Tuesday, January 16, 2018

What did the book club think of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go? (If you want to avoid spoilage, don't read this blog and also refrigerate leftovers)

For the second time in three years, we decided to read a book from the Nobel Prize for Literature winner. I still feel bad that we didn't read a Patrick Modiano novel, and perhaps that regret let me to pick Voices from Chernobyl the next year. I'm a little weirded out that according to Ingram, there's no paperback of that book currently available. Seems unlikely. That said, I couldn't bring myself to pick something from Bob Dylan, and that led us to Kazuo Ishiguro. Being that I already read The Remains of the Day, and my thought was that the group had also probably read it, we picked Never Let Me Go. 

It turns out that this novel is, in the wake of the Nobel Prize, selling at a faster clip than Remains. Though it was also the subject of a film treatment, to my knowledge, the film was not a huge success.  Sometimes films curtail book sales, but it seems like an unsuccessful film might be better long-term for a book than a successful one. I spoke to my sales rep Jason about this, and he said that the book is a popular book for high school course adoption.

Never Let Me Go is a first-person narrative of Kathy, who was sent, at a young age, to a boarding school called Hailsham. I thought everyone knew the secret of the book, but go figure, more than half the folks in our In-Store Lit Group did not know what was happening until they realized that Hailsham was a very special boarding school indeed. C. said "What a sweet little book this is!" until she realized it wasn't a sweet book after all. That's the second time we've pulled that trick on her, following Edna O'Brien's switcheroo in The Little Red Chairs. 

Kathy's friends are Ruth and Tommy. It's a classic love triangle. Kathy is sort of in love with Tommy, who is partnered with Ruth. Ruth is a manipulator and convinces Kathy that even if she and Tommy broke up, Tommy would never want her. The story moves through their time at Hailsham, and then for a period after school, before they begin their vocation as carers.

Spoilers below.

The secret is that the three of them are clones who are being raised for their parts. After their education, they make their use in society as carers, helping donors after their operations. At one point a carer turns into a donor. Notice apparently comes by mail. When a donor has given their last donation, they've completed, which struck us as morbid and banal at the same time.

Apparently Hailsham is an experiment, where the students are raised humanely, educated, and encouraged to be creative. They even learn how to safely have sex. Because they are clones, they don't have to worry about pregnancy. The other schools (or maybe they aren't even schools)  are not as nice as Hailsham, but how they are bad are left to our imagination. Several of us were reminded of humanely raised animals vs factory farms.


For some reason, the best of their art projects are taken away for use in a gallery. For what? We're never quite sure, but this is definitely part of the experiment. When Kathy and Tommy locate two of the school officials after it closes, one gets the feeling was the art was to prove a point - but whether the ends was to raise clones humanely or to end clone farming altogether is left for us to decide.

Let's get to the negatives first. N. was one of those people for whom the book was a reach. Sometimes she comes around, but in this case, she stopped reading, and even our enlightening conversation didn't make her want to return to the book. D. is a self-proclaimed hater. He really didn't have much to say, except that he thought the book was juvenile. L1. liked it, but wondered if it was YA. (See comment above that a lot of high schools read it). We are not in agreement here; this was just one - well, two - opinions. J2. enjoyed reading it but was depressed by the end.

G. was in the positive camp. A little confused at the beginning, but hooked by the end. L2 went from hate, but then gave it an eight (out of ten). J2. really liked it. And S. told us this was the third time she read it. I'm a fan as well. I found it hypnotic. I can also see how there was an enthusiasm to turn this into a film and also can see how hard this would be to do. Like Remains of the Day, it could work as a Merchant-Ivory kind of thing but I'm sure there was a temptation to play up the SF elements.

There were questions. What exactly were they donating that they good go through four operations? This led to a discussion of kidney donor waiting lists. We also wondered why they didn't escape. This was not an apocalyptic book with futuristic surveillance. After all, they did love the film, The Great Escape. Had the escape been breeded out of them? Or were they, like the butler in The Remains of the Day, aware of their place in life, no matter what they might have wanted, and honor-bound to follow through?

We also had an interesting discussion of speculative vs. science fiction. The former is used as a literary crossover term and is more encompassing. But there's also this theory that speculative books set up a futuristic or alternate history presence but don't then follow through on the detailed world building and specifically the scientific details that sf fans crave. I do not crave the details, but I was interested in a world that had cloning but still had not gone beyond cassette tapes.

Speaking of which, several folks wondered if the song that captivates Kathy, Never Let Me Go, and its singer, Judy Bridgewater, was real. The answer is no, but they did create a song for the film, which you can listen to here.

