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I love a good book about books, bookworms and/or an independent bookstore. Think The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, How to Find Love in a Bookshop, Jasper Fforde’s wildly inventive Thursday Next series. And when I read Abbi Waxman’s debut novel, The Garden of Small Beginnings, I could not stop laughing at the witty lines and reading them aloud to my husband.

So when I had the chance to review Waxman’s upcoming third novel, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill – about a bookseller – and interview the author herself, I jumped at it. (Spoiler alert: the book and Abbi are both witty, warm and delightfully irreverent.)

Here’s part of my extended Shelf Awareness review, and a few snippets from my Q&A with Abbi, who was such a joy to talk to:

Bookseller and consummate introvert Nina Hill lives alone (with her cat, Phil) in a small guest cottage in L.A.’s Larchmont neighborhood. She earns a living working at Knight’s, an independent bookstore nearby. When she’s not selling books or reading them, she spends her evenings killing it at trivia competitions (as part of the crack team Book ‘Em, Danno) and intending to go to yoga or spin classes.

Raised chiefly by her beloved nanny while her Australian photographer mother travelled the world, Nina has never felt the lack of a family. But when her estranged father, William Reynolds, dies suddenly, his lawyer tracks down Nina and drops several bombshells, starting with the fact of her parentage. Now, Nina stands to gain both a potential inheritance and a large, unruly extended family that she isn’t sure she wants. At the same time, Nina meets Tom, a fellow trivia whiz who might just prove interesting–and sexy–enough for Nina to embark on an actual relationship.

Nina’s story unfolds in a series of intended-to-be-ordinary days, annotated frequently by pages torn out of her day planner. These are crisscrossed with notes, information, grocery lists and aspirations (including those spin classes), and they provide a clue to Nina’s emotional state, especially regarding the new relationships she’s juggling. Waxman captures the internal back-and-forth between Nina’s rapacious intellect, her fairly sturdy self-esteem and her high levels of anxiety, which has led her to seek out constant ways to stimulate her brain.

As Nina gets to know her family, she comes to understand there’s more at stake than a simple fight over an inheritance. William Reynolds was married three times and had children by at least four different women, and he seemed to be an entirely different man in each incarnation of family life. Every one of his ex-spouses and their children, understandably, have strong (and strongly expressed) opinions about their particular version of William, while Nina, never having met him, ends up sifting through the conflicting reports and trying to make up her own mind.

Waxman has the gift of writing wisecracking, breezy novels that nevertheless contain some real growth for her characters. Nina is forced to re-examine the carefully constructed boundaries of her introverted life, and decide for herself which ones she wants to loosen and which ones she wants to keep. She doesn’t undergo a radical personality change, nor does Waxman (or indeed anyone else) suggest that she should. But by the book’s end, Nina is more able to function in the world as herself–and she’s getting better at explaining to other people when she just needs a moment (or a day) alone.

KNG: Nina struggles with severe anxiety, but she’s mostly learned to manage it. How did you write a protagonist with anxiety, but address it in a fairly light-hearted way?

AW: Anxiety is so common, and we don’t really talk about it–though maybe we are starting to talk about it more, as a society. Nina has essentially sorted out her life in a way that works for her, so she’s mostly able to manage her anxiety.

I wanted to write a character who was happily introverted and didn’t feel any pressure to change who she was. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, and being the kind of person who prefers her own company to that of other people. I wanted to write a character who was comfortable with herself, not just trying to fit in.

Certainly there are struggles–and you always have to ask yourself, “What does your main character want?” Nina, at the beginning, just wants to be left in peace. To be left alone. But then she meets a man who she maybe wants to spend more time with, and the struggle is within herself. Can she get out of her own way enough to try something new?

Nina is a trivia whiz. Tell us about this part of her personality.

I think millennials consume media and creative output of all kinds in a more meta way than my generation did. They’ll go see a movie and then they’ll read lots of reviews about it, and discuss it online. With the constant news cycle, trivia has become like conversational glue–like squirrels sharing nuts, little nuggets of cultural information. For Nina, it’s a self-soothing activity as well.

