Monday, May 20, 2024

Staff Recommendations, Week of May 21, 2024


A couple new recs coming your way courtesy of the Boswellians to keep you reading through this third week of May. Here we go.

First up, Daniel Goldin recommends What a Fool Believes: A Memoir by Michael McDonald with Paul Reiser. Daniel says: "McDonald grew up in St Louis, the son of a streetcar operator and itinerant musician. Mike (a fellow musician renamed him Michael) followed that inherited passion, jamming in a number of bands in the bi-state area before relocating to California. I tend to enjoy the journeyman stories, not just before fame, but after it too. Paul Reiser (Really!), who wrote the book with McDonald, chronicles life with Steely Dan (or The Dan), the Doobie Brothers, the solo career, and the many collaborations, though I don’t think we really get the true story of the Doobie demise. That’s for another book to tell. But there’s another story here too. For many of his years, McDonald’s life was controlled by drugs and alcohol. His success may have been the result of talent, but the fact that he survived? That’s surely luck as much as anything."

Next up, Chris Lee recommends Shae, the new novel by fellow West Virginian Mesha Maren: "It’s an old story, sad, harrowing, and way too familiar, about the way addiction strips away everything – everything – from a person, and pushes them to the ragged edges of being alive. Mesha Maren tells it with fresh eyes, clear yet tender. A botched caesarean, a script of oxy, and soon Shae, a queer teenage mother, is slipping away from her own taciturn mother, her transitioning lover, from even her infant daughter. Is she losing or becoming herself? As Shae is untethered from the places she loves, Maren writes the mythic, earthy beauty of West Virginia’s mountains; gutters overflowing with red pine needles, riverbanks swollen with muddy water, everything too full and still hungry. This is a book about outsiders and shame, pain, fear, and relief, love and escape. Shae is a bracing, powerful novel by one of Appalachia’s rising stars."

Paperback pick alert! We've got one paperback pick from Jenny Chou this week, and that's The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei. Jenny says: "The set up for The Deep Sky, the debut sci-fi novel by biracial Japanese and American author Yume Kitasei, is as creative as it is disturbing. Main character Asuka left behind a planet earth embroiled in war and catastrophic climate change. Along with a crew of eighty, she’s aboard the Phoenix, a spaceship crossing the universe to settle Planet X, when a bomb explodes and jeopardizes the first trip beyond our galaxy. The captain and two others are dead, and the loyalties of the remaining seventy-seven are constantly shifting as they search for the person responsible. No one knows who to trust, and if the flight pattern can’t be corrected in a matter of days, all aboard will drift endlessly in the wrong direction until all the oxygen is used up. On top of all this, many of the crew members are pregnant, as being capable of carrying a child was a prerequisite for the trip. As the last selected for the mission, Asuka feels like an imposter, but during the extensive years of training she proved capable of puzzling her way out of realistic simulations of worst-case scenarios. I found the sci-fi tech exciting and plausible, and The Deep Sky works as a thrilling page-turner. But the novel also becomes extremely thought-provoking when the motivation behind the sabotage is revealed. You’ll think about this one long after turning the last page."

And those are our recommendations for the week. We'll be back here in roughly 7 days with a new batch of books. Until then, read on.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Staff Recommendations, Week of May 14, 2024

 
A little late this week, but no less great. Here are the Boswellians picks among the new releases and paperback drops.