Our take: don't expect a uniform response to Ishiguro's novel, but the discussion was lively and even the few folks who didn't like the book enjoyed talking about it. Lots of philosophical musing.

Upcoming In-Store Lit Group discussions:

Monday, February 5, 7 pm: The Anatomy of Dreams, by Chloe Benjamin

Monday, March 5, 7 pm: The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck.



Sunday, January 14, 2018

Ali Smith's Winter and other Boswell bestsellers for the week ending January 13, plus the Journal Sentinel TapBooks page

Here are our bestsellers for the week ending January 13, 2018.

Hardcover Fiction:
1. The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey
2. The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin
3. Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
4. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
5. The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn
6. Winter, by Ali Smith
7. Devotions, by Mary Oliver
8. Origin, by Dan Brown
9. Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
10. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (event 1/31 for paperback)

We had a great event with Sujata Massey for The Widows of Malabar Hill, edging out sales for The Immortalists, which isn't an event until Jan 18. Massey told us of her early days touring with Laura Lippman by car when they were both reporters at the Baltimore Sun. Massey talked about the two women who were the inspiration for her character Perveen Mistry. And yes, she's already working on #2 in the series. Here's Lisa Levy's write-up with Five Crime Must-Reads in Lit Hub, where she said that Massey's latest is "a compelling look into Indian society through the eyes of a remarkable heroine." And yes, we have signed copies.

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff (no, we haven't cleared our special orders yet)
2. The Gray Rhino, by Michele Wucker
3. From Here to Eternity, by Caitlin Doughty
4. Wisconsin's Own, by M. Caren Connolly and Louis Wasserman
5. Castle Kingdom, by Christopher Knowlton
6. We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
7. The Book of Joy, by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams
8. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson
9. Annotated African American Folktales, by Henry Louis Gates
10. Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West is said to be a revolutionary appraisal of the historic American West. I'm not sure why the book jumped into our top ten for the first time, so many months after publication, but I can link you to The New York Times Review from Edward Dolnick: "Knowlton, a former staff writer and London bureau chief for Fortune, has a sharp eye for details — in cattle towns, boarding houses featured communal toothbrushes dangling from strings — but his real aim is the big picture. Cattle Kingdom is a cautionary tale of boom and bust. Despite the gunslingers and cowpokes, this lively history evokes the headiest days of the housing bubble of the early 2000s or the tulip mania that hypnotized Holland in the 1600s."

Paperback Fiction:
1. The Sun and Her Flowers, by Rupi Kaur
2. Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
3. Call Me by Your Name, by André Aciman (event 2/19)
4. The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck
5. Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly
6. The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
7. Autumn, by Ali Smith
8. The Bear and the Nightingale, by by Katherine Arden
9. Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay
10. The Sleeping Dictionary, by Sujata Massey

Ali Smith pulls off a rare feat with a book each in hardcover fiction (Winter) and paperback fiction (Autumn). The Journal Sentinel's Mike Fischer already raved about both books. Here's his take on Winter: "The stunningly original Smith again breaks every conceivable narrative rule; reflecting her longstanding affinity for Modernism, what she gives us instead is a stylistically innovative cultural bricolage that celebrates the ecstasy of artistic influence. It demands and richly rewards close attention." We should also note the Stephanie Merritt in The Guardian called Winter "luminously beautiful."

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. I Want to See, by Roc O'Connor
2. Evicted, by Matthew Desmond
3. Janesville, by Amy Goldstein
4. Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
5. The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey (event 2/6 at USM)
6. In the Midst of Our Storms, by Roc O'Connor
7. Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson
8. Gunslinger, by Jeff Pearlman
9. Preservation, by Christina Ward
10. Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X. Keni

I'm noticing that while early adoption of Janesville was more folks interested in journalism and current events, it looks like more and more, the business community it picking it up. Here James Feloni in Business Insider offered his perspective: "In the lead up to and aftermath of the election of President Donald Trump, a flood of reporters from big cities traveled to central and southern states to speak to so-called 'Real Americans' to get help understanding how so many people had totally underestimated Trump's ascension. While some great reporting came out of those trips, there were also stories that seemed to treat these citizens like zoo animals, to be observed and analyzed. Amy Goldstein's Janesville did not take such an approach, and that's part of the reason why it won the Financial Times and McKinsey's award for Business Book of the Year.

