Every year, the Boswell Booksellers compile their Top 5 books published in that year. It's a fun time as we discuss and debate the merits and reasons certain books make our personal list. Out of each bookseller's Top 5, I usually pull out a couple of books to form the Boswellian Best. Here is the 2021 version of the Boswellian Best. Everything is 20% till the end of the year. Except for the paperbacks on this list, those are 10% off.
(note: there are a couple books that are not from 2021-- I relent and usually let the booksellers pick one book not of this year.)
Ai Weiwei’s only known artistic influences as a young child living in labor camps were hearing bits of his father’s poetry and pouring over his father’s art books while his father worked nearby. Ai Qing was released from labor camps after Mao died, just as Ai Weiwei was old enough to attend junior high school. He enrolled in numerous art schools and art programs abroad throughout his young adult years, only to drop out soon after starting. His early artistic output thus appears to be mostly self-directed, often evolving dramatically with little apparent reason. When he returned to China, ancient, odd artifacts captured his attention, but it wasn’t long before his art became almost completely politically driven. Since he and his father rarely spoke, Ai Weiwei’s fierce morality seems largely based on observation of his father. Ai Weiwei’s autonomy, brilliance and passion shine throughout his memoir, with minimal presence of ego. Beloved worldwide, this book convincingly depicts how he earned this lofty status.
— Kay Wosewick
Is there anything Richard Thompson can't do (hasn't done)? He is one of the finest guitarists to emerge from the late-Sixties stew of London and distinguished himself further by being one of the most sophisticated and clever songwriters. I'm not a big fan of biographies, especially those narcissistic, overblown ones ageing rock stars have been churning out of late. I make the exception here because Thompson is the exception. This is the goods!
— Conrad Silverberg
An enthralling read about how the NBA made the bubble work. Nobody knew if it would work, if it would keep COVID-19 out. Would they be able to finish the playoffs, crown a champion and do this without any major outbreaks? Ben Golliver gives the inside scoop on what it was like to live in the bubble. The excitement, the dullness and the front page news events that shaped the end of the NBA season. I, for one, am completely happy that the NBA was willing attempt to this--to watch basketball games helped get me through some troubled stretches of the pandemic.
-- Jason Kennedy
Vivienne Jones is just kind of a witch, thank you very much, so when she places a vodka-influenced curse on Rhys Penhallow for breaking her heart, she thinks nothing will come of it. Nine years later, Rhys comes calling and the curse returns with a vengeance, along with all of those feelings she tried to suppress. With strange magical events cropping up all over the town, it's up to Vivi and Rhys to save Graves Glen before it's too late. If you are wanting Practical Magic, Halloweentown, Hocus Pocus vibes with a huge helping of banter and off-the-charts chemistry, this is the one for you. With a cast of side characters that have definite sequel potential, you won't want to miss out on the start of this series.
— Rachel Copeland
Firekeeper's Daughter is a thriller. We know on the first page, when we’re given a glimpse of what’s to come - a revolver pointed at our narrator's face, but the novel doesn't happen at break-neck speed. It's the very personal story of Daunis Fontaine just after her high school graduation. It's deliberate, like her talent for science, and strong, like her ability to play varsity hockey with the boys. She was born a scandal, but her wealthy, white, sixteen-year-old mother insisted on keeping her Ojibwe father’s family in her life. Daunis balances two worlds, loved by both and never completely fitting with either. Now she’s ready for college, looking to be a doctor in the safe world her money and light skin allow her. It's a life her father's Firekeeper family wouldn't expect to have, and things aren't going as planned. Daunis will fight through traumatic losses and walk straight into danger to protect her people, all while pretending she's not falling in love. She's an impressive character, with a toughness and raw honesty that I wish I had. It’s a powerful teen novel, an eye-opening experience, and I learned so many cultural lessons as I was being drawn into the suspense. This is sure to be one of my top books of 2021!
— Tim McCarthy
Wow. If you want a classic, capital N, The Novel kind of book, you couldn’t do much better than The Great Mistake. As a stylist, Lee is top shelf; he so obviously delights in the English language, and each of his sentences is a masterclass in wonder, humor, and precision – even the shapes and sounds of his lines are full of surprises. You want more than style? You got it. Lee tracks the life of Andrew Haswell Green (the mostly forgotten Father of Greater New York) through the 19th century, creating a remarkably full measure of the man’s life, public and private. In doing so, the book offers a window into the life of America’s greatest city as it came into its modern form. Honestly, the best comparison I can think of is that this is the novel Charles Dickens might write if he’d recently crawled out of the grave.