Nina’s day-planner pages appear throughout the book, and they are so entertaining–a window into her emotional state at times.

I’m glad you think so. Sometimes it was easier for me to show what was going on than to write it. Nina’s trying so hard to sort everything out, and I thought readers could read into the way she was doing things. I could show rather than tell that she’d had a big fight with someone, for example, and was going to turn over a new leaf. And then real life intervenes, inevitably.

Nina’s workplace faces a crisis, but–mild spoiler–she is able to save the day in the end.

I had to go for a happy ending. It’s a bit clichéd, but it’s fun. And I hope people like Nina and feel empathy for her. She’s inspired by all the booksellers I meet when I go around to bookstores. They are without fail intelligent, thoughtful, snappily dressed young women. I would have liked to be like them when I was their age. Ultimately, the novel is sort of a love letter to independent booksellers, and young women in particular.

The kind of books I like to write are a little bit funny, a little bit sad, and with a happy ending. All of my books are the books that you pick up, read and then loan to a friend. I want to be escapist! That’s the best possible outcome for me. I ask myself: Is this a pleasure to read? Is it a pleasure to write? And if my sister thinks it’s funny–that’s the ultimate test–then we’re good.

I originally conducted this interview and wrote most of this review for Shelf Awareness. Nina’s story comes out July 9. 

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A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom, One Step at a Time, Antonia Malchik
Walking is a fundamentally human activity. But worldwide, humans – especially those living in cities – are losing the access and ability to walk. Malchik delves into the dangers of a non-walking life and explores the social, political, physical and spiritual implications of reclaiming walking. Well-researched and engaging – and as a walker/runner, of course I loved it. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

The Precious One, Marisa de los Santos
I adore de los Santos’ novels, and I loved diving back into this one: the story of Taisy and Willow, estranged half sisters who gradually, grudgingly become friends in spite of their (shared) tyrannical father. So much wisdom here about love and family and courage.

When the Men Were Gone, Marjorie Herrera Lewis
This was a total impulse buy at B&N: an engaging novel about a female high school football coach in Brownwood, Texas, during WWII. I grew up not far from (and went to college even closer to) Brownwood, and I spent many Friday nights in the stands with the marching band. I loved the story of Tylene Wilson and how she stepped up to coach the Brownwood Lions.

Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder, Reshma Saujani
Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code (and an alumna of my former workplace, HKS). This book delves into the conditioning women receive to be perfect and pleasing, and how we can change that wiring to be brave. I loved – and related to – so much of what she wrote about. Worth reading and revisiting. (Found at the wonderful Book Catapult in San Diego.)

The Stationery Shop, Marjan Kamali
Tehran, 1953: Bahman and Roya, two teenagers who both frequent Mr. Fakhri’s stationery shop fall in love among the stacks, and plan to get married. But then Bahman disappears, and their lives take entirely different trajectories. Decades later, they cross paths again near Boston, and must unravel the truth of that long-ago missed meeting. Powerful and well written; Kamali’s descriptions of Persian food are mouthwatering and her characters are flawed and real. I loved (and reviewed) Kamali’s first novel, Together Tea, which is sweet and engaging, but this one is on another level. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 18).

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: 2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious, Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
Doreen Green – aka Squirrel Girl – is back, trying to fight crime in the neighborhood and survive middle school. This second novel wasn’t as strong as the first, but I like Doreen and her friend Ana Sofia. The group texts with the Avengers are the best part.

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

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Ivey book slippers twinkle lights

Among explorers, hunters and fishermen, Alaska was long perceived as a man’s world. Women have often had to fight for the chance to love this harsh, beautiful land and prove they can handle its challenges. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I’ve ended up reading a spate of books about it recently – all written by, and featuring, strong women.

