loss and memory, and what it means to spend a life together. From Rebecca Makkai: ""If you consider yourself an Atwood fan and have only read her novels: Get your act together. You’ve been missing out."

#3 White Cate, Black Dog by Kelly Link. More stories? More stories! TIME says: "The Brothers Grimm meet Black Mirror meets Alice in Wonderland. . . . In seven remixed fairy tales, Link delivers wit and dreamlike intrigue." Finding seeds of inspiration in places such as seventeenth-century French lore and Scottish ballads, Kelly Link spins classic fairy tales into utterly original stories of seekers—characters on the hunt for love, connection, revenge, or their own sense of purpose.

#4 Big Tree by Brian Selznick. The fate of all life on Earth may depend on the bravery of two little seeds in this epic adventure from the Caldecott Medalist. Tim and Jen love this one, too! Here's a neat quote. Steven Spielberg says: "The tale of the natural world is the greatest story we have to tell, and Brian delivers a brilliant chapter of that tale throughout the pages of Big Tree."

Rachel Ross is our next Top 5 selector for this blog installment. Here are her faves.

#1 Witch King by Martha Wells. This is the second time this book as appeared in a top 5 list this year. And we'll see one more before we're done with today. In case you missed it in the last blog, here's a quick summary - this is Martha Wells’s first new fantasy in over a decade, drawing together her signature ability to create characters we adore and identify with, alongside breathtaking action and adventure, and the wit and charm we’ve come to expect from one of the leading writers of her generation.

#2 Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar. Daniel dug this one, too! Rachel says: "Paved Paradise is filled to the brim with engaging stories and intelligent insights into how parking impacts architecture, transit, community, and the climate. Grabar recounts how designing our lives around housing cars has molded American civic life over the last century. This book altered my perception of all things 'Parkitecture.'" 

#3 Godkiller by Hannah Kaner. Here's a summary from the publisher: Gods are forbidden in the kingdom of Middren. Formed by human desires and fed by their worship, there are countless gods in the world—but after a great war, the new king outlawed them and now pays “godkillers” to destroy any who try to rise from the shadows. And Joe Hill says: "Beautifully imagined and intensely felt . . . Godkiller is a bone-rattling fantasy thriller that flies by in a breathtaking rush."

#4 Raw Dog by Jamie Loftus. The second repeat - Rachel is obviously a book influencer! Of this, she says: "Join Jamie Loftus as she rockets around the continental United States on a mission to sample as many hot dogs as possible during the tumultuous summer of 2021. A mashup of travelogue and history lesson, Loftus expounds on the humble origins of the hot dog, the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest, and the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile as she consumes dogs at independent joints from coast to coast. I was delighted! And disgusted!"

#5 Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J Ryan Stradal. Rachel writes: "Settle in for an ode to the Midwest that is equal parts heart-wrenching and heartwarming. Join three generations of women as they navigate their relationships with their families and communities against the backdrop of the Lakeside Supper Club, which is so much more than a family restaurant. Stradal tackles family legacy, Midwestern culture, the depths of grief, and the relief of forgiveness. You’ll want to grab a brandy old-fashioned for this one."

Our last top-fiver of the day is Jen! Our kids buyer has lots of great picks each year, so consider these her greatest-of-the-great.

#1 Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas. Jen says: "I loved this book! Isabel Cañas writes with such historical detail that it feels like you are right there with Nena and Néstor. Set in 1840s Mexico, Vampires of El Norte is powerful historical fiction with a supernatural twist! It’s a world of vaqueros and vampires, hacendados and healers, war and lost love. Put this novel at the top of your summer reading list."

#2 The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi: A new fantasy series set a thousand years before The City of Brass by Shannon Chakraborty. And here is Jen's write up: "Get ready for a most wonderous adventure on the Indian Ocean with the best Pirate Queen of the 12th century! Our heroine, the infamous Amina Al-Sirafi has been forced out of retirement to save the daughter of a fallen crew member. Will Amina Al-Sirafi be able to convince her former crew to board for one more adventure? Filled with magic and adventure, myth and humor, I loved every moment of this book!"

#3 The Prince & the Coyote by David Bowles, with illustrations by Amanda Mijangos. Jen writes: "You usually hear about books that are crossovers for YA – well, I think this book should be considered a crossover for adults! A stunning, historical epic set in pre-Columbian Mexico based on the life of Nezahualcoyotl. Not only are there beautiful illustrations from Amanda Mijangos, but David Bowles incorporates Nezahualcoyotl's surviving poetry into the novel as well. The Prince & the Coyote is a rich and layered story about one of the Americas’ greatest heroes. I was mesmerized from beginning to end!"

#4 Once There Was by Kiyash Monsef. This one is a bit like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them meets Neil Gaiman. Kirkus Reviews calls it "A striking and heartfelt debut." An Iranian American girl discovers that her father was secretly a veterinarian to magical creatures—and now she must take up his mantle, despite the many dangers. 

