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book catapult bookstore interior san diego books

We’ve had April showers, April snow, April bright sunshine…I don’t know anymore, y’all. But I know the books are saving my life, as always. Here’s the latest batch:

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
I dove back into L’Engle’s classic after seeing the visually stunning new film. (I have thoughts about the film, but that’s another post.) I was surprised at how many details I’d forgotten, many of which director Ava DuVernay included. I love Meg Murry, and this time, her realization that no one else will save her rang especially true to me.

A Howl of Wolves, Judith Flanders
London editor Sam Clair is a reluctant (at best) theatregoer, but she drags her cop boyfriend, Jake, to a West End production starring her neighbor and friend. When the show’s director ends up hanged onstage, Sam and Jake are drawn into the resulting investigation. Well plotted; I like Sam and her dry wit. A solid fourth entry in this series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 15).

The Wild Woman’s Guide to Traveling the World, Kristin Rockaway
Sophie Bruno is a meticulous planner in her professional and personal life. But when her best friend ditches her during a Hong Kong vacation, Sophie meets a dreamy artist guy and ends up making some drastic changes. I liked the premise, but found Sophie irritating – though I cheered at her eventual career move. Found at the Book Catapult in San Diego (pictured above).

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, ed. Manjula Martin
I picked up this essay collection at McNally Jackson last year, and dove into it as part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject. It’s uneven but fascinating: varied takes on the perils, rewards and frustrations of earning a living as a writer. Standouts: essays by Nina MacLaughlin, Meaghan O’Connell, Daniel José Older and Martin herself.

The Case for Jamie, Brittany Cavallaro
Jamie Watson hasn’t seen Charlotte Holmes for a year, since a confrontation on a Sussex lawn that left someone dead. Back at his Connecticut boarding school, Jamie suspects the Moriartys are up to their old tricks. Cavallaro writes especially well about what happens in a relationship after a rupture. A fast-paced, heartbreaking, stellar third book in this series.

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
I’d been meaning to read this slim novel (my first Strout) for a while, and snagged it on remainder at the Harvard Book Store. It’s spare and luminous, with beautiful sentences and insights on grief, mother-daughter relationships and class divides. I didn’t love it as many others did, but it was worth reading.

Mary B, Katherine J. Chen
Mary Bennet, as everyone knows, is the plain sister: not beautiful, witty or talented. But she has a story, and Chen’s debut gives her the chance to tell it. The first few chapters dragged (does the world really need another Pride and Prejudice rehash?), but things pick up after that. Warning: this remake does not treat the other Bennets kindly. I had mixed feelings about this one, but it was certainly interesting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 24).

The Splendour Falls, Susanna Kearsley
I fell in love with Kearsley’s historical novels this winter, and this one – set in Chinon, France – was wonderfully atmospheric. It’s much earlier than the others I’ve read, so the writing and plot are not nearly as accomplished. But I still found it engaging.

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

What are you reading?

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heart sneakers trail

UNREST IN BATON ROUGE

after the photo by Jonathan Bachman

Our bodies run with ink dark blood.
Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.

Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?

Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else

Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?

We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.

Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.

Smith is the current U.S. poet laureate. This poem is from her newest collection, Wade in the Water, which came out last week (April 3). I also enjoyed Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light. And the New York Times had a fantastic piece about her this week.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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purple crocuses leaves

The City Crocuses

Up they come—the yellow ones
fierce as fighters and the purples shy and tender
wind funneling up from the river

blasts me in face and throat, winter gone,
and there’s more, the walk to the subway today
made me smile

because others were smiling
secretly to themselves, a few caught my eye
and said something grateful

about winter being over—
soon along Riverside Drive daffodils lilacs cherry
but for now the tiny snowdrops alyssum crocus

decide to stop waiting
they flex their little legs, they push
and divide the dirt and up they swim

yellow crocuses open
This is the poem that impelled me to buy Suskin Ostriker’s newest collection, Waiting for the Light, back in February. When the crocuses began sprouting a few days later, I thought of it immediately.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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alice network book chai red

It’s no secret I love a good spy story – especially if it features a badass female protagonist. This column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Spies are paradoxically famous for flying under the radar. Both their livelihood and their success depend on remaining undetected. For women, their gender often provides an additional layer of disguise: many men overlook women or doubt them to be capable of a spy’s cunning and deceit. (They’re wrong.)