Sophie Forrester, military wife and aspiring photographer, is initially denied her chance to see Alaska when her husband Allen is assigned to explore the Yukon Territory in 1885. But she faces her own challenges at the barracks in Vancouver, and (mild spoiler) does eventually get to see Alaska. Eowyn Ivey tells Sophie’s story in her stunning second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World. I raved about this book earlier this winter – my first five-star read of 2019.

For memoirist and obituary writer Heather Lende, Alaska is home: she’s spent decades living and working there. Her three books (If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs; Find the Good) offer a welcome balance to Alaska’s lonely wildness: the warm, colorful community of fellow residents that is necessary for survival.

Kristin Knight Pace ended up in Alaska almost by accident, as a heartbroken divorcee. But her initial five-month stint turned into a decade, and now she runs a dog kennel with her husband. She chronicles the wonder, challenges and the grit required to complete two storied 1,000-mile dog races (the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest) in This Much Country. (I was particularly gripped by the contrast between her Alaskan life and her childhood in suburban Fort Worth, Texas.)

Adrienne Lindholm was unprepared for the rigors of backcountry life when she moved to Alaska after college. Nearly two decades later, she’s carved out a home for herself and wrestled with fundamental questions about identity and motherhood. Her luminous memoir, It Happened Like This, chronicles her journeys out and back in, exploring her efforts to live and thrive in a gorgeous, demanding inner and outer landscape. (I read Lindholm’s book in Spain last summer – a different kind of gorgeous and demanding landscape, at least for me.)

I originally reviewed three of these books and wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it ran last week.

 

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The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

I’d come across this poem before, but never really paid attention, until Jill Lepore read – nay, declaimed – its first few lines in a brilliant Morning Prayers talk at Harvard back in February. I looked it up immediately, and have read it over many times since.

A few lines keep ringing in my head: I am not who I was. Some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. I am not done with my changes. 

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

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book stack red march 2019

I blew through four and a half books on vacation, then struggled to finish anything for over a week after that. C’est la vie, I suppose. But here are the stunners for the second half of March:

A Question of Holmes, Brittany Cavallaro
Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson are at Oxford for a pre-college summer program, hoping to leave murder cases behind. But of course, Charlotte gets thrust into a case while wondering if this is the work she really wants to do. I love this smart, crackling-with-tension modern YA series take on Holmes and Watson, and this fourth book (the last?) is wonderful.

Vintage 1954, Antoine Laurain
When three residents (and one American guest) of a Paris apartment building share a rare bottle of 1954 Beaujolais, they wake up the next morning in 1954. The sci-fi premise (flying saucers! Running into another version of yourself!) is a little shaky, but it’s a fun story and I liked the characters, especially antiques restorer Magalie. I like Laurain’s whimsical, wry, slim novels, and I received an advance copy; it’s out June 18.

Searching for Sylvie Lee, Jean Kwok
After a childhood split between the Netherlands and New York City, Sylvie Lee doesn’t feel she fits anywhere, so she becomes a hard-driving high achiever. But when she returns to Amsterdam to visit her dying grandmother and then disappears, her younger sister Amy flies across the ocean to search for her. I loved Kwok’s previous two novels, Girl in Translation and especially Mambo in Chinatown. This one is much darker and sadder, but compelling – a story of family secrets and how the unsaid shapes us. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 4).

Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
Abandoned by her family members as a young child, Kya Clark spends years living alone in a shack at the edge of a North Carolina marshland. Known as the Marsh Girl, she’s mostly ignored or shunned by the townspeople. When a young man who knew Kya ends up murdered, the town has to confront its prejudice against her. I loved this book; gorgeous, fierce writing and an unforgettable main character. My friend Bethany called it “Girl of the Limberlost meets murder mystery,” and that’s a perfect description.