Books for Kids:
1. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
2. Dog Man and Cat Kid, by Dav Pilkey
3. The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black
4. The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown
5. Wonder, by R.J. Palacio
6. The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser
7. The Book of Dust, by Philip Pullman
8. Here We Are, by Oliver Jeffers
9. The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, with illustrations by Oliver Jeffers
10. Love, by Matt de la Pena, with illustrations Loren Long

While we're all excited about the release of Holly Black's The Cruel Prince, Bustle is particularly enthusiastic. Do a news search on Google and three of the top five stories are sourced from this website, at least at the moment of writing. Here's the opening of the Bustle review from Cristina Arreola: "Every year when I travel home for the holidays, I pore over the books I accumulated in high school: The battered, dog-eared copies of Pride and Prejudice, the small stack of vampire novels (yes, I read and enjoyed Twilight as a teenager, but I fell hardest for Let the Right One In), and of course, the collection of young adult novels. When I returned to New York after this past Christmas, I brought one book back with me: Holly Black's debut novel Tithe, a gritty faerie fantasy. My copy has a torn cover and cracked spine — physical proof of the re-reads it endured throughout my high school years. I haven't had a chance to re-read it since bringing it back with me, but I did finish Holly Black's new book, The Cruel Prince. And I can honestly say I was as enraptured by her latest faerie novel as I was by her first."

Over at the Journal Sentinel, Jim Higgins reviewed Light It Up. His take on Peter Ash's third adventure, what Higgins coins "a cannabis thriller": "While many states have legalized medical marijuana and some have even approved recreational pot, most federally regulated banks refuse to work with cannabis businesses, for fear of federal sanctions. So big piles of cash are accumulated and moved around. Now add the possibility of dope employees sampling the product, and everything goes up in smoke faster than you can say 'Cheech and Chong.'"

Sharon Peters reviews the newest from Kelly Corrigan, who offers a short course in Corriganese. Her Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say was originally reviewed in USA Today with 3.5 stars. The Peters praise: "The power of Tell Me More is that Corrigan is an excellent writer who knows how to tell a great story while adeptly weaving in conversational approaches that she, and most of us, never fully embraced or maybe lost track of over the years."

Also in the paper is a profile of Jan Brett from Deborah Netburn, which originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. From Netburn: "It was 8:15 a.m. and Brett and I were in for a treat. The aquarium had invited us to have a tentacles-on interaction with Gilligan in honor of Brett’s latest book, The Mermaid, a traditional Goldilocks tale with a mermaid and three octopuses twist. As long time octopus lovers, we were both excited, but Brett was more prepared. She had been eating fish for the past three weeks, and had deliberately avoided garlic and onions."


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Working overtime! Nick Petrie on Tuesday, Sasha Alsberg and Lindsay Cummings on Wednesday, Chloe Benjamin on Thursday, Geoffrey Carter on Friday, and Benjamin Ludwig next Tuesday

I think our friend Margaret P. said it best. Boswell is working overtime this coming week! That's why we're getting out the event blog early.

Tuesday, January 16, 7:00 pm, at Boswell:
Nick Petrie, author of Light It Up, in conversation with Bonnie North

Nick Petrie’s third Peter Ash thriller launches at Boswell, with the award-winning writer in conversation with Bonnie North, cohost and producer of 89.7 WUWM’s Lake Effect. This event is cosponsored by Crimespree magazine.

Jim Higgins reviews Light It Up in the Journal Sentinel: "In Light It Up, Whitefish Bay writer Petrie drops series hero Peter Ash into Denver's world of marijuana manufacturing. By the time the gun battles, harrowing high-speed escapes and lethal hand-to-hand fights are over, Petrie's hero may be ready for a long soak in a vat of medical THC." Also in the Journal Sentinel, Carole E. Barrowman named Petrie's second novel, Burning Bright, one of her top ten of 2017.

Publishers Weekly writes: "The final hand-to-hand battle between Peter and the psychotic villain, involving a variety of guns, axes, and even a hammer, is a violent piece de resistance. Petrie is a master of orchestrating convincing mayhem."

About the author: Nick Petrie’s debut The Drifter won both the ITW Thriller award and the Barry Award for Best First Novel, and was a finalist for the Edgar and the Hammett awards. More on Petrie and Light it Up in a prior Boswell and Books post.

Wednesday, January 17, 7:00 pm, at Boswell:
Sasha Alsberg and Lindsay Cummings, author of Zenith, in conversation with Tiernan Bertrand-Essington (The BookTuber)

It started as an ebook. That hit #1 on The New York Times bestseller list. Now it's a book and the first printing has already disappeared. That we had trouble getting additional stock bodes well for Zenith's release on Tuesday. Here's a story in Publishers Weekly about how the book came together.