Chris Lee starts us off with Blue Ruin, the latest novel from Hari Kunzru, author of White Tears and Red Pill. His new novel is the third in this loosely connected thematic trilogy. But fear not, it's the first Kunzru novel Chris has read, and he assures everyone that you can pick this one up on its own, no problemo. Chris's review: "It’s a paranoid pandemic story, it’s a tale of artistic self-destruction, and it’s the memory of doomed love. The writing is precise, visceral, immediate, superb. Washed-out and undocumented, a once-acclaimed artist lives in his car in upstate New York. It’s the pandemic’s early days, and he’s sick. By chance, while delivering groceries, he comes face to face with his past lover on a fortified estate. She takes him in and hides him so he might convalesce on the grounds, and as he does, their past together washes over him like a fever dream. And now he must confront what he’s become. His art was once about crossing state-imposed borders, yet recounting his story becomes an act of crossing borders of his own, the boxes he’s put himself in and the lines he’s drawn to shape his life into a meaningful act of art and to be subsumed by the artistic act. And now he must ask, does an aesthetic life preclude the ability to love? To see oneself or another fully? Can aesthetic purity exist in a capitalist mode? I love that Kunzru doesn’t just ask these questions in his novel – he answers them, with brutal and breathtaking consequences for his characters and for the reader. A brilliant novel of what must be sacrificed in order to create an artistic act that cannot be bought or sold."

Kay Wosewick is next with a new novel in translation. Woodworm is written by Spanish author Layla Martinez, and was translated into English by Sophie Hughes and Annie McDermott. Kay says: "This delightful horror story stars three generations of women living in a house permanently haunted by annoying, noisy, sleepless ghosts. An obnoxiously wealthy family lives next door. They flaunt their wealth and are nasty to the women; in fact, the family's social standing in town seems largely built on continuous mistreatment of the women. The women are finally motivated to trade fortunes with their neighbors. Fun!"

Kay also recommends a nonfiction title, The Internet of Animals: Discovering the Collective Intelligence of Life on Earth by Martin Wikelski. Kay writes: "In 1967, two Illinois teens built a receiver to track Sputnik as it crossed the US. They modified it to track migrating birds, but the system wasn’t scalable. Author Wikelski took a professorship at U Illinois in Urbana-Champagne in 1998 expressly to work with the one still-living inventor; his goal was to build an effective, scalable system to track animals of all kinds, anywhere. The book traces Wikelski’s 20+ years of tenaciously following every opportunity to build his “internet of animals.” Failures were legion. But today, the system is slowly going online around the world, and the applications are jaw-dropping. One use of the system - to save individual members of a group of endangered species, (e.g. from poachers) - alone makes the author’s tenacity priceless. Inspiring."

Now it's over to Rachel Copeland for her notes on Locked in Pursuit, the latest Electra McDonnell historical mystery from Ashley Weaver. Rachel C says: "It's been months since reformed thief and safecracker Electra McDonnell has seen Major Ramsey, months since he nearly died to save her, and in the meantime the bombs have continued to fall on London in 1941. When Ellie's sense for illegal deeds brings an article about a simple house robbery to the Major's desk, the two once again become embroiled in a mission to stop a valuable asset from falling into Nazi hands. Meanwhile, simmering in the background is a question Ellie can't bear to ask - with her own past as a thief and her parents' tragic endings possibly hiding something worse, something treasonous, will she ever be good enough for the Major? Prepare yourself to enter a reading fugue state with this latest thrilling installment from Weaver - this was a one-day, "I don't want this to end but I can't stop reading" kind of book. Ashley Weaver said, "I see your piddling 'slow burn, will-they-won't-they' and I raise you an 'I could love you, but I don't think I can trust you, and also we have to defeat Nazis'" - and I will never get enough of it."

Rachel Ross's last recommendation of her tenure as a Boswellian arrives this week - I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons by Peter S Beagle gets this Ross recommendation: "Every once in a while, we are presented with one of those lovely and rare gems of fantasy: a new story that evokes the wondrous feeling of a classic fairy tale. Akin to Gaiman’s Stardust or Goldman’s The Princess Bride, I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons is one such treasure. We follow a batch of young characters who are feeling woefully miscast in their own lives. This includes Robert Thrax, a dragon exterminator who secretly loves the creatures he’s hired to eliminate, Princess Cerise, who is determined to make herself useful yet finds herself inundated by preening suitors, and Prince Reginald, who desperately longs to escape his princely duties and hit the road. The three of them must (reluctantly) join forces to face a chaotic evil surfacing in their land. While the book is glimmering with witty and sardonic humor, it also harbors a sinister edge. It’s about bravery, breaking away from family expectations, young love, and following your dreams. Oh, and there's plenty of dragons. A truly charming tale from a master storyteller."

