Monday, March 18, 2024

Staff Recommendations, Week of March 19, 2024

Lots of great books coming out this week. Let's jump right into the staff recs.

We'll start off with Tim McCarthy, who recommends James, the new novel from Percival Everett that reconsiders and reconceives Mark Twain's classic novel: "James is Jim’s story, the enslaved man from Huckleberry Finn. It's told by Jim himself. Before reading it, I went back and read the original Mark Twain. I wanted to understand how Everett’s James began, and I have to say that Twain severely disappointed me. Even though Huck learns to better understand and care about Jim, so much of the book feels like a comedy, with family feuds, con men tricking naive river people, and Tom Sawyer endangering Jim's escape by adding foolish extra steps to the plan, all for a sense of glory and for his own entertainment. He almost gets them killed, which gets Jim caught again, and for nothing! Tom already knew that Jim’s owner had freed him. Huck just goes along with whatever Tom wants. It’s infuriating, this comedy (which never made me laugh) about using owned people. Jim shows strength and emotion in the novel, but often he's an afterthought or just a manipulated prop to drive the plot. Was it all meant by Twain to be ironic or satirical, designed to enrage me? Perhaps, but Everett refuses to let it stand. He knows the original novel completely and expands it to go far beyond a friendship between James and Huck. He shows us a slave’s stunning reality and the easy excuses people find to grab power and hate. He’s not a bit shy about it, and from the opening scene he also made me laugh! Out loud! After 140 years, Jim becomes James, and I say, with gratitude, that it’s about damn time this man emerged, so boldly, so beautifully, and so brilliantly! I already miss James."

Now it's over to Chris Lee for his take on The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv, and the Making of an American Film Classic by Daniel de Visé: "John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s Blues Brothers started as an is-it-funny-or-what-is-it? bit that Lorne Michaels kept cutting out of early Saturday Night Live broadcasts. But the bit was unstoppable, and in just a few years it grew into an out-of-control blockbuster production that ultimately saved the careers of some of America’s greatest musical voices. de Visé captures it all in his worthy tome on the making of a classic comedy capstone. I love how the book takes a deep dive into the two personalities that made up the brothers. Sure, you may know Belushi as the gregarious son of Albanian immigrants with a voracious appetite for drugs. But do you know how the embarrassment of growing up an outsider filled him with endless ambition that drove him to ceaselessly improve as a performer? And perhaps you adore that quirky Canadian Aykroyd for his singularly strange dry wit. But have you considered how his obsessive personality and encyclopedic memory were the dual engines driving his ‘mission from God’: to reintroduce America to one of its own original art forms, the blues? It’s a wild, improbable, tragic, inspiring story of two friends who loved (and frustrated) each other, who pushed each other to create something bold and new from the old and forgotten, and in the process changed the landscape of pop culture. Comedy fans, music fans, anybody who was ‘there’ (or wishes they were) in the days when SNL was a weekly event, you’re going to love this book"

Event alert! If you are reading this early in the week, then perhaps you'll be glad to know that on Wednesday, March 20, Daniel de Visé will be at Boswell (6:30 pm) for an event featuring this book! Click here for registration and more info -

Now a book with not one but two Rachels who are fans. Both Rachel Copeland and Rachel Ross recommend Cascade Failure, the debut novel (and first book in a new series) by LM Sagas. Rachel Copeland says: "Out in the depths of space, three groups hold all the power - and they're hiding something big. When the ragtag group aboard the Ambit respond to a distress call, they find a planet full of dead bodies, one grateful programmer, and a whole lot of trouble. Who knew trouble could be so fun and heartwarming? This crew is so charming and full of life that it's easy to forget that one of them is the AI that captains the ship. If you like your action and adventure with a side of creative nicknames, knitting, and pancakes (AKA if you're always chasing that Firefly feeling), this is the book for you."

Rachel Ross says: "LM Sagas bursts out of the gate with her debut novel, Cascade Failure. This is a nonstop space western romp set in a galaxy where corporate powers clash relentlessly with both the workers who fuel development and the guild preventing everyone from tearing each other to shreds. In the wake of these forces, Sagas grounds us in the Ambit, a ship helmed by a curious AI who has collected a crew of human misfits. Sagas writes like a boxer, alternating punches of action-soaked adventure with genuinely heartfelt character scenes. Each character has motivations that propel them through the narrative and personalities that make them a joy to ride along with. Simply put, this is one hell of a crew fighting to make a difference in their largely hostile capitalist world, and it’s time for some thrillin’ heroics. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel as soon as possible!" 

Jen Steele is also a Cascade Failure (and Firefly) fan! Jen says: "Cascade Failure is a wild space adventure full of action, humor and lovable characters. If you miss Firefly, then this is the book for you!"