More about the book! Mirabel Galaxy. To those aboard her glass starship, Marauder, however, she’s just Andi, their friend and fearless leader. But when a routine mission goes awry, the Marauder’s all-girl crew is tested as they find themselves in a treacherous situation - and at the mercy of a sadistic bounty hunter from Andi’s past. Meanwhile, across the galaxy, a ruthless ruler waits in the shadows of the planet Xen Ptera, biding her time to exact revenge for the destruction of her people. The pieces of her deadly plan are about to fall into place, unleashing a plot that will tear Mirabel in two.

Andi and her crew embark on a dangerous, soul-testing journey that could restore order to their ship - or just as easily start a war that will devour worlds. As the Marauder hurtles toward the unknown, and Mirabel hangs in the balance, the only certainty is that in a galaxy run on lies and illusion, no one can be trusted.

About the authors: When Sasha Alsberg is not writing or obsessing over Scotland, she is making YouTube videos on her channel, Abookutopia, which has had more than 36 million views. Lindsey Cummings is also the author of The Murder Complex duology and The Balance Keepers trilogy. And don't forget, first ten preorders who buy the book get an Essie nail polish package.

Thursday, January 18, 7:00 pm, at Boswell:
Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalists, in conversation with Boswell’s Daniel Goldin

January is starting out with a bang! We've been excited about The Immortalists for months, and it's so exciting that the book's time is already here. Add to our many bookseller raves this one from Boswellian Jenny Chou: "The Immortalists slowly ripped pieces of my heart away leaving me as wrung out as I’ve ever been after finishing a novel. So OF COURSE you all have to read it for the emotions Chloe Benjamin conjures up, the brilliant narrative structure, the writing so beautiful you will literally read some sentences twice, and the moments that will make you gasp out loud in surprise. What’s it about? Four siblings visit a fortune teller and each learns the exact day he or she will die. This information haunts them over the course of their lives, particularly after the death of the youngest, Simon. His death struck me the hardest because I could see it coming, knew how it would end for him, and I read on, helpless. The story come to a satisfying conclusion when the oldest, Varya, examines what it means not to simply exist, but to LIVE!"

Here's Moira Macdonald in The Seattle Times: "Benjamin, whose previous novel was the Edna Ferber Fiction Award-winning The Anatomy of Dreams, slips into each of the characters’ heads and lets us live there for a while, writing in a delicate third-person voice that knows everyone’s secrets. There are moments as taut as a thriller, where time disappears as you turn pages; and passages of quiet compassion, as the characters reflect on the bonds of siblinghood, on the idea of home, on how those we have lost can still manage — miraculously and mysteriously — to stay with us, in ways that we can’t always explain."

You can read more about The Immortalists in our sweeping Boswell and Books post!

About the author: Chloe Benjamin is the author of the novel The Anatomy of Dreams, which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and was longlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. At right is Benjamin receiving her award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. I'm there too! #sowemeetagain

Friday, January 19, 7:00 pm, at Boswell:
Geoffrey Carter, author of The P. S. Wars

Longtime educator Geoffrey Carter offers a fictional indictment against the corporate takeover of public schools in his first novel. The story pits the faculty and students of Custer High against EduNet, a private operator. And leading the charge for Custer is Dave Bell, a veteran teacher, who vows to protect the integrity of public schools from being compromised.

As is the case for many privatization battles, whether the bounty is schools, prisons, roads, or other government services, the community is forced to take sides. The story brings to life many of the challenges that public schools are now facing. And while not every privatization story has a villain that is quite as ruthless as EduNet, it could, with a few tweaks, be pulled from a today’s headlines.

About the author: Geoff Carter grew up attending public schools Milwaukee area, graduated from UW-Madison with a degree in Communication Arts, and has a PhD in English. He has been teaching English in Milwaukee Public Schools for 28 years in both traditional and non-traditional settings, working almost exclusively with at-risk students, and is an active member of MTEA, the local teachers’ union.

Tuesday, January 23, 7:00 pm, at Boswell:
Benjamin Ludwig, author of Ginny Moon

Meet Ginny Moon. She's mostly your average teenager: she plays flute in the school band, has weekly basketball practice and reads Robert Frost poems for English class. But Ginny is autistic. What's important to her might seem a bit…different: starting every day with exactly nine grapes for breakfast, singing along to Michael Jackson, taking care of her baby doll…and crafting a secret plan of escape.

Ginny has been in foster care for years and for the first time in her life she has found her forever home. After being traumatically taken from her abusive birth mother and moved around to different homes, she is finally in a place where she'll be safe and protected, with a family who will love and nurture her. This is exactly the kind of home that all foster kids are hoping for. But Ginny has other plans.

Told in an extraordinary and wholly original voice, Ginny Moon, just named one of the ten best books of the year by Library Journal, is at once quirky, charming, heartbreaking, suspenseful and poignant.