#5 Forget Me Not by Alyson Derrick. Great for fans of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Five Feet Apart, this tender debut is, per Booklist, a "punch to the gut in the best way" about the strength of love and the power of choosing each other, against odds and obstacles, again and again. It was also longlisted for this year's National Book Award for Young People’s Literature - whoa! And here's the Kirkus Review note: ""Derrick tells Stevie’s story with finesse, the beats well paced and building powerfully. Small-town Pennsylvania is vividly portrayed, the complex emotions Stevie feels for her hometown becoming viscerally relatable. Heart-rending and heartwarming."

Well, only one more roundup to go! We hope you've found some books that you love so far. The blog will return with our final top 5 list soon, and until then, read on!

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Top 5 Picks, 2023 - Part 3

Another day, another round of wonderful books. Here are more top 5 picks from the Boswellains. Part three, in fact!

The first Boswellian to feature today is Kay Wosewick, one of our most prolific readers and recommenders. Here are here top 5 books of the year.

#1 Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. Kay says: "This complex, masterfully paced thriller is set in New Zealand, where a group of young adults secretly grow food on other people’s land. An American billionaire's arrival wreaks wide-ranging havoc on land and lives alike. Tension builds from the first chapter thanks to rich inner monologues of key characters."

#2 Ascension by Nicholas Binge. Kay writes: "Ascension glides so effortlessly you won’t realize you haven’t shifted in your chair for hours. It has tentacles in many genres - adventure, thriller, sci-fi, horror, psychology, philosophy, many sciences - plus fabulously eclectic characters. Stunning."

#3 The Endless Vessel by Charles Soule. From Kay: "A dramatically beautiful object - clearly not of this world - is given to the owner of a small company. Employee Lily sees signs of her long-dead father in the innards of the object, setting her on a mission to find where it came from. The story that unfolds is beautiful, magical, hopeful, occasionally frightening, and often inspiring. This story will grip you tightly until it releases you, finger by finger, in the end."

#4 The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles by Jason Guriel. Kay says: "It’s 2070. Earth is vastly different, but tech innovation has kept the planet mostly livable. YA fiction is wildly popular, especially a book called “The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles.” Amongst its most fervent fans are some whale-hunting wolves and two humans. Told in delightful rhyming couplets, the wolves’ and humans’ stories alternate and influence each other. There is much to enjoy: the rhyming couplets, self-deprecating, quirky, and often funny characters, plenty of curious tech innovations, and humorous links to the past, such as zubered, ZukTube, ZikZok, zlog, Tesla Trouts, Kia Prawns, Ben Gauzy (an ancient curse), Ganwulf, Wulvia Plath and plenty more."

#5 Alien Worlds: How Insects Conquered the Earth, and Why Their Fate Will Determine Our Future by Steve Nicholls. From Kay: "Nicholls makes learning about insects a joy. With insects representing one quarter of all animals, he justifiably calls them the most successful group of animals on planet earth. Here are some juicy nuggets from this delicious book: Over one million species have been identified, but Nicholls thinks 5 million is a more reasonable count. Very early evolution of bodily diversity coupled with extreme adaptability is what allowed insects to conquer nearly all ends of the planet. As many of us have guessed, insects do, indeed, have greater resistance to extinction than other animals. They obliterate the laws of aviation. Of their two options for successful offspring, laying massive numbers of eggs is the method used by 99% of insects; only about 1% invest time and energy helping offspring survive. Research supports the label of “superorganism” for selected ants and termites. Wow. Nicholls closes with a profound statement: “recent research points to the fact that insect brains possess enough complexity to generate a basic level of consciousness.” Consider that next time you grab a can of Raid."

Keith Rutowski has, well, he has a top one pick this year. Because most of the time, Keith is reading books that are around the same age as the state of Wisconsin. BUT! He did discover one book released this year that he loves, and so we share his thoughts on it here.

#1 A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Keith opines: "Krasznahorkai is one of my favorite living writers, and this novella is a slim, jewel-like volume of exceptional beauty. In it, the grandson of prince Genji travels to a monastery in Kyoto with the hope of finding a garden that may or may not exist there. His journey throughout the monastery grounds yields splendid, detailed descriptions of living things, built structures, and various phenomena. In many ways, Krasznahorkai’s experimentation with how consciousness can be sculpted into a shape and rhythm makes him a kindred spirit of the great 20th Century modernists. And what sentences he produces! In many of his books, a sentence is an unrelenting torrent that gouges the muddy banks it passes, glides around boulders and other impediments, gathers momentum and cascades from a precipice, falls hundreds of vertical feet, and then continues downstream sweeping up and carrying along all manner of scattered debris before it reaches its natural end many miles - or pages - later. In the case of this particular book, he’s operating with the same technical style, but the emotional effect seems closer to a gentle but steady spring rain falling on the surface of an isolated pond. As is the case with all of his work, A Mountain to the North… is mesmerizing, hypnotic, and utterly alive."

