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bloodline book christmas tree star wars

I am, as regular readers may know, a Star Wars fan. I say that cautiously, since I can’t even aspire to the highest levels of fandom in the Lucasfilm universe. (I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi, by the way. I thought a few lines did not quite land, but I loved being back in that galaxy with a band of rebels old and new.)

I watch the original three films at least once a year. I quote them all the time: “Never tell me the odds!” And I’ve dressed up twice as Princess Leia: once in my teens for a midnight movie, once much more recently. (When my friend Nate turned 30 a few years ago, we all turned out in character to mark the occasion.)

Until this fall, though, I’d never read a Star Wars novel.

Why not? Call it confusion, or intimidation: there are dozens of novels, set in every conceivable niche of the Star Wars timeline and galaxy. Where to start? Add to that the thorny question of what’s considered “canon”: I’m not qualified to even touch that one.

But there’s a darker reason: my own literary snobbery.

Although I’m a lifelong bookworm with two literature degrees, I usually insist I’m not a book snob: I believe people should read what they love, be it a Pulitzer winner or the latest bestseller. But I secretly thought Star Wars novels had to be just cardboard imitations of the movies I loved.

Enter Claudia Gray’s novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan, which follows the young Leia as she takes a survival course and flies around the galaxy on missions of both humanitarian aid and espionage. It’s smart, fast-paced and full of the series’ signature wry humor. (Bonus: it introduces Amilyn Holdo, who appears as Vice Admiral Holdo in most of my favorite scenes in The Last Jedi.)

After devouring Princess of Alderaan, I picked up Bloodline (above), Gray’s 2016 novel recounting Leia’s political career in the New Republic (post-Return of the Jedi). I might have loved that one even more: Leia the senator is even more brave and badass (and a little wiser) than Leia the teenage rebel.

I doubt I’ll be diving into the whole Star Wars backlist any time soon. But it’s been a deep pleasure to read more of Leia’s story–and a reminder that, as Yoda says, sometimes we must unlearn what we have learned.

Have you read any Star Wars novels? Any recommendations for me?

Most of this column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, where I’m part of the book review team.

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paperwhites flowers window

“My paperwhites are making me unreasonably happy,” I texted a friend last week.

Years ago, I learned from Tara’s blog that you can “force” paperwhite bulbs in the winter. As in: stick them in a (tall) vase with pebbles and plenty of water, put them in a sunny spot, and watch them grow. I tried it for the first time the following year, and was utterly delighted at the results: tall green shoots with delicate white flowers, which perfumed my dining room with their odd, sweet scent.

I haven’t grown paperwhites in a couple of years, but I picked up a handful of bulbs at our local garden center in November, and started two in my tallest vases right before Christmas. Since we were away for the holiday, I was afraid I’d miss the blooms, but – as you can see – they’re in full glorious flower.

paperwhite narcissus flowers

Every morning I walk into the kitchen and marvel at two things: the sunrise out the east-facing windows (new every morning, seriously) and the paperwhites on the low table next to the fridge, blooming away.

Winter in the Northeast is a long haul: it’s only mid-January and I know we won’t even see crocuses for a while yet. I’ve learned to appreciate the sharp white beauty of winter and also to grit my teeth through the tough parts. But meanwhile, I’m completely delighted by the fresh green growth in my kitchen – both the paperwhites and the leggy geraniums I’m tending.

paperwhites flowers window night

This is my eighth (!) winter in Boston, and I’ve come to appreciate the need for rest and fallow time, in the natural world and in my own life. But the paperwhites are a reminder that not all growth has to wait for spring. With a little sunlight and water, there’s room to dwell – as Emily D. has it – in possibility.

almost sisters book christmas tree

We’re two weeks into a new year, which has included (so far) a foot of snow, a record-breaking cold snap and – thank goodness – a batch of fantastic books.

Here’s my first reading roundup for 2018:

The Almost Sisters, Joshilyn Jackson
Leia Birch Briggs, a successful graphic artist, finds out she’s pregnant with a biracial baby after a one-night stand. Then she’s summoned to Alabama to check on her grandmother, Birchie, who’s been hiding her health problems and other damaging secrets. I loved this novel – it’s funny, wise, warmhearted and thought-provoking. Leia is a great narrator and her relationship with her stepsister, Rachel, felt so real – as did her experience as a well-meaning but often clueless white woman. Recommended by Leigh and Anne.

One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together, Amy Bass
Soccer, like other sports, has historically taken a backseat to hockey in Lewiston, Maine. But an influx of Somali immigrants to this white, working-class town began to change that. And Lewiston High School’s coach, Mike McGraw, saw his chance to build a championship team. Insightful, vividly told, deeply researched nonfiction about a group of boys who became the emblem of a changing town. I’m not even much of a soccer fan, but I loved it. Reminded me of The Newcomers. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 27).

Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper
After loving The Dark is Rising, I went back and read this first book in the series, in which three children find a mysterious treasure map while on holiday in Cornwall. With the help of their great-uncle (whom I recognized from TDIR), they embark on a quest while dodging some sinister folks. Fun and enjoyable, though not nearly as compelling as TDIR.