About the author: A former English teacher and new-teacher mentor, Benjamin Ludwig holds an MAT in English education and an MFA in creative writing. His novella, Sourdough, was the recipient of the 2013 Clay Reynolds Prize for the Novella. Ludwig’s inspiration for Ginny Moon came from his own daughter, and the stories of other parents whom Ludwig met while attending Special Olympics basketball games.

More event info here!

Friday, January 12, 2018

A meandering and very enthusiastic blog post about Nick Petrie's "Light It Up"

If you follow my reading habits, you know that I do read my share of mysteries and thrillers, and in the last few years, I've increased the number I've read, partly because they are so much fun to recommend to others. And while I am not generally a series reader, I love that if you hook a reader, they are often hooked for at least several more books in the series. But then I find diminishing returns in pitching the subsequent titles - I'm generally still going to tell people to start with the first book. 

Of course sometimes an author's first novel in the series is not their best. My former colleague Jack Covert used to give me tips on where to start potential fans in various series. Not everyone can blow people away right out of the gate. Even though I recall selling Louise Penny very well with her first Gamache title, Still Life, which still continues strong today, Minotaur decided to make their Signature Edition title for Penny her fifth book, The Brutal Telling. To me, that means, "Start here" and many Penny-philes say that the Gamache books get better as you read through them.

When it comes to the Peter Ash series, Nick Petrie wrote quite an opener! The Drifter was one of my favorite books of 2016 and I continue to enjoy hand-selling it to new readers. It also has the added bonus that, like many openers, it feels like a stand-alone, and the double bonus that it's set in Milwaukee. It's so good that it doesn't feel like a first novel, and to be exact, we should call The Drifter his first published novel. 

When it came to book #2, Burning Bright, I think it did what it was supposed to do. Many readers liked it even more. It's more of a mainstream book, it's effectively a chase novel (what I used to call the Harlen Coben stand-alones when I'd recommend them), and it introduces a love interest. I am not the person that love interests are written for, but I know that they bring humanity to the character. The conspiracy at the center of the book is good, and the scenes in the treetops are particularly fun and I hope Mr. Petrie did a little hands-on research there. I know the books have to be more mainstream and a bit less stylized to really break out, dialing up the action and dialing down the ambience, and I'm down with that. Reviews were good, and the book made Carole E. Barrow's top ten for 2017.

And now we come to Light It Up, which I hope will be his breakout book. The premise is great. Peter Ash goes to Denver to help his friend's kid who has a marijuana security business. Because it's still illegal at the federal level, the legal marijuana businesses can't use banks, so there's a lot of cash floating around. But one of the trucks disappear making a shipment. Peter and his pal get a crew together for a replacement run, and...youch!  I like the rhythm of the book - crazy extended action sequences at the beginning in the end, punctuated by the story and smaller tense moments. 

I know this is a crazy aside, but I can't help these things. I went through an Iris Murdoch stage and I noticed that in two successive books, she had a really violent act, but in one book she did it at the beginning (The Good Apprentice) and the rest of the book was aftermath, and in the other, she did it at the end, and the whole book led up to it (The Book and the Brotherhood).Thank you to Fantastic Fiction for helping me figure out which was which. I had no time to read the rest of Murdoch's oeuvre, but I wondered whether she always played with momentum like this. Were there books that climaxed in the middle? Immediately my mind turns to Orhan Pamuk's Snow for this kind of structure. I'm guessing that the V structure is not that uncommon. The only time I don't like it is when the author (or publisher) takes a climactic moment and makes it the introduction. Note that in this case, I'm not referring to jump-time dual or triple narratives. In this case, I'm referring to the movement in one scene. I most recently saw this in The Improbability of Love, and I generally tell people to skip over it (which might be why we've sold the book so much better than most other bookstores on Treeline). 

My dream is for Janet Maslin to pick up and review (favorably) a copy of Light It Up, and for this to convince her to go back and read The Drifter. Though retired, she seems to still have a regular review slot. Maybe she could for once skip a Lee Child or Michael Connelly (they are great, really great, I know) where her review basically says, "this book is as great as all the other Lee Child and Michael Connelly books, for pretty much the same reasons," and review Nick instead.

I'm not crazy here. The momentum of The Drifter in 2017 has been nomination, nomination, nomination, nomination, nomination, nomination. I forget how many awards it was nominated for, but at least six. It won one too (oh, that was a hard sentence to write for someone who has homonym spelling disorder), a 2017 Thriller Award for best first novel from the International Thriller Writers Association. I wound up reading the best novel winner too, Before the Fall, which also won the Edgar. Look!