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network brings to life the work of female spies in occupied France during World War I. The titular network revolves around whip-smart Alice Dubois (an alias, of course), who smuggles information up the Allied ranks via hairpins, skirt seams and her web of crackerjack female agents. Though Quinn’s protagonist Eve Gardiner is fictional, “Alice” and her compatriots really existed, and the novel is a fitting homage to their courage.

Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga finds herself swept up and then abandoned by a charming man in Maria Duenas’s powerful novel The Time in Between. Stranded in Morocco, Sira hones her sewing skills and becomes a successful couturier whose designs eventually catch the eye of Nazi diplomats’ wives. As war swirls on the Continent, first in Spain and then everywhere, Sira passes coded information through her elegant gowns, stitching herself into the complex worlds of high fashion and espionage.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is used to being underestimated: as a retired widow, she’s also downright bored. Presenting herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., she argues her way into a position as an undercover agent, launching an unorthodox career that has her crisscrossing continents throughout the Cold War (though her neighbors never know it). Dorothy Gilman’s series, which spans 14 novels, lives up to the name of its first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, in delightful fashion.

In fiction as in real life, female spies are often underrated–but their stories are reliably fascinating.

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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love hate other filters book mug scone tea

Hello, friends. I know March isn’t quite over, but I’ve been out of town and back again, so I have a slew of books to share with you. And so many of them are excellent. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love, Hate & Other Filters, Samira Ahmed
Maya Aziz loves filmmaking: capturing the perfect shot, whether at an Indian wedding (under protest) or an ordinary Tuesday. But Maya’s film-school dreams, and her daily life in small-town Illinois, are shattered when a hate crime  makes her a target. A powerful exploration of what it means to be a brown Muslim teen in the U.S., and also a sweet, wry, witty coming-of-age story with some romance thrown in.

Encore Provence, Peter Mayle
A friend gave me her extra copy of this book a while back. Mayle’s gentle, witty, thoughtful essays on Provence – olive oil, truffles, gardens, the joys of meandering – were the perfect snow-day (and commute) escapism. Lovely.

Waiting for the Light, Alicia Suskin Ostriker
I picked up this poetry collection at Porter Square Books recently; Ostriker’s poem on crocuses sold me. Many of the others were more opaque, but it’s always worth exploring (and supporting!) a new poet.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, Karina Yan Glaser
I’d been hearing about this charming middle-grade novel everywhere. When the five Vanderbeeker kids learn that their crotchety, mysterious landlord (the Beiderman) isn’t renewing their lease, they embark on a hilarious campaign to convince him that they should stay. A wonderful, warmhearted family story – a bit like the Melendys, in 21st-century Harlem.

Beauty in the Broken Places, Allison Pataki
Novelist Pataki and her medical-student husband, Dave, were on a plane headed for Hawaii when Dave had a massive stroke. Pataki chronicles their love story and Dave’s incredible recovery in this heartfelt memoir. The narrative dragged a bit in the middle, but it’s still an inspiring true story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

The Secrets Between Us, Thrity Umrigar
After abruptly leaving her longtime job as a maid, Bhima struggles to support herself and her granddaughter, Maya, while living in the slums of Mumbai. She sets up a vegetable stand with Parvati, another down-on-her-luck woman who’s hiding secrets of her own. A compelling, evocative and often heartbreaking portrait of two women living on the knife edge of poverty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 26).

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
I’d heard about this slim novel for months, and finally picked it up for my book club. It follows young lovers Nadia and Saeed, who escape their city as life there becomes increasingly untenable. A lovely but harrowing novel of refugees, with a bit of magical realism. (Like Jaclyn, I trust President Obama’s reading taste.)

Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
As a young woman, Aganetha Smart made history running for Canada in the 1928 Olympics. As a wheelchair-bound centenarian, she’s left with only her memories, until two young people show up at her nursing home. A tough, lyrically written novel of hardship, family and running. Recommended by Liberty.

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, Alan Bradley
I bought this latest Flavia de Luce novel in Boise and saved it to read on my recent vacation. Flavia and her sisters are on holiday when they find a corpse floating in the river. Flavia dives into investigating his death, alongside the family’s faithful retainer, Dogger. This series is so much fun; Flavia’s narrative voice is witty and wry, though my heart breaks for her sometimes. A well-plotted mystery.

