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2015 favorite books

I read a lot, as y’all know – I’m almost at 100 books for the year. And we are (somehow) halfway through the year already, so here are the books I have loved the most over the last six months:

Frothiest, Sauciest, Most Fun Chick Lit: The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan. Oxford, true love, tightly knit sibling bonds and a gaggle of quirky, loyal friends – what more could I ask for?

Most Insightful Memoir on Work & Life: Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin. A thoughtful, sensitive exploration of writing, carpentry and building a good life.

Best New Installment in a Beloved Series: A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear. Classic Maisie Dobbs in a fresh new setting, with new challenges. I will follow Maisie to the ends of the earth.

Smart, Witty, Utterly Delightful Sherlockiana: The Great Detective by Zach Dundas. A fantastic exploration of the Holmes phenomenon (past and present).

Best Book on Yoga & Life: Do Your Om Thing by Rebecca Pacheco.

Cheeriest British Fictional Companion: Mrs. Tim, aka Hester Christie. I enjoyed every page of the four books about her.

Most Evocative Travel Memoir: Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. So many beautiful sentences.

Best Retelling of a Legend I Thought I Knew: Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen, which made me fall in love with Robin Hood all over again. (I still have a crush on the handsome fox from the Disney movie.)

Most Delicious Memoir of Food & Marriage: Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard, which I reviewed at Great New Books.

Snarkiest, Most Entertaining YA Novel: Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond.

Spunkiest Cozy Mystery Series: the adventures of Daisy Dalrymple.

Loveliest Story of a Quiet Life Well Lived: Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan (out in September).

What are the best books you’ve read so far this year? I’d love to hear about them.

june books 2

Wedding Season, Katie Fforde
I like Fforde’s gentle, witty British chick-lit novels, and enjoyed this one about Sarah, a cynical wedding planner who thinks she doesn’t believe in love. (Sarah drove me a little nuts – I liked her friends, dressmaker Elsa and hairdresser Bron, much better.) Found at McKay’s Used Books in Nashville.

Styx and Stones, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple’s brother-in-law is receiving nasty anonymous letters, and begs her to investigate. It turns out his village is a hotbed of gossip – and then a murder occurs. Daisy, her policeman fiance Alec, and the local inspector solve the case together.

Lois Lane: Fallout, Gwenda Bond
Lois Lane is resolved to fit in at her new school – until she sees another student being bullied. Trying to help the girl, Lois unearths a sinister mind-control plot, which she must hijack with the help of her fellow teenage reporters at the Daily Scoop. A fun, snarky, fast-paced YA novel – Superman meets Veronica Mars. I’m hoping for a sequel.

Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse, Faith Sullivan
Nell Stillman has lived a quiet life in Harvester, Minnesota: teaching third grade, raising her son, caring for friends and neighbors, and reading voraciously (especially P.G. Wodehouse). A truly wonderful story of a sensitive, intelligent, gracious woman. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 15).

Rattle His Bones, Carola Dunn
When Daisy Dalrymple begins researching an article about London’s Natural History Museum, she uncovers all sorts of fascinating things – including, of course, a murder. A tangled, entertaining mystery – one of my favorites in the series so far.

The Invisibles, Cecilia Galante
Nora Walker has built a safe, quiet life for herself, hiding from the trauma of her early years. But an unexpected reunion with her three best friends forces all four women to deal with past and present wounds, and to help each other move forward. Deeply moving, quietly hopeful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 4).

Silver Bay, Jojo Moyes
Tucked away on Australia’s eastern coast, Silver Bay is frequently visited by whales, dolphins and not many people. When an English developer arrives planning to build a new resort, the town’s inhabitants – particularly a tightly knit group of whale-watchers – are less than pleased. A romantic, heart-tugging read in Moyes’ signature breezy style.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

Seven years

katie jer beach san diego

Yesterday we celebrated seven years of marriage.

It feels like a lifetime (especially since we have been together for nearly 12 years) and a moment, all at once.

We met when we were 18, started dating when we were 20, got engaged at 23 and married at 24. Together, we have weathered most of our undergrad years (in the same town), graduate school (5000 miles apart), a cross-country move, multiple job changes in Texas and Massachusetts, and (most recently) a record-setting New England winter. We have welcomed new nephews and a niece, mourned the loss of friends and family members, served on worship and ministry teams at two very different churches, and traveled to (so far) four non-U.S. countries and multiple states together.