Madi Hill, master of the quirky and quintessential nonfiction pick, has five faves for 2023, and here they are.

#1 Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and A Legacy of Rage by Jeff Guinn. From Madi: "Waco is recent enough history that many remember it, yet memory can be such a fickle thing. Luckily, Jeff Guinn has tackled the subject in his new book, simply titled Waco, that recounts the history of the Branch Davidians and the infamous Mount Carmel raid in Waco, Texas. For a topic so polarizing, Guinn manages to tell a narrative that does not imply personal bias, but provides as many facts as possible so the truest story can be told. His in-depth research uncovered information even true crime connoisseurs will be surprised to learn about the history of the Branch Davidians and David Koresh, including reflections on the long-lasting impact of the raid on Waco and its contribution to today's radicalization of right-wing groups. A true page turner, Waco is a fantastic read, dare I say likely to be the best book on Waco to be published in time for its 30th anniversary."

#2 The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris. A definitive and surprising exploration of the history of Black horror films, after the rising success of Get Out, Candyman, and Lovecraft Country from creators behind the acclaimed documentary, Horror Noire.

#3 The Guest by Emma Cline. Madi says: "Alex is living it up with her rich, older boyfriend. She has practiced playing the role of perfect girlfriend, but old habits die hard, and there's a reason she is running from her past. Emma Cline has a talent at creating characters that willingly dive headfirst into bad decisions, but in such a way that keeps you reading through the cringe. Cline's sophomore novel crafts a story that keeps you anxious to know what happens next to our protagonist/trainwreck, with a revolving cast of disposable characters she parasitically clings to until they've outlived their usefulness. The Guest is unforgiving but enthralling, an ode to the mistakes of our youth and the devastating consequences when we never learn to grow."

#4 Strong Female Character by Fern Brady. A memoir as funny as it is heartbreaking. Scottish comedian Fern Brady was told she couldn't be autistic because she'd had loads of boyfriends and is good at eye contact. In this frank and surreal memoir, she delivers a sharp and often hilarious portrait of neurodivergence and living unmasked. From the New York Times: “Strong Female Character is a testament to Brady’s quality of said character, her tenacity in the face of a world not yet ready to grapple with all she brings to it."

#5 Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs by Jamie Loftus. Madi writes: "Hot dog lovers, unite! Jamie Loftus has crafted the hot dog tour across America you never knew you wanted but can't stop reading. Follow the history of the wiener as Loftus, her boyfriend, a cocker spaniel, and a cat traverse the nation to find the best hot dog shops that the country has to offer, all while teaching the history of each spot along the way. Surprisingly heartfelt and educational, Raw Dog does not shy away from how the sausage gets made (literally), but it’s told from such a passionate and well researched perspective that seeing the process does not stop the hot dog craving this book produces in those who read it. For readers who wished Easy Rider was centered around tube meats, this book is for you. Hot diggity!"

Ogi Ubiparipovic has hung up his booksellin' spurs to ride off to greener pastures (to take a job with the city) but he left behind his his top 5 for the year. So one last time for old time's sake, here's Ogi's faves.

#1 The Witch King by Martha Wells. Martha Wells’s first new fantasy novel in over a decade, drawing together her signature ability to create characters we adore and identify with, alongside breathtaking action and adventure, and the wit and charm we’ve come to expect from one of the leading writers of her generation. From the Wall Street Journal: "A wonderfully original world, sympathetic characters and a solid quest make Witch King the satisfying fantasy you yearn for when named swords and cursed rings begin to grow stale."

#2 City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Winner of the British Science Fiction Association Award for First Novel. A darkly inventive portrait of a city under occupation and on the verge of revolution. Patrick Ness calls it: "Endlessly creative... so much invention peeking around every corner."

#3 Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff, illustrated by Bon Orthwick. From New York Times bestselling author Jay Kristoff, this is the first illustrated volume of an astonishing new dark fantasy saga. Laini Taylor, author of Strange the Dreamer, says: "Brilliant and unputdownable, with tenderness and light bound into the bitterdark of a grim and fascinating world."

#4 The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz. This is a sweeping, uplifting, and illuminating exploration of the future. The Terraformers takes you on a journey spanning thousands of years and exploring the triumphs, strife, and hope that find us wherever we make our home. John Scalzi says: "Fascinating and readable in equal measure, The Terraformers will remake your mind like its cast remakes an entire planet."

#5 The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Unpredictable, compelling, wickedly funny, and packed with unforgettable characters, this is noir fantasy with a real cutting edge. Jeff VanderMeer says: "Bold and authentically original." And from Scott Lynch, author of The Lies of Locke Lamora, another Ogi favorite: "If you're fond of bloodless, turgid fantasy with characters as thin as newspaper and as boring as plaster saints, Joe Abercrombie is really going to ruin your day. A long career for this guy would be a gift to our genre."

