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.

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