In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a bitterly cold Advent season in upstate New York, someone leaves a newborn baby on the Episcopal church steps. The Reverend Clare Fergusson, new to town, investigates the baby’s parentage plus a few murders alongside longtime police chief Russ Van Alstyne. I’d heard about this mystery series from Lauren Winner and loved this first book: Russ, Clare and the other characters felt satisfyingly real.

Wade in the Water: Poems, Tracy K. Smith
I’d heard of Smith but really started paying attention to her when she was named poet laureate last summer. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, is on my to-read stack. This new collection of her poems was the first I’d read. It includes several “erasure poems” based on text from correspondence of former slave owners, the Declaration of Independence and other documents. But my favorites were the others, like “Ash” and “4 1/2” and “Unrest in Baton Rouge.” To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 3).

Other People’s Houses, Abbi Waxman
Carpool mom Frances Bloom is used to taking care of everyone, including her neighbors’ kids. But when she catches her neighbor, Anne, in flagrante delicto with a younger man, the neighborhood is thrown for a loop and so is Frances. This was sharper and sadder than Waxman’s debut, The Garden of Small Beginnings (which I loved). Some great lines and realistic characters, but I thought it ended too abruptly. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 3).

The Library at the Edge of the World, Felicity Hayes-McCoy
I read Hayes-McCoy’s memoir, The House on an Irish Hillside, a few years ago and loved it. This novel was fluffier than that, but still enjoyable: librarian Hanna Casey, who has returned to her rural Irish hometown after a divorce, suddenly finds herself an unlikely community organizer. Lovely descriptions of western Ireland and several appealing characters.

The Woman in the Water, Charles Finch
I love Finch’s mystery series featuring Victorian gentleman detective Charles Lenox. This prequel explores Lenox’s start as a detective, as the recent Oxford graduate investigates the deaths of two unknown women. A satisfying mystery plot, and I also enjoyed the appearances by Lenox’s invaluable valet, Graham, and other familiar characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 20).

Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, Laura Thompson
Known today as the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie led a long and interesting life. Thompson explores Christie’s childhood, her two marriages, her prodigious creative output and her 11-day disappearance in 1926. I found this biography engaging, though it dragged at times, and the section on Agatha’s disappearance was decidedly odd. I’m a Christie fan (but 485 pages is a serious commitment!). To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 6).

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

What are you reading this winter?

texas sunset sky december pump jack

“I was going to ask if you believe praying can really help at a time like this.”

Clare folded her hands together and pressed them to her lips. She paused. […]

“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending His spirit, giving us strength, and peace, and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”

Harlene frowned. “In other words, sometimes, the answer is no?”

“No. Sometimes the answer is ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.’ ”

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter

I don’t usually expect to find theology in mystery novels. Though perhaps I should have seen it coming in this book, the first in a series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson (flawed but faithful, like all the best human beings I know). I enjoyed the book – a solid mystery set in upstate New York, in which new-to-town Clare solves a murder case alongside longtime chief of police Russ Van Alstyne. But I found this exchange, between Clare and police dispatcher Harlene, particularly moving and deeply human.

I don’t pretend to know what prayer does, or exactly how it works. The older I get, the less sure I am of what God is up to in this world, or how the presence of the divine intersects with our lives. But Clare’s final statement to Harlene rings true to me: when we are faced with life in all its variety, all we can do is try to make our way through it with grace. In spite of the darkness, I still believe this too: we are not alone, but deeply, wholly loved.

sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

rose silver sunrise treetops

Somewhat to my own surprise, I chose magic for my one little word for 2017.

I’ve been choosing one little word each year since 2010, when brave sneaked into my life, took up residence and never left. It is still and always a guiding word for me, but over the years other words have found their place: comfort, shift, attention, light, gentle, gumption.

After all the changes and challenges of 2016, I knew 2017 would need some serious magic. And it’s been quite a journey: both in paying attention to magic where it already exists, and doing my best to make some of my own.

2017 held so much magic of the everyday kind: flowers, sunshine, my daily trips to Darwin’s, yoga classes, long walks, the kindness of friends and acquaintances and strangers. Like light, it often seems to grow stronger when I look for it and celebrate it.

There were some truly extraordinary magic moments this year, too: walking the beaches of PEI’s north shore with my husband. Hiking the misty Maine woods with dear friends. Climbing the tower of St. Mary’s in Oxford, and drinking in the view of the city at my feet. Closer to home, I ran my first 5K (in the snow!), spoke at Morning Prayers, walked miles around Cambridge and NYC soaking in their respective beauty, and interviewed several truly delightful authors for Shelf Awareness.

Magic, as Elise Blaha Cripe and Ali Edwards have noted, is often something you make. But I’ve also read enough stories of fantasy and magical realism to know this: it’s not entirely in our control.

By its very nature, magic is quicksilver, sneaky, surprising. It can show up where you least expect it and enchant or transform an entire day. But it is not a neutral force: it has a dark, slippery side. It is powerful, but – like love or ambition or so many other forces – it can be dangerous. And as every witch or wizard knows, it can be sought or celebrated or coaxed into greater life, but it can never entirely be tamed.