The Islanders, Meg Mitchell Moore
Summer on Block Island: Joy Sousa’s whoopie pie shop is facing competition from a new French food truck. Lu Trusdale, bored stay-at-home mom, has a secret project. And disgraced novelist Anthony Puckett is hiding out after a scandal rocked his career and his marriage. Moore’s fifth novel weaves these characters’ stories together and asks big questions about love, life and forgiveness. I love her books: they’re breezy but substantial and her characters are real. I particularly loved Maggie, Joy’s quirky daughter. A friend shared the ARC she scored of this one – it’s out June 11.

The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall
Charles meets Lily in the library at Harvard, and falls in love with her even though she tells him she can never believe in God. Nan, a Southern minister’s daughter, falls in love with James, son of a hardscrabble Chicago family. When James and Charles are jointly called to pastor a Presbyterian church in New York City, these four lives become inextricably intertwined. A quiet, luminous, powerfully real debut about ministry, friendship and what happens when faith meets truly hard times. I loved every page. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 13).

The Paris Diversion, Chris Pavone 
Paris, early morning: a man walks into the Louvre courtyard wearing a suicide vest. But not all is as it seems – and Kate Moore, expat housewife and intelligence agent, must work to put the pieces together before it’s too late. I like Pavone’s smart, stylish Eurocentric thrillers, and this one (a sequel to The Expats) is a well-plotted, pulse-pounding wild ride. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World, Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
Doreen Green, age 14, is secretly Squirrel Girl – a superhero in training with leaping powers and a squirrel tail. This super fun novelization of her adventures sees her saving the neighborhood with the help of her furry friends. So silly and great.

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

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I’ve had a couple of real duds lately: books I got pretty far into and then decided to jettison. But here’s the good stuff:

A Dog Called Jack, Ivy Pembroke
I love a sweet, witty chick-lit story once in a while – even better if it’s British. I grabbed this one at the library and happily curled up with it on a snowy weekend. It’s the story of Jack, a dog left behind by his previous owners who wins the hearts of a whole street in London. So lovely and fun.

Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me and You, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun
It’s no secret I’m a Lin-Manuel fangirl (I even got to meet him last year). My husband gave me this warm, witty book of his good-morning and good-night tweets, illustrated. I’ve been flipping through it at night and – no surprise – it is so fun and encouraging.

The Weight of a Piano, Chris Cander
It took me a while to get into this novel – about two women, one in modern-day California and the other in 1960s Soviet Russia, who are linked by the Blüthner piano they both love. Despite the slow start, it’s a compelling story and the writing is really good. Especially enjoyable if you’re a musician.

The Farmer’s Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm, John Connell
Returning to his family’s farm in Ireland, John Connell wasn’t sure he wanted to stay. But helping his father (with whom he often clashes) through a calving and lambing season helped change his perspective. Beautifully written; a bit like a modern-day, more sober-eyed James Herriot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

On Being 40(ish), edited by Lindsey Mead
Lindsey is a lovely Internet-to-real-life friend of mine, and I’m so proud of her work in editing this collection of smart, funny, honest essays. They address the experience of turning 40, navigating the next decade or so, and looking back on the experiences that led to 40. I’m 35, so I’m a little younger than the contributors, but I found much to ponder and relate to here. My favorite essay was Veronica Chambers’ “A Game of Two Halves.”

Correspondents, Tim Murphy
Since high school, Rita Khoury, the daughter of a large Lebanese-Irish Boston family, has longed to be a journalist. In the wake of 9/11, she’s sent to Beirut and then Baghdad to cover the U.S. occupation and its effects on ordinary Iraqis. She becomes close to her interpreter, Nabil, and a handful of other colleagues. Murphy tells their story with warmth and compassion. Vivid, compelling and so deeply human – highly recommended. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 14).

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

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For thousands of years, human beings have watched the stars–to observe their beauty, to navigate across uncharted oceans, and (sometimes) to seek guidance for important decisions. But do the stars truly affect our lives? Does a person’s zodiac sign determine his or her personality and fate, or are human beings the masters of our own destinies?

Australian novelist Minnie Darke takes a playful approach to these questions–and the havoc that sometimes results from pursuing them–in her big-hearted and witty debut, aptly titled Star-Crossed.