The Map of Salt and Stars, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
After her father’s death, 12-year-old Nour has returned to Syria (from NYC) with her mother and sisters. But when their home is bombed, they become refugees, on the move throughout the Middle East with millions of others. Joukhadar weaves Nour’s story together with the legend of a female mapmaker’s apprentice from medieval times. A stunning dual narrative about crossing borders and finding home. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker
In the French town of St. Denis, crime is rare and murder is unheard of – until an elderly north African man is brutally killed. The town’s lone titular policeman investigates, discovering links leading back to World War II. A (mostly) gentle setup to a series; Bruno is a likable character and St. Denis is charming, though the ending left me unsettled. Recommended by Leigh.

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

What are you reading?

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nonfiction tbr book stack

Like so many bookworms, I buy more books than I can read right away.

Part of this is intentional: I like having a stack of books waiting for me. Part of it’s a natural consequence of browsing bookstores at home or on vacation: sometimes I just can’t resist a good-looking book or five. And part of it just seems to happen, especially when I receive books as gifts.

I shared this photo on Instagram back in November: this was, at the time, my nonfiction TBR (to-be-read) stack. Generally speaking, nonfiction takes me longer than fiction, and I have Shelf Awareness review deadlines (and often, library deadlines) to meet each month. So the non-urgent nonfiction tends to pile up.

Six of these books were given to me by friends. The top two came from my trip to Oxford in October. Anne generously sent me a copy of her book, Reading People, when it came out last fall. And the other four I’d picked up on previous travels: one in London, three in New York.

All of them had been sitting there a while.

So when I heard about #theunreadshelfproject via my bookworm friend Leigh, I decided my reading goal for 2018 would be to make my way through this nonfiction stack. It sounded doable: 13 books spread over 12 months. (By the time 2018 rolled around, it was down to 11: I read and loved H is for Hawk and Reading People in December.)

I’ve since read three (more) of the books pictured here: Love of Country, Ordinary Light and Encore Provence. I’ve also added a bonus novel: Brian Doyle’s Mink River, which sat on my shelf for months after I bought it at McNally Jackson last winter. I’m in the middle of Scratch, and hoping to tackle Shopgirls or Crossing the Unknown Sea next.

With any luck, by the end of the year I’ll have either read all of these or decided they need a new home somewhere else. (But even if I don’t love Pigtails and Pernod, I might keep it around: it reminds me of a wonderful afternoon spent browsing the bookshops of Charing Cross Road with Caroline.)

Did you set any reading goals for yourself this year? Do your stacks tend to pile up like mine?

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heart sneakers trail

I’ve been reading a lot of great books about marriage lately, and decided to highlight a couple of them for a recent column in Shelf Awareness, which appears below.

They may go together like a horse and carriage, as the song has it. But love, when it’s meant to last a lifetime, can be messy, painful, even deadly dull. Two new books offer a complicated take on marriage that’s much more genuine – and more interesting – than the traditional fairy-tale narrative.

Essayist Ada Calhoun admits the truth: marriage is foundational and nourishing, but it’s also frustrating and just plain hard. Calhoun’s collection Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give delves into the facets of marriage that starry-eyed couples don’t always want to acknowledge. These include paying (literally) for a spouse’s mistakes, daydreaming about other partners (and other lives) and slogging through what she bluntly calls “the boring parts” of wedded bliss.

“Dating is poetry,” Calhoun writes. “Marriage is a novel. There are times, maybe years, that are all exposition.” Her mock “toasts” brim with wit, wisdom and gut-level honesty about the trials of staying married and the quiet rewards of remaining faithful, however imperfectly.

Renowned couples therapist Esther Perel explores a more dramatic but no less sticky aspect of long-term commitment–infidelity and its fallout–in The State of Affairs. Drawing on her years of work with couples (of various ethnicities and sexual orientations) who have dealt with infidelity, Perel explores the reasons people seek extramarital relationships and analyzes their effects.

Despite the pain they cause, she insists that affairs provide “a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.” Her clients’ stories have many different endings, but most, encouragingly, are still in progress: an affair can expose the fault lines in a marriage, but doesn’t have to mean total destruction.

Both Calhoun and Perel present clear-eyed yet ultimately hopeful perspectives on marriage as a tough, flexible and ultimately life-giving endeavor.

Have you read either of these authors? What are your favorite books about marriage?

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