And in new picture books, our kids buyer Jen Steele brings us an adorable entry entitled Ursula Upside Down, written and illustrated by Corey R Tabor. Jen says: "Corey Tabor's picture books are so delightful and his latest, Ursula Upside Down, does not disappoint! It's a wonderful picture book about being yourself and how we all see the world differently, told by Ursula, the most adorable upside-down catfish you'll meet."

We've got one Daniel rec among this week's paperback releases, for Paper Names by Susie Luo. Daniel says: "Two families, two economic trajectories, entwined by fate. Despite being a successful engineer in Dalian, Tony/Tongheng Zhang dreams of a better life in the United States, even after realizing that he’ll have to start over from the bottom. While working as a doorman in Manhattan, Tony bonds with Oliver, a young lawyer who lives in the building, who agrees to give Tony’s daughter Tammy piano lessons. The friendship winds up being a rung on the economic ladder from Flushing to Scarsdale; if only the worst thing they had to deal with was the uncomfortableness of a mentor relationship that veers into, how to put this? Tammy really likes playing Celine Dion songs. Like Tony, Oliver has also reinvented himself, distancing himself from his grandfather’s criminal past, but it might be difficult to outrun. I really liked the dual nature of the story – the multiple identities and reinvention, the parent/child expectations and disappointments. A captivating family drama!"

Those are the recs! We'll be back here next week with more faves. Until then, read on.

Monday, May 6, 2024

Staff Recommendations, Week of May 7, 2024

 
It is the first week of May, which means it is time a for a whole lot of new books to be released. And that means a whole lot of new recs from the Boswellians. Let's go.

Daniel Goldin recommends four books this week. First, he recommends The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley: "When our narrator gets her new charge, he’s likely to have a bit of trouble acclimating. As far as he knew, Graham Gore was just stranded while looking for the Northwest Passage. The other time expats call him 47, referring to the year he was pulled from history. You can view this as an entertaining time travel, romance-adjacent fantasy worthy of Matt Haig or Jasper Fforde. But there’s also some contemporary ruminations here: How does the daughter of a Cambodian refugee handle this survivor of the Franklin expedition who is at once a colonialist explorer and is yet a refugee in time himself? There’s a lot of setup to this novel, but don’t worry, it all comes together in a revelation-and-action-packed finale."

Jason Kennedy is also a fan! He adds: "The U.K. government has harnessed the power of time travel. Oddly, they are experimenting by bringing people from the past to the present. They are grabbing individuals just before they are supposed to historically perish. The main character is the 'bridge' for one of these individuals, and her historical person is Commander Graham Gore, who was brought forward from an ill-fated Franklin expedition. The leap in time is quite something to get used to. I really enjoyed how Kaliane Bradley handled the rules of time travel and the consequences of using it, plus the musings of Gore and his other historical anomalies really paint a picture of what seems off to them about our time. They're not wrong! There's a lot of debating and talking, some behind the scenes intrigue, and a very exciting ending that Bradley whips up at a fantastic rate. Can't wait to see what else she has coming in the future!"

Next, Daniel recommends Sipsworth, the new novel from Simon Van Booy: "Having lost her long-time husband and her adult son, Helen Cartwright has returned home to the town where she grew up, with no plans beyond dying there. But this end game is interrupted by the arrival of a mouse. As she figures out what to do, her solitary life is punctured by the folks she must consult to solve the problem – a hardware store owner, a librarian, a doctor. Imagine the twists of Fredrik Backman, the philosophy of Matt Haig, and the animal bonding of Shelby Van Pelt, all told in a playful yet heartfelt style that is recognizably Simon Van Booy’s."