We'll be back soon with more Boswellian faves for the year. Until then, read on

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Top 5 Picks, 2023 - Part 2

More top five picks? You got it!

First up today are Greta Borgealt's faves of the year.

#1 Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova. Greta says: "Monstrilio, by debut author Gerardo Sámano Córdova, will blow you away with its depiction of the ugliness and otherworldliness of grief and how it affects people differently. When Magos and Joseph lose their only child, Santiago, Magos cuts him open and takes a piece of his lung. The lung starts to grow into a monster, and they try to raise it as they would a son. The story is told from the perspective of four different narrators. The final narrator is the monster, Monstrilio. This is a book will beautiful prose and intricate imagery that will stay with you. Monstrilio will make you contemplate what it means to be human and rethink the nature vs nurture debate. I loved this novel like it was my own sick and twisted child."

#2 All Night Pharmacy by Ruth Madievsky. Of this one Greta proclaims: "All Night Pharmacy is a riveting account of early adulthood and learning how to live for yourself. The narrator suffers from an unhealthy relationship with her older sister nursed by booze, sex, and pills. She must find a new sense of identity when her older sister disappears after an outburst of violence. Strange and vibrant characters come in and out of her life as she tries to put the pieces together. It transports to you a wild LA landscape and showcases the transitory nature of life. One theme that is very present in the book is generational trauma, especially within immigrants of the Jewish community. Madievsky is a Jewish immigrant herself, moving to the US when she was just two years old. One of my favorite things about the novel is that, although it is full of dread at times, there is a lot of character growth in the main character, which I found to be kind of hopeful. It is highly emotion-fueled, but what is the point of art of any kind if it does not evoke some sort of emotion out of its audience?"

#3 Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa, translated by Eric Ozawa. Greta declares: "A young woman starts working at her family’s book store after breaking up with her boyfriend and quitting her job. The author obviously loves books. The family relationships in this novel are so nuanced and interesting. I related a lot to the main character, and it had made me feel like I was on the right path by becoming a bookseller."

#4 Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater. Greta voices her opinion: "For fans of books about unhinged women, this book from debut author Alice Slater will meet your criteria for the elusive genre of sorts. It follows Roach, a bookseller whose obsession with true crime makes others uneasy. The reader will be these among these people. When a new bookseller, Laura, comes to Roach's store, she sees an opportunity to make a friend who also possibly also likes to read true crime, but Laura has a dark secret that she wants to keep hidden. As the story unravels, chaos ensues. It is characterized by Roach's compulsive behavior while pursuing friendship. It is a thrilling read."

#5 Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson. Greta asks: "Have you ever asked yourself, why are women's pockets generally smaller than men's pockets? In the book Pockets, by Hannah Carlson, the author will answer this question and more. This book goes all the way back to the beginning. Surprisingly, this account of history has a feminist lens. It is more interesting than one would think, and you don't have to be very knowledgeable about fashion to be able to enjoy this book."

Next up, it's Jane Callanan and her favorite five.

#1 The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel. Jane remarks: "The Art Thief is definitely one of my favorite nonfictions I've ever read! Finkel's descriptions were so immersive and captivating that I genuinely could not put the book down. The story is complex and unique, and it ensures an informative read for all. Filled with some of the art world's most interesting stories, fascinating fun facts, and a high-risk heist, this book will keep you entertained and in awe!"

#2 The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz. Jane announces: "Desperate for her big break after struggling with a year-long case of writer's block, Alex is finally accepted into one of the most exclusive writing retreats in the world. Run by Alex's favorite author, famous feminist-horror writer Roza Vallo, the retreat is sure to be exciting. However, when one of the writers goes missing, the group realizes that something more sinister is afoot, and the team of unforgettable characters must race to find the truth before danger comes for them next. This novel is one of the wildest stories I've ever read, and I enjoyed every minute of it! Full of crazy twists and turns, you will not be able to put this mystery down!"

#3 All the Dangerous Things by Stacy Willingham. Following up her instant New York Times bestseller, A Flicker in the Dark, Stacy Willingham delivers a totally gripping thriller about a desperate mother with a troubled past. From the South Florida Sun Sentinel: "Terrific... Willingham’s strong affinity for characters and her superior plotting elevate All the Dangerous Things. . . seals her place as a talented novelist."

#4 Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li. From the New York Times Book Review: "The thefts are engaging and surprising, and the narrative brims with international intrigue. Li, however, has delivered more than a straight thriller here, especially in the parts that depict the despair Will and his pals feel at being displaced, overlooked, underestimated, and discriminated against. This is as much a novel as a reckoning."

#5 Circe by Madeline Miller. For the Washington Post, Ron Charles writes: "One of the most amazing qualities of this novel [is]: We know how everything here turns out - we've known it for thousands of years - and yet in Miller's lush reimagining, the story feels harrowing and unexpected. The feminist light she shines on these events never distorts their original shape; it only illuminates details we hadn't noticed before."