Darke’s novel centers on Justine (Sagittarius, possessed of a near-photographic memory, thoroughgoing star skeptic) and Nick (dreamy Aquarius, struggling actor, true believer). Born nine months apart to mothers who were best friends, the two spent their childhoods together, but lost touch after Nick’s family moved across the country.

Darke sets up this shared history in a few breezy chapters, then leaps ahead to when Justine’s and Nick’s orbits overlap again in their 20s. Justine is an aspiring reporter at a quirky monthly magazine, and Nick has just landed the lead in a local avant-garde production of Romeo and Juliet. As the two reconnect and become friends, and as Justine’s responsibilities at the magazine shift, she starts to wonder if there’s any harm in tweaking the monthly astrology column, just a little. The results – predictably – go a bit beyond what she expected.

I read Star Crossed back in December so I could review it for Shelf Awareness – the above paragraphs are the first part of my extended review. I also got to interview Minnie via email (she lives in Tasmania). She was charming and warm and funny, like her novel (and most of its characters). Here are a few fun excerpts from our conversation:

KNG: What inspired you to write a novel focused on astrology and the stars?

MD: The idea for the novel came to me quite a long time ago, when I was a journalist at a small newspaper. Because the staff were few, and it was handy for everyone to be able to make changes to the paper right up until deadline, I had a login that gave me access to the entire publication.

I was working late one night when I had the idea that I could, if I wanted to, fiddle about with the astrology column. Hmmm, I thought. I could make the entries spookily relevant to my friends’ lives, or perhaps take a hand–invisibly–in their decisions. I’m not saying I definitely ever did any of that, but it was a seductive idea. It was also, I thought, a good basis for a novel.

We humans are reliably interested in questions of fate. Are we living out a preordained pattern? Or are we just drifting, bumbling along? We know that there are forces acting on us all the time, but are some of them as far away as the stars? Could these forces be known, and therefore harnessed in the service of our dreams? These are all interesting questions.

Justine is a Sagittarian skeptic and Nick is a true-believer Aquarius. Many of the other characters, no matter their signs, fall somewhere in between. What about you? What’s your relationship with the stars?

I don’t know if I believe in astrology, but I certainly like it. I like the way people enjoy fulfilling, and also confounding, the stereotypes of their sign. And I like the way people use astrology to understand others and their relationships. Just as humans like to seek out systems of meaning, we’re also pretty interested in classificatory systems.

As classificatory systems go, astrology is pretty good fun, and I learned this from my grandmother. She kept two very well-thumbed and dog-eared books on a shelf near her favourite chair. One was her crossword puzzle dictionary and the other was a copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. She was a great one for saying things like, “Oh, your grandfather’s just being a miserly old Capricorn.” Or, “Your dad’s not one for risks; he’s a Cancerian after all.” She was a nurse, and a classic Virgo–always ready to patch up people’s ailments, and to take a close interest in their personal affairs.

The novel is lighthearted, but it asks big questions about decisions, fate and the surprising twists our lives often take. What are your thoughts on the relationship between decisions, free will and destiny?

One of the things I love about being a writer is that it’s not my job to come up with answers or solutions to tricky questions. My job–and I think it’s the best job of all–is to keep asking those tricky questions in new and hopefully entertaining ways.

Perhaps the way the plot of Star-Crossed resolves suggests that there is such a thing as fate, or destiny. Or, perhaps Star-Crossed is simply a depiction of a series of events that take place in a world full of lucky, random chaos. It really will be up to the reader to decide.

I’d like readers to know that Star-Crossed was written in a spirit of joy and mischief, and I hope with all my heart that they will be amused, moved, uplifted and entertained by it.

You can read my full review and interview with Minnie at Shelf Awareness. The book comes out in the States in May, and – in case it wasn’t obvious – it’s really good fun. I recommend it if you’re looking for a charming, witty read with lots of heart – no matter how you feel about the stars.

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