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.

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