Now on to Jenny Chou for a 2023 full of favorites.

#1 Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett. Jenny avows: "The publisher’s marketing had me at ‘dark fae magic,’ but add in a bookish introvert researching fairies and her mysterious, insufferably charismatic colleague, and I knew I’d started a delightful, can’t-put-it-down novel. Emily Wilde’s life’s work is the compilation of an encyclopaedia with an entry on every species of fairy. In 1909, she sets out from Cambridge University where she taught to do field work on the never-seen fairies of a country much like Iceland. Professor Wendell Bambleby follows her, probably to take credit for her findings. He charms the grim assortment of locals, who Emily has already insulted, though she can’t figure out why or when. The longer Wendell stays, the deeper the mystery surrounding him and his link to the fae becomes. Emily is a clever heroine, kinder than she gives herself credit for, and I loved watching the connections she makes as the novel progresses, especially when it comes to the equally dashing and irritating Wendell. You’ll be glad you met these two as you think about them long after turning the last page! Luckily, this is the start of a series."

#2 The Rachel Incident by Caroline O'Donoghue. Jenny states: "Rachel is a college student, uncertain about love and friendship, and with a desperate need to be taken seriously. Her best friend is her bookstore coworker. He’s gay, which everyone around him seems to know, even in closeted 2009 Ireland. When a married English professor turns both their lives upside down, the results are messy and surprising, and the repercussions span years. The Irish setting makes the book feel timely in 2023 America regarding the social justice chaos we’re currently facing. How is it that Ireland has moved forward on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights while we’re backtracking? The Rachel Incident is the laugh-out-loud, clever, and sometimes cringe-inducing book we all needed in our early twenties to let us know that life would have its ups and downs during that long slog to becoming a grownup, but we’d end up mostly okay."

#3 The Wild Journey of Juniper Berry by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown. From the publisher: "Eleven-year-old Juniper Berry lives in a cabin with her family deep in the wild woods. Living off the grid is usually exciting, like the time she chased off three growling raccoons with a tree branch and some acorns, or when she thought she glimpsed the legendary Bigfoot. But her happy life in the wild ends abruptly when her younger brother gets sick, and the family moves to the city to be closer to the hospital. The Wild Journey of Juniper Berry is a story about perseverance when faced with difficult and unfamiliar challenges, belonging and finding your identity, compassion for others, and learning that our differences can sometimes be our strengths."

#4 Star Splitter by Matthew J. Kirby. Jenny imparts the following: "Jessica Mathers has every right to be angry. First her parents abandoned her on earth for a research trip into outer space, and then, once she’s settled in with her grandmother and her friends, they insist she join them on their mission. Space travel in 2199 means using a 3-D printer to teleport across the universe. Before departure, a hard drive backs up memories for safekeeping in case the traveler's body is destroyed. When Jessica climbs out of the printer light years away from earth expecting to see her parents, she instead finds herself on a crashed ship on a bleak, seemingly abandoned planet. The truth behind what happened makes for a thrilling page-turner, but what I found really interesting was the way Star Splitter explores how life experiences can create wildly divergent emotional journeys. Because while illegal, it is possible to print two copies of the same person. The dual-narrative of dual Jessicas is brilliantly done here, and the wholly unexpected ending really packs an emotional punch. Teen readers will love the twisty plot, but don't miss out on this clever sci-fi just because you’re a grown-up!"

#5 The Fragile Threads of Power by VE Schwab. Jenny gives voice to this opinion: "Fans of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy will be thrilled to learn this new series-starter brings more adventures with Kell, Lila, Alucard, and Rhy! I found the latest book to be layered with one richly-drawn, intertwined plotline after another. Seven years have passed since the events of A Conjuring of Light, and in Red London, Rhy sits precariously on the throne ruling a magical land without magic of his own. A dark shadow looms, a league called the Hand, whose members are bent on overthrowing the monarchy, which puts not only Rhy in danger, but also his child. Still captain of her own ship, Lila Bard is charged with tracking down a stolen magical artifact capable of creating doors to other lands without the use of Antari magic. As for Kell, the traveler who launched the original series in A Darker Shade of Magic? It’s heartbreaking to watch my favorite character struggle to live with his Antari magic broken, but his swordsmanship rivals Lila’s now. In the midst of all this, Schwab has created a stunning new character to love. Tes is a repair-shop assistant, a tinkerer, and a girl who can literally see strands of magic. She becomes the missing piece we didn’t know we needed in the sparkling fantasy world of the four Londons. If you are already a fan, you’ll want to read this on pub date, and if you haven’t read the original three books? Hey, you’ve got the whole summer!"

And let's wrap up this installment of top 5 picks (and none too soon, I'm clearly running out of synonyms for "says") with the one and only Kathy Herbst and her best books of the year.