When I interviewed Alice Hoffman about her wonderful book The Rules of Magic, we talked not only about magic, but about courage, and love. Both in the book and in our lives, these three things are deeply intertwined.

“The book is really all about courage,” Hoffman told me. She spoke of “the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human.” The Owens siblings have certain powers, and they learn skills and spells and alchemy to hone those powers. But their most potent magic is much deeper and hard-won: it comes from choosing courage, choosing love, even when the outcome isn’t what they hoped for.

Many of the books I read this year involved magic: not only The Rules of Magic but The Dark is Rising, The Luster of Lost Things, the latest installments in Rae Carson’s Gold Seeker trilogy and Rachel Caine’s Great Library series. Several others invoked magic by another name: Leigh Bardugo’s take on Wonder Woman, Claudia Gray’s novels about Princess Leia, Jodi Taylor’s riotous time-traveling historians.

In a year that often seemed like the stuff of nightmares, I kept reaching for stories of heroines, hoping (often unconsciously) for someone to swoop in and save us. But in the end, every one of these heroines – Franny Owens, Leah Westfall, Diana Prince, Leia Organa, Madeleine Maxwell – reminded me of what I already knew: the only true magic is the everyday kind.

heart sneakers trail

All the stories I know about magic eventually come to this: the deepest magic, the truest source of hope, is the very human, often humble work of showing up, taking care, doing what needs to be done. Those lines from The Last Days of Café Leila, which I read back in February, have echoed in my head like a spell or a mantra all year: “The only thing to do was to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything she was capable of giving.”

Tiffany Aching learns this in Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men series: the work of a village witch is often scrubbing and soothing and elbow grease, doing her best to watch over the people in her care. Isabelle Owens reminds her great-nieces of this in The Rules of Magic: “We carry these things with us, and we have to fight them. The best way to do this is to be who you are, every part of you.” And Albus Dumbledore insists, to Harry Potter and anyone else who will listen, that the deepest magic – the mightiest word – is love.

Magic still has much to teach me, I think, but its lessons – perhaps fittingly – aren’t easy for me to articulate. It has been a year of myriad questions and very few answers; a year of mystery and struggle and often darkness; a year of trying to keep up and take care, while the forces around me seemed hellbent on yanking my life out of control. But it has also been a year of surprising joy.

As I walk forward into 2018, I am grateful for the presence of magic in my life. I can’t control it and I don’t always understand it. But it is there, and I hope it stays around for a while. I’ll be watching for its glimmers amid the everyday.

Did you follow a word in 2017? What did it teach you?

book stack christmas tree

Happy New Year, friends. I hope your holidays were wonderful. Mine involved our usual Texas tour: lots of family time, Tex-Mex food and twinkliness. (Then a quiet New Year’s weekend to recover.)

Here are the books I read in the second half of December – mostly on our vacation:

Ghosts of Greenglass House, Kate Milford
Milo Pine is looking forward to a quiet Christmas with his parents. But for the second year in a row, that’s not happening: the titular hotel where they live is invaded by a pair of thieves and a mysterious group of carolers (the Waits). I enjoyed this sequel to Greenglass House, though the magic got a little muddled at times.

You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins
Spanning four decades (1970s to present day), this YA novel unfolds the saga of the Das family as they move between India and the U.S., through the voices of five women. A great story of sisterhood and the push and pull between tradition, family and making your own way. I read it in one sitting on a flight.

A Casualty of War, Charles Todd
The Great War is nearly over, but for nurse Bess Crawford, there’s still much to be done for the soldiers in her care. The plight of one such soldier, a Captain Travis, sends Bess and her friend Simon Brandon to Suffolk to investigate his family history. I’ve enjoyed this series, but the previous few books have stalled a bit. This one, however, was excellent.

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, Jenny Colgan
As Christmas approaches, baker Polly Waterford is struggling: she’s exhausted at work, ambivalent about her boyfriend’s marriage proposal and worried about her pregnant best friend. I like Colgan’s cheery chick lit; this one wasn’t my favorite, but I enjoyed seeing these characters again.

The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
I’d never read this fantasy novel, but picked it up when Robert Macfarlane (whose nonfiction I adore) announced a readalong on Twitter. I loved the story: full of beautiful lines, ancient magic and bravery, as 11-year-old Will Stanton discovers he’s part of a mysterious circle that must hold back the Dark. It’s set at midwinter/Christmastime, which felt so apt. Now I want to read the rest of the series.

Leopard at the Door, Jennifer McVeigh
I grabbed this at the (rather uninspiring) DFW airport bookstore, and spent my flight home wholly absorbed in it. Rachel Fullsmith returns home to Kenya after six miserable years in an English boarding school. Her widowed father has taken up with a cold, manipulative woman, and there is increasing unrest among the Kenyan laborers. Vivid images, gorgeous writing and a heart-wrenching story of those caught up in the Mau Mau uprising. (I also enjoyed McVeigh’s debut, The Fever Tree.)

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

What are you reading in this brand-new year?