— Chris Lee
After her boyfriend declares that they should try an open relationship, YouTube-famous violinist Anna Sun decides to use this as an opportunity to break out of her rut. But her first attempt at a one-night stand with Quan Diep isn't successful, or the second or third, because they both have serious issues to overcome. When Anna's lifechanging diagnosis coincides with a family tragedy, Quan is the only one she can turn to - but can they work past their issues and fight for each other? Wow - I didn't think I could love Helen Hoang and her writing more, but this one blew me away. Anna and Quan's struggles are incredibly relatable and so important to discuss and understand. This is the romance novel to shove in people's hands if they dare say romance novels are too fluffy or sentimental.
— Rachel Copeland
John Paul Brammer's voice is everything I've been looking for in the many essay collections I've picked up in the last couple of years. Simply put, Brammer's voice is fantastic. He is self-aware in a rare way that allows for the wittiest and most truthful of observations on life, relationships, one's own history, and the world, without crossing into the self-indulgent or self-deprecating. Although, I think he'd say I was giving him too much credit (but I'd wholeheartedly disagree). The essays in ¡Hola Papi! come together to compose a glimpse into the many different phases of Brammer's life, stitching together his coming of age as a gay Mexican boy growing up in rural Oklahoma to the many triumphs and tribulations of life as a gay man across the country and world. As a reader I felt like I was growing up alongside Brammer as he came to reckon with his self, his identities, his past, and his own actions. His own acceptance of the many parts of himself, the many experiences that culminate to make him who he is today, gives me hope and faith. I had to keep sticky notes next to me while I was reading, something I rarely do, to make sure I was saving passages to come back to. Passages that so concisely put into words things I've felt and thought, but so much more beautifully than I could have imagined saying myself. And passages that will stick with me and encourage me to grow. And what marks a better read that something that fundamentally changes the way you think, makes you want to grow, and excites you to see how you too will change and develop in the years to come?
— Parker Jensen
Addie, born in France at the end of the 17th Century, makes a deal with the devil to escape a life she doesn't want. The price she pays for immortality is to be instantly forgotten by everyone she meets. Addie’s story unfolds between her life in present-day New York City and flashbacks of her experiences traveling the world and witnessing historical events. Extraordinary writing infuses this engrossing and moving book.
— Kathy Herbst
This book is easy to read, and not because it's simple. Ishiguro creates tremendous emotional depth with a graceful narrative flow. That must be how you win a Nobel Prize: expertly crafting writing that sounds so natural. Klara observes the world and its people with open curiosity, at first untainted by her limited experience, but she’s always learning. Her ability to analyze human behavior with sincerity, consideration, and objectivity is something I would love to possess, but Klara isn't human. She's a machine, waiting for a future with a human family who would buy her as their child's Artificial Friend. She looks forward to being displayed in the storefront window, where nourishment from the sun will make her stronger, and she can see more of the city's intensity. Then there’s a wider world out there, where her status will be friend, family, and possession. Klara feels the effects. She has her own intentions, and her personal story has an unmistakable living warmth. Can Klara love and be loved? Is she ultimately being used for her owners' needs alone, or do they care for her as they would care for a person? One thing I can say without hesitation is that I wish Klara was my friend!
— Tim McCarthy
This LA-set story will quickly set its claws and pull you through a manic year in the lives of a well-off Mexican American family. Father, mother, and all three daughters have crises that vary from much ado about nothing to much-delayed ados about everything. You will smile gleefully as the family completes the eventful year with stronger bonds than ever.
— Kay Wosewick
Since I like my magical boarding school fiction delightfully dark, I thoroughly enjoyed A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik and couldn’t wait for this follow-up. Especially after that killer last line! In The Last Graduate, El and Orion (who is not El’s boyfriend, except that he sort of might be) are in their final year at the Scholomance, facing the threat of the graduation massacre. Having friends for the first time in her life shifts El’s outlook toward the future, and I loved watching her grow as a character, becoming more compassionate while remaining as wonderfully prickly as ever. Should all the power and the safety it provides, be hoarded by the enclaves? This theme of social justice runs through the narrative, giving El (and readers) much to think about in worlds both imagined and real. If the mals can be stopped at graduation, it’s clearly El and Orion and their talents for havoc (El) and slaying demons (Orion) that can do it. But it’s what these two characters begin to mean to each other that gives The Last Graduate what I can only describe as a heart-stabbing painful longing full of possibility. And if you thought the first book ended on a cliffhanger? Just wait until you read the last line of The Last Graduate. I literally burst into tears. Book three can’t get here soon enough!
— Jenny Chou
What marvelous book! An exquisite blend of history and biography, Maiden Voyages takes you on a cruise to a part of women's history that is not often discussed. Sian Evans highlights the unsung sheroes of the day as well as giving the reader a truly informative book.