#1 The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller. Here's what Kathy comes out with: "A mesmerizing book that, in our COVID world, hits uncomfortably close to home. Set in London during a deadly pandemic for which the world is unprepared, Neffy, a disgraced marine biologist, has volunteered for an experimental vaccine trial. When the staff and most of the other volunteers flee the hospital, Neffy is one of five remaining and the only one of the five who received the vaccine. Cut off from society and left to fend for themselves, these strangers are forced to rely on each other to survive. In part a meditation on choices made in order to survive, this is also very much Neffy's story, with chapters dedicated to her life as a marine biologist, her fascination with octopuses, and her complicated family relationships."

#2 Normal Rules Don't Apply: Stories by Kate Atkinson. Kathy observes: "An imaginative and engaging book of short stories that are full of wit, humor, and unexpected connections. The characters and the situations they face are delightfully inventive, with spot on observations about human nature and relationships. Couldn't put it down, so I read one after another, though I usually pace myself with a book of short stories!"

#3 Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond. Kathy alleges: "Poverty, by America addresses important questions about financial inequities in our country.  Why hasn't the level of poverty changed in spite of calls for reform?  Who benefits from poverty (his answers may or may not surprise you) and from government programs set up to address it?  And where does much of the money designated to help poor families really end up? Desmond makes a compelling argument that the gross inequality and financial insecurity in America is no accident. Nor is it the "fault" of the poor who many need to believe are poor because they are lazy and unwilling to work. Citing numerous studies and statistics, Desmond dispels many of the myths we hold and suggests solutions through systemic reform, the election of people willing to make changes, and all of us understanding how we benefit from a permanent underclass."

#4 After the Funeral and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley. One of TIME's 100 Must-Read books of the year, this is a masterful collection of stories that plumb the depths of everyday life to reveal the shifting tides and hidden undercurrents of ordinary relationships. Per the aforementioned Ron Charles (one of our favorite book critics here at Boswell) Tessa Hadley is "one of the greatest stylists alive."

#4 The White Lady: A British Historical Mystery by Jacqueline Winspear. Kathy shouts it from the rooftops: "In her new and engrossing history-based thriller, the Maisie Dobbs series author Winspear has created a new protagonist, Elinor White. Recruited as a teenager in Belgium to spy on German soldiers during WWI, she continues her work as wartime operative and trained killer in WWII. We first meet Elinor in post-war Britain - a woman haunted by the past and actions she was forced to take as an operative as well as by the fate of her family. Intent on creating a new and solitary life, she instead becomes involved in the lives of a young couple and their daughter who are also struggling to leave a difficult and dangerous past behind them. As with the Maisie Dobbs books, Winspear brings to vivid life the significance and often untold reality of women's incredible contributions during the world wars."

And that is the Boswellians top five picks of 2023, part two! We'll be back in a day (or so!) with thesaurus in hand and lots more great books for you to gift to everyone. Yes, even yourself. Until then, read on.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Staff Recommendations, Week of December 5, 2023

The first list of recs for the last month of the year.

We'll do our recommending alphabetically (by first name) this week, which means we begin with Jason Kennedy and his words on Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa, a history of magic in Renaissance Europe by Anthony Grafton. Jason says: "A serious look at those individuals in Medieval Europe that styled themselves as natural magic practitioners. They were alchemists, astrologers and such that focused on the laws of nature and how to use them to their benefit. This book charmed me with its window into the ways these magicians moved about the world and used what would later be described as science - however they would mix it with a bit of theater and showmanship (thinking of you, Faustus!)."

Our next recommender is Kathy Herbst, who brings us The Other Mothers, a thriller by British author Katherine Faulkner. Kathy says: "An engrossing page-turner about class, privilege, secrets, and murder that will keep you guessing until the very end. Tash is struggling to relaunch her career as a journalist while carrying for her two-year-old who's not adjusting well to daycare. When three moms at her son's daycare befriend her and offer to set up playdates, Tash is drawn into the lives of these well-to-do, successful women - a world she desperately wants to belong to. But when a young nanny is found dead under suspicious circumstances and Tash decides to investigate, she uncovers information that threatens her relationship with her husband and her new friends. Who exactly are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Who is lying and who is telling the truth? And, are there really good guys and bad guys?"

Kay Wosewick wraps things up with On the Isle of Antioch, a novel by French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, translated into English by Natasha Lehrer. Kay writes: "Maalouf’s twist on 'alien contact' is fantastic. Two individuals live alone on a tiny, remote island in the Atlantic; each lives a solitary, satisfying life. After loss of electricity, radio, and satellite contact, they are swept up in the arrival of mysterious aliens. Major country leaders are contacted, but the quiet island is of unique interest to the aliens. They complete their necessary business swiftly, but linger, unsure if they should stay or go. You may be left questioning nothing less than the value of human civilization."