What I like about Light It Up is that it does seem to be about something - what sort of behavior drives honor and loyalty among friends and colleagues. There are honorable ways to drive loyalty and dishonorable ways and Light It Up features both. I like that the story was more closely about Peter Ash's life as a veteran too, something that wasn't as important in Burning Bright

We're celebrating the release of Light It Up on Tuesday, January 16, when Nick  (formerly Nicholas, as you can see by the cover history) Petrie will be in conversation with Bonnie North (above left) of Lake Effect. And if you miss that, Petrie will be at Whitefish Bay Library on Tuesday, January 30, 6:30 pm. And if you miss that, he'll probably be somewhere else. And if you don't like events, the book is available for purchase (at Boswell or wherever), borrowing (at a library), downloading, audio downloading, or maybe you can just have someone read it to you as a storytime that will be only a bit nightmare inducing. A couple of friends of mine used to read entire books to each other alous. I don't think it was a bad idea, though I don't think I could have made it work. 

And as to my regret that Mr. Petrie probably won't soon have a Peter Ash novel set in Milwuakee again... maybe there's a stand-alone in our future.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ten reasons to buy The Immortalists, and if you're close enough, come to our event with Chloe Benjamin on January 18

The Immortalists came out on January 9. We have a lot to say about Chloe Benjamin's second novel. But I'm not going to write about the book's plot or why we love it so much here. You can read all our staff rec's on the Boswell Immortalists page. No, this blog is about all kinds of things that go into publishing a book. And just think, publishers are doing this with books and independent booksellers all the time. And with B&N. And Target. And Amazon. And Books-a-Million. And all sorts of media outlets. And Bookspan (that's the old Book-of-the-Month Club). And regionals. And bloggers. And vloggers. And Costco (if Pennie likes it). And libraries and librarians. And well, anyone they can get to pay attention who might have some sales influence.


1. The reads, part one! I think we've broken our record for number of reads on this book: Daniel, Jason, Jen, Jenny, Kay, Scott, Sharon, Todd. Eight! OK, Todd's no longer at Boswell, but he shops here a lot and doesn't that count for something? Peter's still reading it, but he might be added to the total. While some of us were more over the moon about The Immortalists than others, it means something that seven of the eight of us liked it and for six of the eight of us, we liked it enough to write a staff recommendation. I like that one of us didn't really like it; Boswell celebrates our freedom to say "meh, not for me."

2. The letter! I might have mentioned before that editors, agents, publishers, marketing are always sending us books. And not just me. This week Jen was chatting with an editor who noticed she'd loved Readers of Broken Wheel Recommends and that we'd sold a ton of it. I wish I could read more of them, but let's remember my limitations - I only read six or so books a month. Last year I got to 90, which was a recent high. So maybe you can say seven.

But when Putnam's Sally Kim wrote to me about this book (last March?), it connected on so many levels. It felt like the letter was talking just to me. Only later did I learn that maybe she was talking directly to me - it turned out to not be a form letter. But the four Gold children were about my age, and their family was in the garment business (like mine) and while we did not live on the Lower East Side, my oldest sister's in-laws did, and my parents liked to visit the shops on Sundays. I was fascinated that parking was free on Saturday but metered on Sunday. Is there any other old Jewish neighborhoods in the United States where they did that?

And did I mention that one of the kids was named Daniel? I'm reading a book about someone my age named Daniel Gold. How weird is that? So what I'm saying is that you never know what book is going to call to you, and sometimes the reasons are rather arbitrary.

3. The author! While I couldn't say I was friends with Chloe Benjamin, we met a few times. She lived in Madison and did an event with us for her first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams. It went pretty well, mostly because she had a champion in her friend Bri Cavallaro, who many of you might know from her very popular (and deservedly so!) kids series, A Study in Charlotte. Plus she's a prize-winning poet.

And then we ran into each other again, when Benjamin won the Edna Ferber Prize from the Council for Wisconsin Writers for her first novel. Weirdly enough, I also won a prize, my first I can remember since junior high school, the Christopher Latham Sholes Award, which I got for, wait for it, promoting Wisconsin writers. Below right is a picture of the prize winners with the board. Note that I didn't know Benjamin well enough to sit next to her. Hey, it's time for someone else to get this Sholes Award, isn't it?

But that is just to say that I didn't read it because we were pals. Does that happen? Of course.  But the thing about me falling in love with The Immortalists was that it felt authentic. And then of course I've met her at various functions and she's as nice as can be. Who wouldn't want to Benjamin find success?