I keep returning to Lindsey’s words from last summer: “Marriage is about abiding. It is about remaining near.” As our careers and other obligations pull us in different directions, the constant work of marriage is to stay near to one another, to pay attention and take care of each other and be kind.

My mother once told me she married my father because he was the kindest person she had ever met. I am glad to be married to a man who is also deeply kind, who is funny and handsome and musical and hard-working, who makes me laugh and whose eyes light up when he sees me.

Happy anniversary, love. Here’s to many more.

Harvard library love

widener library view harvard

One of the cool things about working at Harvard: sometimes you get to peek into beautiful, historic, or otherwise distinguished buildings.

The Square, particularly the Yard, teems with such buildings. But one of the biggest and most famous – and the one that makes my book-nerd heart go pitter-patter – is Widener Library.

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, named for a Harvard alumnus who went down with the TitanicĀ (funded by his mother), is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It is (mostly) open to students, faculty, staff and researchers year-round. The stacks go way down beneath Harvard Yard, and they are both fascinating and slightly eerie (if you happen to be down there alone).

But last Friday, the doors were thrown open for a reception to celebrate Widener’s centennial – complete with architectural drawings on display, cupcakes with crimson icing, a jazz trio, and red balloons.

widener library plans harvard

I milled around with other visitors, munching on a cupcake. I loved seeing the photos of the library’s dedication ceremony in 1915, and the blueprints and correspondence laid out for our perusal. But my favorite part was stepping into a room where I can’t usually go.

widener room harvard library flowers

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Room is modeled after Harry’s study, and it contains his portrait and his personal collection of books. It’s usually open only to the library curator, who comes in weekly to place fresh flowers on the desk, as stipulated by Eleanor Elkins Widener, Harry’s mother and the library’s benefactor. (Legend also has it that Mrs. Widener hoped Harry’s ghost would come and visit his books once in a while.)

The room was crammed with people taking photos, and we could only look at the books, not touch them. But I wandered around, perusing the shelves, delighted to find (among other things) Harry’s collection of Dickens.

books widener library harvard dickens

I understand that digital technology has helped transform learning, libraries and the spread of information. (I’m writing this post on a computer, of course – and my book reviews at Shelf Awareness and Great New Books are all digital.) But I have a deep love for the physical book, and the spaces that house such books. I believe we still need them, even in this social media age.

Widener is grand and imposing and full of history, but it’s also a place where people still come to study and learn and make new discoveries. One hundred years of that vital work is definitely something to celebrate.

strawberry rhubarb crisp

I saw a recent post on Dinner: A Love Story in which Jenny and Andy, the writers of that blog, thanked the folks who have taught them important lessons in the kitchen.

Naturally, it got me thinking about my own kitchen teachers, and I thought I’d write a few thank-you notes of my own.

  • Thank you, Ryan and Amy, for teaching me about the joys of rhubarb in the summertime – and for sending me home with armloads of rhubarb from your backyard.
  • Thank you, Cockney fruit sellers at the Oxford farmers’ market, for hawking your (delicious) wares in rhyme and making me smile when you call me “luv.”
  • Thank you, Jacque and Jamie, for teaching me to whip up a meal out of whatever’s in the cupboards, often topped with a fried egg.
  • Thank you, Elizabeth, for teaching me about the versatile deliciousness of stir-fry.
  • Thank you, Marcela, for teaching me how to tell if a mango is ripe, and how to eat them savory (with salt and lime juice) and sweet (in desserts, or simply cut into juicy chunks).
  • Thank you, Janine and Jacque, for teaching me how to brew real English tea.
  • Thank you, Dad, for teaching me to add a little vanilla to pancake batter.
  • Thank you, Julie, for teaching me to use real butter.
  • Thank you, Amanda Hesser, for teaching me that the key to great scrambled eggs is low heat, real butter and patience.
  • Thank you, Pop, for teaching me to make chocolate chip cookies (and the importance of quality control).
  • Thank you, Neno, for teaching me how to snap green beans, how to cook fresh peas from the garden, and for applying calamine lotion to the chigger bites I got picking raspberries on your farm.
  • Thank you, Molly Wizenberg and Ron Morgan, for two very different but equally perfect scone recipes.
  • Thank you, Mimi, for teaching me to laugh about kitchen mistakes.
  • Thank you to the dungeon guys for eating everything I ever baked for you, with relish – even the less-than-perfect cookies and fruit crumbles.
  • Thank you, Lizzie, for introducing me to the restorative powers of apple crumble with fresh custard (either homemade or from Tesco).
  • Thank you, Bethany, for sharing your love of creative sauces and dressings, and your mom’s homemade peppermint fudge.
  • Thank you, Happy, for teaching me to love goat cheese.
  • Thank you, Mom, for teaching me how to boil water, make guacamole, plan meals, grocery shop, and bake and cook a hundred dishes. And thank you for teaching me that dinner is at the center of family life.