Daniel's third rec is for Look Away: A True Story of Murders, Bombings, and a Far-Right Campaign to Rid Germany of Immigrants by Jacob Kushner. Daniel says: "Jacob Kushner, a Milwaukee-raised international journalist, chronicles the crimes of two young men and a woman who, over the course of a more than a decade, brutally murdered Muslim immigrants. To support themselves and their killing spree, they would hold up banks, wearing only Halloween masks and getting away on mountain bikes. How could they have not been caught for so long? Despite Germany being a country so aware of its past and, for many years, so open to immigration, it’s not surprising that White supremacy continued to hold sway with a percentage of the populace. But Look Away also notes that the National Socialists continued to thrive not just because of donors and law enforcement sympathies, but because of a misguided attempt to rely on informants, a shocking source of government funding for these groups. If, having devoured Killers of the Flower Moon and A Fever in the Heartland, you are looking for a book that puts outrageous criminal acts in the context of history, I have got one for you!"

Kushner appears for this book at Boswell on Thursday, May 16, 6:30 pm. He'll be in conversation with Pablo Muirhead and the event is cohosted by Voces De La Frontera. Click here for more and to register.

And here is Daniel's fourth recommendation: How to Read a Book by Monica Wood. Daniel says: "Violet has been recently released from prison after serving time for manslaughter. Harriet is the coordinator of the prison book club. Frank is a recently retired bookstore handyman but is also the husband of the woman who died in Violet’s car crash. Their lives collide at Wadsworth Books - a bit of a coincidence, but Portland, Maine isn’t that big a city. Violet’s family has abandoned her, and while Harriet has the support of her kids and niece, they are all planning to move away. And Frank is dealing with the complicated grief of widowhood. So, there it is - a story of found family, which I love, and a lot of book reading and discussion, which I love too. But it gets better – Violet gets a job in a Parrot lab at the local university, and it turns out they are both smarter than you know and an important part of the story. Dare I say it? If you’ve been looking for a book that captures all the joys of Remarkably Bright Creatures, I think you’ve got it here."

Kathy Herbst agrees with Daniel on this one. She says: "A deeply moving novel about forgiveness, second chances, and the power of books to change our lives. The story revolves around three people and how their lives intersect: Violet, a 22-year-old released just from prison after serving two years for a drunk-driving incident that took the life of a kindergarten teacher; Harriet, a retired teacher who runs a book club for inmates in a women's prison; and Frank, a retired machinist trying to find his way after the death of his wife. The author tackles difficult questions of taking responsibility for one's actions, living with mistakes made, and how and when to forgive others and oneself. Questions that lead me to pause and ponder: what would I do/feel/think in this situation? And, do I really know the answer to that question?"

Kay Wosewick now on Not a River by Selva Almada, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize: "The jungle-like air is thick and stifling when three friends arrive at their favorite weekend getaway: camping, drinking, and fishing on a fairly remote island surrounded by a slow, lazy river. The men are wound up and careless. One of the island's village leaders is strung tight even before the fishermen arrive. Two terse encounters between the visitors and residents build palpable tension, which finally explodes at an evening dance in the village. Almada's slim novels pack wicked, well-earned earned punches at men behaving badly. This is her best work yet."

Kay also recommends Brother. Do. You. Love. Me. by Manni Coe, with illustrations by Reuben Coe. Kay says: "This unusual love story is between two brothers. The older brother dedicates six months to his beloved younger brother, doing nothing but working to bring him back from a very dark place. I fell in love with both of these remarkable brothers. The entire book is beautiful and uplifting, but the end is truly spectacular."