4. The reads, part two! And then there's the next read in the store. Jen convinced me to read Pachinko (and that went well) and I was convinced that she would like The Immortalists too. Our tastes overlap but they are hardly completely in sync, but this seemed like a crossover book. And when she came back all ebullient, I got even more excited. One of the things I learned from the days of Schwartz (and working with my Schwartz pals to get folks to get on board with things like History of Love, Astrid and Veronika, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog) is that you know something's magic when people with very different reading tastes agree. It was when Conrad got behind The President's Hat that I thought we had something special, and we're now 300+ copies later.

Speaking of different readers coming together, may I give a pitch for the paperback of Hum If You Don't Know the Words**? Six great reads, close to 100 copies sold in hardcover, but I just don't think as many stores as I'd hope discovered how great this book is. Ask your rep for a copy. It's not a hard sell and it delivers.

5. The buzz! Not every book on the Book Expo Buzz Panel takes off, but a few do each year. It was exciting to see Benjamin featured. And the enthusiasm has built from that. It's a pick from both B&N and Amazon. It's the #1 Indie Next pick for January.

If you want an explanation of Peter's drawings, the ballet shoes belong to Simon, the top hat and wand to Klara, the stethoscope to Daniel, and the beaker represents Varya. Do I think that Klara would have used a top hat? Probably not. But does it signify magician? Yes. If you look closely, you'll see that each drawing uses one of the four colors (red, orange, yellow, and green) of the cover as an accent. It's very subtle!

6. The swag! So much swag. The cover is so beautiful that it lends itself to visual interpretations. There's the tote bag (from Envirotote, where I'm slowly trying to place a reorder for a Boswell tote, because I like this one so much), which was a very much in demand at Book Expo. There's a tee shirt. There are buttons. We don't normally demand a blow up cover for our event but I begged for one this time. I promised it would be up permanently in the store for at least the next few years.

7. The window! The visuals on the cover of course demanded some sort of visual merchandising. We're touch and go about effectively using our big window. I think we did a really cool window for Scott Kelly's Endurance, but then we had a big of a hole before we filled it with holiday books. I have two more planned out for spring. I can't believe that some stores do this every month, or even every two weeks. Peter and Olivia did a great job putting it together. I really wanted icons representing the four characters. And Amie noted that we had some leftover ornaments that matched the leaves on the jacker. I wanted hanging letters that I don't think we've done since we hosted T.C. Boyle. It looks great, but pictures never turn out great - our window creates a lot of glare.

8. The event! Being that we are only an hour from Madison, it was not hard to making a convincing pitch to put us on the tour. In these days where author tours are shrinking, it's exciting to see Putnam working with venues around the country (with lots of indie bookstores). I love the image they made for the tour.  I'm trying to do the conversation with this one, as we usually get nice feedback from this format. If you look at this slot, it's equivalent to Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves. Hey, that went on to be a finalist for the Man Booker and has been selling like crazy in paperback. We had an okay turnout for Fridlund, but the trick on this sort of thing is that most of the enthusiasm was coming from us. Had that event been later, the number would have been much bigger. Our event is Thursday, January 18, 7 pm. Let me just say right now, you are going to have a good time.

I'm rereading the book since it's been so long ago. I'm also halfway through The Anatomy of Dreams, Benjamin's first novel, which is our In-Store Lit Group pick for February (Feb 5, 7 pm, at Boswell). This has really helped us get the word out about the new book. I am hoping that many of our book club attendees will have read both books. I see some connections!

9. The reviews and profiles.
a. A profile in Bustle
b. A review in The Economist
c. A review in Pop Sugar
d. Marion Winik's eternal life roundup in Newsday
e. San Diego Jewish World review
f. The AP review, reprinted in The Washington Post
There's also a review that gives away every twist, and on top of that, the review is lukewarm. I think the lukewarm review is connected to revealing all the spoilers. But don't worry - studies show that knowing the spoilers doesn't make you like a book (or film, or whatever) less, and sometimes it makes you like a book more.

One thing that Benjamin has said in interviews is that she had hoped the Daniel (not me) section would be more Jewish themed. At one point, he was going to be an architect. It just didn't work out. It's interesting that the opening is so Jewish and the rest not so much. But in a way, that works too - there are five sections in the book and each almost has a different worldview. (At left, Daniel shilling for the book. I might have to park myself at a busy street corner. If I were a doctor, I wouldn't have to do this.)

The Immortalists is like reading five books in one. The Simon section brought me back to the glory days of 1990s gay male coming-of-age fiction, of Edmund White and Christopher Bram, the pre-and-post AIDS stories of Armistead Maupin and David Feinberg's Eighty-Sixed. I was just talking to a publicist about Call Me by Your Name (Aciman is at Boswell on February 19, by the way), which came out at the tail end of that. I mentioned that I read the book when it was out in hardcover (or maybe as a galley!) He thought fondly about Mark Merlis's An Arrows Flight and I highly recommended Christopher Bram's Lives of the Circus Animals. I love that book so much that it is on and off  my rec shelf even this past year, 15 years after publication. Now I feel like I should read it again, and see how it holds up. I'm fairly confident, but you never know.

