Thursday, April 2, 2020

Daniel's reading list - WE RIDE UPON STICKS put a spell on a whole bunch of Boswellians!

There are any number of books that come out each season that a Boswellian likes enough to write up and give a staff recommendation. It’s not unusual to get two. Three? Now that’s special. But when we get four or more recommendations on a book, my alarm bells start ringing. Now we’re in zone where if we promote the book right and keep our eye on the prize (that would be December), we can get the book into a lot of hands.

We Ride Upon Sticks, the second novel from Quan Barry, is one of those novels. It’s so different from She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, her first novel, sort of a Vietnamese magical realism story that definitely showed her background in poetry. Former Boswellian and still good friend of Boswell Todd was a big fan, and his enthusiasm got me to choose the book as a In-Store Lit Group selection for the paperback. If you contacted the store and said you really loved Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (editorial aside – the publisher just delayed the paperback on this one, so we won’t be reading it for In-Store Lit Group this summer), I’d put She Weeps Each Time You’re Born in your hands.

And then our sales rep Jason reads We Ride Upon Sticks and gets excited. And when he gets excited, frankly, so do we. It’s different. It’s smart. It’s funny. It’s accessible. And one by one, we pick it up. Because Barry teaches at UWM’s Creative Writing Program, she was set to do four different programs in the Milwaukee area – the famous Inklink dinner in East Troy, a conversation with Lisa at Books and Company, another conversation with the wonderful Carole E Barrowman at Boswell, and a bonus event at Alverno College, which I added on just because I thought the book was a perfect match for college women.

OK, I’m trying to sell this novel and I haven’t even told you what it’s about. I’ll leave that to the staff recs. First up is Margaret Kennedy: “We Ride Upon Sticks is an empowering tribute to the decade of the ‘80s, girlhood, and women of all sorts. The story follows the 1989 varsity girls field hockey team of Danvers High, ready to start another season after an impressively long losing streak. This time, however, they are going to do whatever it takes to get to States - even if it means following in the footsteps of those teen girls that lived in their town three centuries ago by dabbling in a bit of witchcraft. Told from the point of view of all the girls at once with the collective ‘We,’ Barry introduces us to each of these teen girls that signed their name in the devil’s book (which is actually just a spiral notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover), giving us their hopes, struggles, and reasons for turning to darkness. Except, are dark forces really at work here? Or is it just the ever-constant, ever-changing ordeal of being a woman? Barry expertly weaves a tale with big hair, outrageous fashion, and rocking music without being over-the-top cheesy, giving us a story that every girl and woman has lived through while at the same time being entirely unique.”

Now comes Kay Wosewick: “One of the things I loved about this book is it reads as if one of my best friends is talking. The casual, funny, chatty writing style, liberally dosed with sniping and sarcasm, fits the story perfectly. Set in Danvers, home of the original witch trials, a girl’s losing field hockey team signs itself over to the dark side in order to become a winning team. Hilarity ensues, with loads of action accompanied by occasional moments of soul-searching.”

I think we had two other readers who didn’t write something up. If you work in a bookstore, you know it’s not easy to get booksellers to write things down, particularly in a Word document. I’ve been known to grab a shelf talker and copy it out on my computer.

I think we explained the plot and structure pretty well in the recommendations. It’s one season of the 1989 girls field hockey team. Each chapter is a different game and said chapter highlights a different member of the team. Each player has their own struggle that they are working out in the story, and everyone gets their moment in the sun.

Yes, the author went to Danvers High School and has a wonderful essay about the inspiration for the book, but I gave away my ARC and it’s not in the finished book. You also have to understand that Danvers was once known as Salem Village and resident Rebecca Nurse is one of the most famous people to be tried and convicted of witchcraft. Hence the contemporary take on witchcraft. But witches are also a nice metaphor for women going beyond the boundaries of what society sets for women, particularly back in 1989. One of the things I love about We Ride Upon Sticks is that the book should easily cross over to teens without being locked into the tropes of YA fiction.

Because Quan Barry chooses not to use an author photo, our signage initially looked a little bare compared to the other events. But Chris made a clever icon which crossed a field hockey stick (which is used on the jacket of the book) with a broomstick (which of course is associated with witches, though we get that it’s not associated with Salem witches. It’s called shorthand! We wound up sharing the icon with several other bookstores who were hosting events.

And a few other things about the finished package. I’m thrilled that the jacket of We Ride Upon Sticks is green (thanks, designer Kelly Blair) because when you’re breaking all the rules, you might as well break the green curse rule. That’s right, green covers are very uncommon unless they are focused on money or the environment. It’s blue, blue, blue, baby. Acqua is about the closest you’re going to see. If you’ve read the blog over the years, you also know that acqua means funny. It’s the Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Rule. So I guess this cover, which is what I’d call a dark seafoam, is close enough to aqua. Because We Ride Upon Sticks is funny. Here's a link to Oona Out of Order which also has two staff recs from Boswell, and is definitely going full Maria Semple.

Another touch that makes Quan Barry’s hardcover special are the endpapers. Oh, to still live in an era when publishers made nice endpapers. Look no further because We Ride Upon Sticks has a super swell map of North Shore Boston by Eric Hanson. It even tells you how to get to the state finals in Worcester. As a longtime Worcester visitor, I found that handy.

I’m not going to share it here, but in fact there is an author photo of Quan Barry in the hardcover of We Ride Upon Sticks. It’s her as the Danvers High School Marching Band mascot in 1978 and it’s adorable.

OK, there’s one thing I don’t love in the layout. Between the journals, the reports, the texts, and so forth, the designer decided to use a lot of different typefaces. When I first got a computer, I think I would change my typeface every five minutes. It’s actually worse than that. When I had my first job in publishing, I had an IBM Selectric at my desk. I went out and bought additional font balls. So I get it. But I’m over that phase of my life.

More love! Here’s Annalisa Quinn on the NPR website: “Barry, who has published four collections of poetry, definitely did the English homework. References to Macbeth, The Crucible, and the Malleus Maleficarum are sprinkled throughout like so much Jovan Musk. But she also is gloriously literate in the advertising lingo of the late eighties — hence losing one's virginity is "taking the Nestea plunge."

Let’s end with my staff rec: “It’s 1989 and the Danvers Lady Falcons field hockey team is having another crappy year. So what harm could it do to take a cue from the witches of the city’s past and inscribe their names in a demonic book, especially if it helps you start winning games? With each game getting its own chapter, and each chapter bringing another player and her journey to adulthood to life, Barry’s second novel captures the excitement of a pennant race with the power of a feminist comic novel, notably a comic-steeped-in-the-eighties one.” (Daniel Goldin)

Margaret made a nice eighties-themed display table. But alas, that’s for bookseller viewing only now.

We Ride Upon Sticks is Boswell Best through at least April 13. And we’re hoping when things get better, Barry will take the one-hour trek from Madison to visit some bookstores. Feel free to cast some spells to make it come to pass.

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