— Jen Steele
Nina, Jay, Hud, and Kit are the children of the world-famous crooner Mick Riva. However, they may know him best through celebrity magazines. Raised by their mother June, the siblings grow up in Malibu and bond over surfing. Told in two parts, we learn the family's history from the mid-fifties to late seventies and then of the day of the Riva's annual end-of-summer party in 1983. Each chapter reveals a new heartbreak, all leading up to the most explosive party the siblings have ever hosted. Taylor Jenkins Reid sets the scene for family drama and manages to transport you to Malibu's past effortlessly. I was mesmerized by the Rivas, my heart breaking with them at one turn, and laughing out loud at the next, especially at Kit's astute observations. Make an 80's surfing playlist and add this to your summer read pile!
— Jen Steele
In addition to serving as a fantastic resource on embroidery techniques, this book will also teach you to stitch meaning into your clothes, create talisman patches with intentional symbolism, and add threadcrafting rituals to your art/magic/self-care practice. Mystical Stitches thoroughly appeals to my craft-witch sensibilities!
— Oli Schmitz
On an island, somewhere out in the vast ocean, Cee has only one goal: find her sister Kasey. In Joan He’s enthralling, futuristic page-turner, the relationship between two sisters holds the destiny of earth in the balance. As climate change finally ravages our land and oceans, a chosen few take refuge in a levitating city built in the sky. The rest of humanity flounders on the surface, victims of extreme weather and a polluted atmosphere. Kasey may be a teenager, but her intellect leads her to a plan that will allow earth to recover and humans to thrive once again. But first she must solve the mystery of her missing sister, whose love of the ocean and swimming might have cost her life. Kasey’s search leads her to a mysterious boy named Actinium, who is either trying his best to help her or might be her biggest enemy. In a twisty, unpredictable way that’s reminiscent of We Were Liars, nothing is as it seems in this unforgettable book.
— Jenny Chou
A book that focuses on the grief and loss that happens after tragedy. A phone booth that stands by itself, is connected to nothing physical but to everything emotional. People go there grieving for different reasons, for loved ones that they lost in the tsunami of 2011, to illness or some other less concrete reasons.
It's a beautiful book of people coming to a garden with the phone booth in it, lost and hurt, and connecting with others to become whole again. What a message-- people finding the silver lining during their darkest days.
Generous, fearless, funny, and gentle, Broome chronicles his own story to understand how and where he (along with so many other Black outsiders) doesn’t fit in America. His sentences are pure style, a joy to read, and he slips between as many voices as he has existences: Black, gay, poor, masculine, abused, uncool, scared, addicted, ashamed, angry, proud, and full of joy. And on and on. Yes, that’s a lot of signifiers, but only because this is an awful lot of book. Where do you live when every space you inhabit is an intersection of tensions? How does a man who’s spent his life being choked finally learn to breathe? Broome interrogates the world with the rigor and tenacity of the greats, and Punch Me Up to the Gods is everything a great memoir should be.
— Chris Lee
Surrealist humor meets monotonous office life in the new book Several People Are Typing. Written in the form of instant messenger conversations, this book had me laughing in disbelief at the absurd and unexplained happenings at this company. Each employee has their own problems, ranging from the mundane to the hilariously insane, but none more so than Gerald - who accidentally uploaded his consciousness into the firm's slack server. But who cares, because his productivity is suddenly through the roof now that he doesn't need to eat or sleep, so does he really have it that bad? With constant, sourceless howling, frighteningly illegible emoji conversations, missing briefs, and a growing sentience in the app's help Bot, Kasulke exaggerates the average American office to seem as crazy as it sometimes feels like in this wonderfully deranged novel.
— Margaret Kennedy
Unknotting topical issues that raise complex ethical questions is Boyle's specialty. So are crafting hysterically flawed and self-deluded characters who think that they rise above and are the best ones to take on such dilemmas. Here Boyle confronts the unethical treatment of animals with the plight of a chimpanzee being taught sign-language. Everything is fine as long as the chimp remains young and cute, but once adolescence hits, his future becomes increasingly bleak as he grows larger and stronger and wilder. His handlers want to save him, but their motivations are selfish and self-serving, especially when they think they are most altruistic. Can he be saved?
— Conrad Silverberg
A thought-provoking feminist fantasy that drew me in from the first page to the last. 12-year-old Marya has always been told she has no meaningful place in the world - unlike her brother, who is being groomed to become a respected sorcerer. An intended mistake lands Marya in the Dragomir Academy. The bonds she forms with other students, some teachers and eventually her brother lead her to question all she's been told and to ask "Who does this story serve?"
— Kathy Herbst