Rachel Ross suggests Can't Spell Treason without Tea, the first book in a new series from Rebecca Thorne: "Rebecca Thorne is a welcome addition to the cozy fantasy par-tea recently kick-started by Travis Baldree. Reyna, a former Queensguard, and Kianthe, the strongest mage in the realm, have decided they’ve had quite enough of all this nonsense and run away together to follow their shared dream: opening a combination bookshop/tea parlor.  What follows is the sweet journey of a couple learning who they are outside their jobs, how to cohabitate, and how to navigate conflicts as a team. They quickly become part of a small town communi-tea and work together with some quali-tea new friends to solve problems and investigate a long-forgotten mystery. This is a cute sapphic fantasy that wears its heart on its sleeve while pelting you with tea puns."

Jen Steele has a handful of kids book recommendations for us this week, starting with a new middle grade graphic novel - Tryouts by Sarah Sax. Jen says: "Al lives and breathes baseball. Baseball is everything to her, and when Al makes the all-boy team, the pressure is on. Not only is the team hoping to win the championship for the tenth straight year, but they have a new coach, and last year's star players have all graduated. When the local news runs a story on Al and not the team, morale starts to dip, and games are lost. Al has what it takes to be the best and just wants to play the game for as long as she's allowed. Tryouts is a funny middle grade graphic novel about learning what it means to be part of team and staying true to yourself."

And now we've got a whole bunch of picture book recs! First is Chloe and Maude by beloved kids book creator Sandra Boynton, as recommended by Tim McCarthy. He says: "I sometimes wonder what my life would be like without Sandra Boynton's irrepressible creatures. I'm thrilled that I don't have to find out. With her calendar on my wall and her books everywhere, life is just brighter. These two cat friends named Chloe and Maude are my latest discovery, and I welcome them to my world! The three stories in this book about their challenging and creative adventures made me gasp, grin, and giggle with gratitude. Boynton is the best!"

And now, you guessed it, it's back to Jen for more picture books. Her first pick is Dalmartian: A Mars Rover's Story, written and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins. Jen keeps it brief and too the point: "Dalmartian is a completely adorable and fun read aloud picture book about a boy and his dog… from outer space!"

Jen stays in the stars with The Spaceman, a picture book authored and illustrated by Randy Cecil. Jen says: "The Spaceman is a sweet and whimsical picture book about a spaceman arriving to a new planet and seeing the beauty in the ordinary. I really enjoyed the musings of the tiny spaceman, and I hope you do too!"

Jen's last picture book pick is The Bicycle: How an Act of Kindness Changed a Young Refugee's Life, written by Patricia McCormick and Mevan Babakar, illustrated by Yas Imamura. Here's Jen's take: "The Bicycle is based on the true story of a young girl and her family fleeing their country and finding a new and safe home. With each new move, the girl feels smaller and smaller and grows shy and hesitant in her new surroundings. It takes one small act of kindness from a neighbor to change everything for her. A heartwarming picture book and a lovely reminder that it is not hard to be kind to others."

And in paperback releases this week:

Greta Borgealt recommends Death Valley by Melissa Broder: "Melissa Broder fans rejoice. She has given us another gift with her newest novel. Death Valley puts you in the mind of a middle-aged, sober writer who is in midst of grieving for her father who is critical condition. Her husband is also suffering from a worsening chronic illness. She takes refuge in a Best Western near the desert. Broder's voice is sarcastic and celebrates the thoughts that most people have had but don't want to admit. She tends to write these unlikeable female characters, women consumed with desires and overwhelming feelings. They sometimes make destructive or selfish decisions, but as a reader, I find them very interesting. As the novel progresses, she proceeds to venture deeper into the Californian desert. It is in the desert landscape where the novel shifts from literary fiction to magical realism. The presence of a surreal magical cactus that only she can see is what makes this novel great. It gives a playful eccentricity to a story that is very bleak at times in subject matter and setting. It quickly escalates to a survival story when she can no longer go back the way she has come."