Now it's back to Jason for a paperback pick - Bad Cree, a horror novel by Jessica Johns that Jason describes like this: "In Bad Cree, horror and grief are bound together; the duality of meanings of seemingly benign objects can both frighten and soothe. Mackenzie has moved away from her family and all the loss she has endured, however her past won't leave her alone. Nightmares begin to impact her life, forcing her to return home for help. Other members of her family are experiencing the same hauntings that are getting more and more serious. This book will have you believing that sleep is overrated. A brilliant and scary debut!"

And now Daniel Goldin chimes in with his notes on The Ingenue, the second novel by native Milwaukeean Rachel Kapelke-Dale, also out in paperback this week. Daniel says: "Saskia Kreis, a once-piano prodigy who now writes test prep questions, returns to Milwaukee after her the death of her mother, the writer of feminist fairy tales, only to find that the family home that she expects to inherit has been gifted to someone else. And not just anyone else, but Saskia’s former secret lover. Basically, WTF? I really enjoyed the way mom’s revisionist stories are woven into the story, as well as the local Milwaukee details that infuse the narrative. But really, it’s the suspenseful way the secrets are peeled away in The Ingenue that makes this a Midwestern Gothic not to be missed."

And those are the recs!

While the general ebb and flow of the yearly publication schedule dictates a December with fewer recommendations than a typical month, you'll want to check the blog often in the coming week, as we've already begun our annual roll out the full list of Boswellian Top 5 picks of 2023 in daily posts. Read on!

Monday, December 4, 2023

Top 5 Picks, 2023 - Part 1


It's the top five-iest time of the year. That's right, it's Top Fives week. 

Every year, each Boswellian picks their five favorite books of the last 12 months. And every day this week, we'll post a blog with a roundup of Boswellian top 5 selections. These are our favoritest faves, our tippiest tops, our most-highly recommended books of the year. We've got an eclectic mix of books, so you're sure to find something for every reader you may find yourself shopping for this year - including yourself!

First Boswellian up is Rachel Copeland. Here are her top 5 picks!

#1 Starter Villain by John Scalzi. From Rachel: "Divorced substitute teacher Charlie Fitzer doesn't expect anything when his estranged uncle Jake dies - even if he was a billionaire. So when he inherits what turns out to be his uncle's supervillain empire, he's more than a little nonplussed. And that's before he finds out that the admin department is composed of sentient cats. You won't have more fun this year than the time it takes you to read this gem."

#2 The Stolen Heir by Holly Black. Return to the opulent world of Elfhame, filled with intrigue, betrayal, and dangerous desires, with this first book of a captivating new duology. It's got a runaway queen, a reluctant prince, and a quest that may destroy them both. What more could you want?

#3 These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs. Rachel says: "A single coin holds a memory that could uncover the truth behind a genocide that nearly tore the galaxy-spanning empire apart decades ago. Three women pursue the memory. Jacobs plays these characters like an arpeggio, bouncing back and forth in time, adding layers upon layers until the shocking denouement. It’s a masterfully constructed story, with a twist so cleverly hidden that a second read is a necessity."

#4 A Power Unbound by Freya Marske. Rachel says: "Greedy magicians plot to steal all of Britain's magic, and only a small group of misfits stand in their way. It's beyond normal human capacity to encapsulate the enormity of this power struggle, the treasure of this friend group built over the previous two books, and the scorching hot romance between two extremely unlikely people. So do yourself a favor and read all three books, then start a group chat with your friends so you can all-caps scream at each other about how Freya Marske has both ruined and saved your life."

#5 Hello Stranger by Katherine Center. Rachel says: "After a seizure leads to brain surgery to repair the same congenital condition that killed her mother, portrait artist Sadie Montgomery can no longer see faces. Katherine Center does it again! She takes a condition that a surprising number of people cope with every day and turns it into a meditation on how we truly relate to each other - how do you recognize somebody, how can you trust your own instincts, when one major sense is taken away? You'll cry, you'll laugh, you might do a ton of research on prosopagnosia, and it's worth every minute."

The next Boswellian with five picks is Tim McCarthy. His top 5 follows!

#1 Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead. Tim says: "I don’t like to repeat myself with recommendations, but Whitehead makes it tough to avoid. So, what’s left to say? I’ll go ahead and repeat that past review one last time. This is greatness! I took my sweet time, savoring every literary morsel."

#2 Prophet by Helen MacDonald and Sin Blaché. Tim says: "How did these writers make a science fiction thriller with a military bent so much fun? I think it’s the freaky X-Files-style mystery that immediately jumps into play, combined with super-smart, snarky dialogue between convincing, entertaining characters. One operative is British (by way of India), and the other is American. They’re reminiscent of Odd Couple roommates with a complicated past who both love and hate each other in equal measure.  After reading a bit of Helen Macdonald’s earlier writing, I’m surprised that she’s doing something so different. What doesn’t surprise me is the high level of intelligence. I’ve seen that before from her, and this bright collaboration with Blaché is every bit as impressive!"