Let's stick with Rachel Ross for one more - Floating Hotel by Grace Curtis: "Welcome to the Grand Abeona Hotel, the finest luxury spaceship hotel the galaxy has to offer. As the Abeona coasts through space serving grand food, gorgeous views, and relaxing experiences, the staff work in a flurry to keep the whole thing from falling apart. Meanwhile, there is a mystery wrapped up in the heart of the Abeona that threatens the livelihoods of everyone on board. Curtis threads her narrative neatly through a wide cast of characters as if they are each a bead on a string, tying the ends of the story together neatly with Carl, the longtime manager (and one-time stowaway) who holds the ship together. Floating Hotel really captures both the brain-curdling frustration and giddy camaraderie that comes from working in hospitality, and as we step from character to character we learn about their previous lives and current relationships while catching glimpses of the capitalist hellscape they inhabit. In some way or another, they’re all seeking connection and a place to belong, no matter how transitory that place may ultimately be."

Oli Schmitz is next up with The Mars House by Natasha Pulley: "Near-impossible to put down, Pulley’s first sci-fi novel imagines a future in which Earth’s climate refugees are sent to an established colony on Mars, where differences in language, social constructs, and physical existence create tension between the “Earthstrong” new arrivals and the majority population of naturalized residents, who’ve been genetically modified over generations to adapt to the planet’s gravity and harsh conditions. This immersive story follows an Earthstronger named January (formerly of the London Royal Ballet, now relegated to factory work and poor treatment on Mars) who chooses a political marriage contract to escape bleak circumstances. I blew through the book in one day, hooked by every element of the story – its strong notes of mystery, a dash of psychological horror, a sprinkling of discussions on linguistics, and even a herd of mammoths – and rooting for January the whole way through. The Mars House has moments of tenderness and humor, points of hope and desperation, a contentious and high-stakes world, perfectly executed use of footnotes... and did I mention the mammoths? (I'm a little obsessed with the mammoths.) Fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books and Winter's Orbit alike will thoroughly enjoy this one!"

Oli keeps it going with their rec for The Woods All Black by Lee Mandelo: "This novella must be haunting me, because weeks after finishing The Woods All Black, I still think about it on the daily. From the perspective of a worldly queer narrator visiting on behalf of the Frontier Nursing Service, Lee Mandelo immerses the reader in a small and insular Appalachian town in the 1920s, with a cadence and language that fit the setting so precisely, it feels like reading something actually written in the era it describes. A very unsettling, big gender, and ultimately very satisfying historical folk horror read."

Jason Kennedy now joins the fray with The Day Tripper by James Goodhand: "It’s way back in 1998, and Alex Dean is having the perfect day (and first date!) with Holly. Then, as he’s crossing the bar with drinks in his hands, he sees a person he had trouble with when he was younger. A fight ensues, and Alex is dumped in the Thames river. Cut to 2014, when Alex awakens, confused by everything. His body is recovering from a drunken night, and he doesn't recognize his environment. He has no idea how or why, but his life has become unstuck - he jumps around every day to a new part of his life. Things doesn't end up the way he believed they would: homeless, alcoholic, and spurned by his family as a deadbeat. On top of all that, no Holly. Alex must attempt to correct what went wrong, hoping that time isn't written in stone and that we all have some agency over our future."

Kay Wosewick gets in on the recommending with Secrets of the Octopus by Sy Montgomery amd Warren K Carlyle, IV: "If you are not already head-over-heels in love with octopuses, Montgomery’s new book will seduce you. For those already in love, new research will fill you with more love. Some truly strange new species have been found and are delightfully described. Of course, recent experiments have discovered new aspects of octopus intelligence. Perhaps most interesting are stories about funny, weird, and (apparently) intense emotional human-octopus relationships. Bonus: the book is filled with gorgeous photographs."

And we've got one kids book rec from Jen Steele, specifically the new Middle Grade novel from John Schu, Louder than Hunger: "Louder Than Hunger is a middle grade novel told in verse and based on the author's experience with anorexia. I read this in one sitting - it was intense and emotional and hard to put down! Heartbreaking and hopeful, I'm thankful to John Schu for writing such an important novel that is sure to spark conversations and shed light on a topic many young people struggle with."

And we've got one paperback pick for you this week, a recommendation from our proprietor Daniel Goldin. He suggests In Memoriam, a novel that gets quite a redesign in its paperback edition, written by Alice Winn: "Despite the age requirement of 19 to be a British army solider, there is much pressure at In Memoriam’s boarding school to enlist earlier, what with the rah-rah nature of the student newspaper and the shaming words of the white feather girls. So enlist they do -  and war’s horrors await. In addition to focusing on the quasi-closeted nature of the special friendship at the center of the novel, Winn touches on the race and class tensions of the time, as well as the growing awareness that the British empire may not withstand the confrontation, whether they win or lose. It’s hard to believe that a novel could be so brutal and so romantic at the same time, but that’s the case for Alice Winn’s passionate debut."

And those are the recs for the week! Until next week, when we'll be back here with more great books, read on.

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