10. Oh, come on. Just take my advice and read the darn book. No, not all of you are going to love The Immortalists, but it's a fascinating premise that is so well told. it straddles the line between commercial and literary with finesse. It's a book that works for readers who like speculative novels, coming-of-age books, philosophical inquiries, and thrillers, because it is all those things. It's a book where you want to talk about it afterwards, and talk about each character. I've already figure out that Daniel doesn't generally come out on top. But I have to give my doppelganger* props - he's a loyal guy who loves his family.

So why so much work on this? We're tiny, a niche of a niche of a niche. But there's a perception that independent booksellers can have outsize influence. We can sometimes affect how other retail outlets and websites and media position a book. Somebody's thinking, "I should pay attention to this." And that's probably a good thing, at least when the attention is mostly positive.

In conclusion, read The Immortalists.  And if you're reading this before January 18, come to Boswell for our event with Chloe Benjamin.

*There was a good deal of hope on my mother's part that I would be a doctor. My life as a bookseller did not compete very well with her friends' kids.

**I mention Hum If You Don't Know the Words partly because it's also a Putnam book and because I went to a lovely Putnam cocktail party in Chicago where Bianca Marais was featured, and came back from it super jazzed about the book and how wonderful the author was. The enthusiasm was infectious and we wound up with a terrific event at the Lynden Sculpture Garden (thanks to partners Margy and Polly!) and great post-event sales.

But the truth is that Sally Kim and I spent much of the cocktail party talking about The Immortalists. Sally and I met many years ago at a party in Brooklyn thrown by our mutual friends Charlotte and Roz. And yes, Charlotte and Roz were immortalized in a party scene (page 291) in Christopher Bram's  Lives of the Circus Animals. When you see this kind of interconnectedness in our town, someone always says "Smallwaukee."

Monday, January 8, 2018

Here are Boswell's events for the next week: Roc O'Connor at Boswell on Thursday, Sujata Massey at Lynden on Saturday

Here are Boswell's events for the next week!

Thursday, January 11, 7:00 pm, at Boswell: Roc O’Connor, author of I Want to See: What the Story of Blind Bartimaeus Teaches Us about Fear, Surrender and Walking the Path to Joy

Roc O’Connor, SJ is Associate Pastor at Church of the Gesu at Marquette University. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1967 and, during his years as a young Jesuit, he started to compose and publish liturgical music for the Catholic Church. As part of the St. Louis Jesuits, O’Connor was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music by Creighton University. He is currently a member of the Formation for Liturgical Prayer seminar group and the Liturgical Composers Forum.

Here's more about his new book. How can we find joy, hope, and peace in ourselves and in the world? It’s a question we all ask, and in seeking the answer, Church of the Gesu’s Roc O’Connor invites readers into the Gospel of Mark to sit by the side of the road with Blind Bartimaeus. Though living in poverty and despair, Bartimaeus offers a lesson in how the need for healing can lead to a spiritual awakening.

Saturday, January 13, 2:00 pm reception, 2:30 talk, at Lynden Sculpture Garden, 2145 W Brown Deer Rd: A ticketed evening with Sujata Massey, author of The Widows of Malabar Hill

The Women’s Speaker Series, produced by Milwaukee Reads, presents Sujata Massey, the bestselling author of the Rei Shimura mysteries. Her exciting new series featuring Perveen Mistry is set in 1920s Bombay (Mumbai). In The Widows of Malabar Hill, Mistry investigates a suspicious will on behalf of three Muslim widows living in full purdah when the case takes a turn toward the murderous.

Inspired in part by a real woman who made history by becoming India’s first female lawyer, The Widows of Malabar Hill is a richly wrought story of multicultural 1920s Bombay and the debut of a sharp and promising new sleuth. Susan Elia MacNeal, author of the Maggie Hope mysteries, offers this praise: “Defying convention while draped in a sari, Perveen is sure to join the leads of great mystery fiction.”

Tickets for this event are $30, $25 for members, and include admission to the event, refreshments from MKE Localicious, and a copy of The Widows of Malabar Hill. Visit their website or call (414) 446-8794 for more info.

Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany and was raised in St. Paul. Before becoming a novelist, she was a features reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun. She is the author of 13 novels, two novellas, and numerous short stories, and her work has received the Agatha and Macavity awards.