#3 The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned Blackhawk. Tim says: "Blackhawk adds to a series of highly praised recent books on indigenous history by going beyond cultural perspectives to offer an objective and encompassing new look at America. ere we have a new foundation for history, showing how all aspects of America have been influenced by its complex Native-newcomer interface.  I’m the grateful retired teacher who’s forever waking up to the ways our past defines our present. Blackhawk’s advanced scholarship and interpretation are enormous contributions to my quest. His elaborately documented accuracy satisfies beyond anything I’ve read in a career of teaching young children about American history."

#4 Chaos Theory by Nic Stone. Tim says: "I just don't know how Nic Stone does it. She writes with style and tenderness about the most painful aspects of being human. Now mix in snort-out-loud humor, sweet romance and high-powered intelligence! She's got me again. (And I don't read romance.) As usual, when I finish a Nic Stone novel the characters feel like a part of me. Stone does warn us that self-harm and suicide are discussed. She also tells us that she has her own brain-based diagnosis. It’s all the more reason I will follow her writing absolutely anywhere!"

#5 Big Tree by Brian Selznick. Tim says: "Nothing else in children’s literature is quite like Brian Selznick's ability to weave words and pictures into tales of mystery and suspense. With Big Tree, Selznick takes a step beyond, giving us an elegant look at the depth, persistence, and beauty of nature, all guided by the wisdom of the universe. Big Tree implores us all to listen as one, a community of the living, and it’s a gift to us all, at a time when hope and courage are what we need most."

And now we go to Conrad Silverberg, one of the original Boswellians, and truly an original himself. Here are his top 5.

#1 Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu. This is a groundbreaking, witty, and eloquent exploration of slime that will leave you appreciating the nebulous and neglected sticky stuff that covers our world, inside and out. From The Scientific American: "Wedlich’s knack for unfolding these natural histories makes her book ooze with charm."

#2 Dictatorship: It's Easier Than You Think! by Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa, illustrated by Kasia Babis. Co-hosts of the  podcast Gaslit Nation outline the authoritarian's playbook, illuminating five steps every dictator needs to take to successfully amass and maintain power. Historian Timothy Snyder says: "Everyone who wants to grow up in a healthy democracy should know about Gaslit Nation."

#3 The Indonesian Table by Petty Pandean-Elliott. Award-winner Pandean-Elliott tells the story of her Indonesian heritage through 150 much-loved and delicious recipes perfect for home cooks everywhere. From New York Journal of Books: "If you’re already intrigued by Indonesian food traditions or looking to learn a new and unfamiliar style of cooking, The Indonesian Table is an excellent introduction."

#4 Victory City by Salman Rushdie. The epic tale of a woman who breathes a fantastical empire into existence, only to be consumed by it over the centuries, from the transcendent imagination of Booker Prize–winning author Rushdie. From TIME: "An astounding work of historical fiction and magical realism . . . With wonder and humor, Rushdie spins a decades-long tale about power, philosophy, justice, and exile that boldly confronts the issues modern societies still face."

#5 The Ferguson Report: An Erasure by Nicole Sealey. A meditation on our times, cast through a reconsideration of the Justice Department's investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Illuminating what it means to live in this frightening age, and what it means to bear witness, this is an engrossing meditation on one of the most important texts of our time.

And now, Gao Her, the rec card magician, selects her top 5 picks of 2023.

#1 Tomb Sweeping by Alexandra Chang. Gao says: "A beautiful collection of short stories that express the various emotional experiences between human beings. I found myself doing everything from reevaluating my own relationships (“A Visit”) to silently weeping in my car (“Li Fang”). It was as if all of my most inner thoughts were captured in this book, and while reading, those same thoughts were regurgitated onto the forefront of my mind."

#2 The Lost Library by Rebecca Stead and Wendy Maas. Stead and Maas tell the story of a little free library guarded by a cat and a boy who takes on the mystery it keeps. From Booklist: "Full of heart, sly narration, and Stead’s expected air of mystery, this is well suited for lovers of books and libraries and novels featuring ensemble casts."

#3 The Bear and the Wildcat by Kazumi Yumoto, illustrated by Komako Sakai. This picture book with delicate illustrations explains the path of grief, ending with the uplifting new beginning of a budding friendship based on understanding. The starred Kirkus review says: "Quietly contemplative, mingling hope and healing, this is a book that will offer comfort to many."

#4 Elsewhere: Stories by Yan Ge. Gao says: "Yan Ge transports you somewhere not entirely unknown. There is a veil of familiarity with her words. What you’ll personally find within these stories, I do not know. But, there is something here for everyone to discover. Something elsewhere."

#5 Bunny and Tree by Hungarian artist Balint Zsako. This illustrated masterpiece is a gorgeous wordless adventure story about a rabbit and a tree, their surprising friendship, and the distance they go to find a place to call home. A New York Times and New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children's Book of 2023.

The blog will be back tomorrow with Part 2 of the top 5 roundup, so keep it tuned to this page for more.