Jason Kennedy recommends The Ferryman by Justin Cronin: "Proctor is a Ferryman, an individual who helps citizens ‘retire’ to a mysterious island when their time comes. On the island, they become reborn as a younger version of themselves, ready to join the world anew. The first day we meet Proctor, he is called in to help his father ‘retire,’ and things pretty much going bonkers afterwards. Justin Cronin has crafted a strange world that has connections to our own (both historically and philosophically), but then he veers off into a dystopian/utopian world hidden behind leagues and leagues of brilliant blue ocean. This is by far my absolute favorite book by Cronin, from the surprises he unleashes, the trippy sequences that he lulls you into, to the frenetic, anxiety-driven ghost chases."

Madi Hill recommends The Guest by Emma Cline: "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."

Oli Schmitz recommends Killingly by Milwaukee-based author Katharine Beutner: "Suspicions rise and secrets are uncovered in this novel based on the real unsolved disappearance of Bertha Mellish, a student at Mount Holyoke College in 1897. The story is told through the eyes of those who knew Bertha - her closest friend, her sister, the family doctor, and a hired detective brought on to aid in the search, each driven by their own agenda. Each character has a piece of Bertha's story, and most have something to hide. Beutner builds the mystery to its shattering revelations with great attention to detail along the way, particularly in representing the social conditions of late-19th-century New England. Those looking for a dark and immersive historical novel will find themselves entirely captivated by Killingly!"

Daniel Goldin recommends Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar: "I’ve read books before on the problems of parking before, but those mostly focused on the primacy of the automobile over other modes of transportation. Grabar considers how the costs of cars and parking are subsidized by non-drivers and how a focus on parking is directly responsible for our shortage of affordable housing. Heavily referenced and highly readable, here’s hoping Paved Paradise becomes required reading for planners, developers, and civil engineers.

Rachel Ross also recommends Paved Paradise: "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.'"

Kathy Herbst recommends Owner of a Lonely Heart: A Memoir of Motherhood and Absence by Beth Nguyen: "In 1975, Nguyen, who was 8 months old, fled Saigon with her family to the United States. Her mother, however, remained in Viet Nam, and, in large part, Nguyen's book focuses on her struggle to make sense of this absence and, later in her life, build a relationship with the mother she really didn't know. This touching memoir is an exploration of loss and loneliness, absence and acceptance, and what it means to be a refugee and to struggle to fit in."

And so does Daniel Goldin! He says: "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."

Jason, Chris, and Greta all recommend Rouge by Mona Award. From Jason: "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!"

From Chris: "Mona Awad's mesmerizing new novel is a dark fairy tale of grief, love, obsession, memory, and the shadows we find in the mirror. Of Tom Cruise, secret worlds, and skin care. Rouge asks this heart-rending question: how does a mother's love both protect and break someone? A gripping book about the ways we'll destroy ourselves for a dream (a nightmare) of beauty."

From Greta: "This book stretches like a dream you can't wake up from. It centers around a woman who is grieving the death of her mother, with whom she had a very complex relationship. Both women share an obsession with beauty and skin care. The main character comes to California to manage her mother's remaining estate and large debts when she discovers that her mother was a part of very exclusive spa that promises advance treatments. Although it delves into topics that are feminine in nature such as beauty standards, this is largely a horror novel, and I would not recommend it to those who are very faint of heart. In her writing, there is a certain sinister energy, but it is as intriguing as it is devilish. This world Awad has created has many layers, and nothing is as it first seems to appear. It is revolutionary in its satire of the beauty industry, achieving what lesser books only scrape the surface of."

Kay Wosewick recommends Swamp Story by Dave Barry: "Bad day? Pick up Swamp Story and it won’t take long before you start cracking up with laughter. Great medicine, great entertainment. Dave Barry needs to write more “Florida Man” fiction; he’s a master."

Phew, and those are ALL the recs! Stop into the blog next week, assuming you can manage to finish your new to-be-read stack by then. We'll be here with more recommendations. Until then, read on.