Who are your kitchen teachers? And what important lessons (or great tips!) would you thank them for?

daisy dalrymple books mystery

As I noted recently, I’m always reading something gentle these days. I especially love a good series, since it allows me to dip into the same fictional world over and over. I also love a mystery, and the latest series I’ve fallen for – which fits into both categories – is the Daisy Dalrymple mystery series by Carola Dunn.

The Honourable Daisy Dalrymple is a young aristocratic Englishwoman, trying to make her way in the world after World War I has wreaked its havoc on her nation and her loved ones. (Her brother and her sweetheart were both killed in action.) Daisy is cheerful, spunky and determined to earn her own way, which she does as a writer for Town & Country and other magazines. Lots of people – including her mother, the fretful Dowager Duchess – are horrified at the thought of a noblewoman working for a living, but Daisy keeps pounding away at her typewriter.

The series begins when Daisy travels to stately Wentwater Court write an article about it, and stumbles into a murder. Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard, assigned to the case, realizes that Daisy has a nose for clues – and that people of all stripes tend to confide in her. Irritated though he is at Daisy’s meddling, he accepts her help on the case. (I’m sure you can tell where this relationship is going – but it’s a lot of fun to watch it develop.)

Like Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness series, which I also love, these books are Maisie Dobbs lite. They’re set in the same era – between the wars in England – and some of the plots explore the aftereffects of war and the social changes sweeping the nation, but always with a light touch.

The series boasts an entertaining cast of supporting characters, including Alec’s sergeant, Tom Tring (he of the walrus moustache and witty asides) and Constable Ernie Piper (a math whiz who always has a pencil to hand). Daisy’s flatmate Lucy and her old friend Phillip, as well as Alec’s daughter Belinda, make regular appearances. And, of course, the mystery always wraps up neatly by the end of the book.

I’ve already read seven of Daisy’s adventures, but fortunately there are 21 books in the series so far – enough to last me a while. Perfect comfort reading.

Are you acquainted with Daisy and Alec? (Or do you have any other mystery recs for me?)

Mystery Monday is an occasional blog series about my favorite mysteries. Read past Mystery Monday posts here.

sunset sky west texas

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: the sunsets in my hometown are the best.

I may have lived in Boston for almost five (!) years, but every so often, I feel the gravitational pull toward the plains of West Texas, where I grew up. My parents and sister still live there, and last week I hopped a plane to go and spend a few days with them.

I love our annual holiday odyssey across Texas, but it inevitably involves a rental car, mounds of luggage and a lot of schedule-juggling. These solo trips, which I take every few months, are looser, less demanding. They’re not exactly calm (I have two small nephews), but they are their own brand of relaxation.

striped rug bare feet

We wear out the road between my parents’ house and my sister’s. I stand barefoot in my parents’ kitchen in the mornings, sipping tea while my dad brews coffee and flips through the local (typo-riddled) newspaper. We go to church on Sunday morning and watch golf on Sunday afternoon. And we eat a lot – a lot – of Mexican food.

(We also headed to my favorite soda fountain this time for lunch and a strawberry milkshake. Best in the world.)

katie milkshake

My sister has two boys now, and they’re both growing like weeds. Harrison was a tiny infant at Christmastime, but he’s seven months now, and he’s a (mostly) happy little chunk of love.

betsy harrison

Ryder is three (how is that possible?) and much harder to photograph, because he’s in constant motion. His favorite thing to do is play with trains, and his favorite playmate is my dad.

dad ryder trains

I’m lucky to get to come back here and hang out every once in a while. To answer Ryder’s thousand questions and hear him call me “Kiki.” To laugh with my mom and try on clothes with my sister and trade wacky movie quotes with my dad. To stand in a pew on Sunday morning and sing the hymns we all love. To enjoy my brother-in-law’s excellent grilling skills and quiet humor. To be surrounded by, and immersed in, love.

Boston is where I live, and where I’ve built a life I love. But West Texas is still and always my home.

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