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Here we are, two weeks into a new year, and it’s time to share what I have been reading:

Hannah’s War, Jan Eliasberg
As World War II rages on, an international team of brilliant scientists are working on a top-secret bomb in the lab at Los Alamos. Among them is Dr. Hannah Weiss, who fled Berlin in the wake of Nazi persecution. Major Jack Delaney, sent to catch a spy, begins investigating Hannah, but finds himself drawn to her instead – and they’re both hiding secrets. I read this in one day; it’s gorgeous, compelling and thought-provoking. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 3).

Time After Time, Lisa Grunwald
Anne recommended this last summer, and I grabbed it at the library. It’s a bittersweet love story set in NYC’s Grand Central Terminal – Nora, a young woman who died in a 1925 subway crash, keeps reappearing in the terminal, where she falls in love with Joe, a train leverman. I loved the period details, the vivid characters, the honest way they dealt with the complexities of love. Still thinking about the ending.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
I’m several years late to Woodson’s gorgeous memoir-in-verse. I both devoured and savored her lyrical, plainspoken, vivid memories of childhood with her brothers and sister, her grandparents’ love, their transition from Greenville, S.C., to Brooklyn, and the beginnings of her desire to be a writer. Powerful and lovely.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
Harry and his friends are back at Hogwarts – and he finds himself competing in the Triwizard Tournament, somewhat against his will. The story grows darker, and I love how Rowling draws us deeper into the wizarding world. Also, Rowling’s wit (and the Weasley twins’ ingenuity) shines: “Just then, Neville caused a slight diversion by turning into a large canary.”

The Case of the Wandering Scholar, Kate Saunders
Widowed clergyman’s wife Laetitia Rodd takes on a second case, this one involving a scholar/hermit living near Oxford. She’s trying to track him down to deliver a message from his dying brother – but then, two local priests (one a friend of hers) are murdered, and it’s all connected somehow. Mrs. Rodd is a sharp, compassionate, no-nonsense amateur sleuth and this mystery (whose setting reminded me of Lark Rise to Candleford) was thoroughly enjoyable.

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

What are you reading?

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Jhumpa Lahiri next to Flavia de Luce. Agatha Christie stacked atop Anne Lamott. E.B. White’s essays, cheek by jowl with Anne of Green Gables.

My bookshelves look totally different these days, since I moved to a new apartment this summer and agreed to let my sister color-code them. (It took several hours and at least two bottles of wine.)

I was skeptical. What type-A bookworm wouldn’t be? I’d always arranged my books carefully by genre, then by author. I thought I wouldn’t be able to find anything. But the new arrangement is both gorgeous and surprisingly accessible. (I stand corrected.) Bonus: I’m rediscovering some titles when they catch my eye from their reshuffled positions. 

Favorites from several years ago, like Rebecca Pacheco’s Do Your Om Thing or Andi Teran’s Ana of California, wink at me constantly these days. I’m rereading the Harry Potter series again, and searching for each multicolored spine (I have the British editions) is a mini-treasure hunt. And my poetry collections (heavy on the Mary Oliver) are scattered throughout, prompting me to pull them out and read a poem or two.

It’s especially fun when a friend asks about a book: let me see where that is. Oh, yes, the cover is blue, but the spine might be red. (I’m looking at you, As Always, Julia.)

Some series, like Laurie R. King’s excellent Mary Russell mysteries, are scattered all over the place. A few, like my Penguin-orange Thursday Next adventures, are happily, haphazardly stacked together (with Ann Patchett’s essays and Life of Pi). And on the fireplace, a tower of black-spined classics (like The Count of Monte Cristo) shares space with newer stunners, including Kate Quinn’s The Huntress

My bookshelves are still a snapshot of my reading life, but these days, the picture is a much more colorful one. I’m savoring the rainbow it creates along my walls, and the unexpected pleasure of beloved volumes, seen in a vivid new way. And I’m sharing snapshots of each colorful shelf, and highlighting a few favorites, over on Instagram each Monday. 

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran last week. I am one happy bookworm these days. 

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Somehow, it’s 2020 – and I’m still catching up from Christmas break. Here’s my last list of reads for 2019:

Red Letter Days, Sarah-Jane Stratford
When the House Un-American Activities Committee begins blacklisting writers, Phoebe Adler flees to London after receiving a subpoena. There, she begins working for Hannah Wolfson, a fellow exiled American who’s creating a new hit show. But both women are in more danger than they realize. A well-plotted historical novel with great characters – I wanted to meet Phoebe, Hannah and all their friends for a cocktail. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 25).

The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison, Jason Hardy
Hardy spent four years working as a parole officer in New Orleans. This book gives an insider’s account of the probation and parole (P&P) system, which aims to keep offenders from relapsing into addiction, going back to jail or prison, or hurting themselves or other people. Hardy wrestles with the lack of resources, the staggering problems facing most of his offenders, and his own privilege. A thoughtful, timely, compelling account. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 18).

Ayesha at Last, Uzma Jalaluddin
This fun Pride and Prejudice retelling, set in Toronto’s Indian Muslim community, came recommended by Anne and others. I loved Ayesha, the Elizabeth Bennet character, and her supporting cast, especially her Shakespeare-quoting grandfather. Witty, entertaining and sweet, with some fresh twists on the classic story.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
Brown is well known for her work on race relations, and her memoir shares her experience with race and faith, and poses some tough questions. Well-written, hard-hitting and powerful; I’ll be processing this one for a while.

The Queen Con, Meghan Scott Molin
MG Martin, comic-book writer and costume designer extraordinaire, gets drawn into a second mystery involving a local superhero vigilante. But this time several of her friends, including drag queen Lawrence, may be in danger. The plot gets a bit convoluted, but this series is full of nerddom and great characters.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s third year at Hogwarts starts (and in some ways ends) with Sirius Black, a notorious wizard who has escaped Azkaban, the wizard prison. This book is one of my favorites in the series – especially the last bit, where everything (thanks in large part to Lupin and Hermione) blows wide open. So much fun.

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, Amaryllis Fox
I blew through Fox’s memoir on my plane ride home. She gives a clear, thoughtful account of her career in the CIA, and the ways an undercover life prevented her from building a true marriage or family. Fascinating and thought-provoking – parts of it read like a spy thriller.

25 Days ‘Til Christmas, Poppy Alexander
This was an impulse buy at Trident, and it was the perfect sweet, witty, British Christmas read. Widowed mum Kate is struggling to make Christmas merry for herself and her young son, Jack, while facing harassment at work. Daniel, grieving his sister’s death, is also struggling. I loved the ways their stories intertwined, as well as Daniel’s efforts to support a group of local businesses.

Blind Search, Paula Munier
Mercy Carr, former military police officer, and her retired bomb-sniffing dog Elvis are back on the case. This time, it’s multiple murder in the Vermont woods, with an autistic boy as the only witness. The writing is a bit labored, but I like Mercy and the other characters, including game warden Troy Warner.

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

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What a year, y’all. I say that every year, but this one has brought so much change I didn’t see coming.

Here is my annual non-exhaustive list of what has happened this year. As always, it’s a limited tool, but an interesting one.

In 2019, I have…

  • marked a year (and some change) at Berklee, where I get to write about our students, faculty, alumni and guest artists making music and doing various cool music-adjacent things.
  • moved to East Boston after spending a lot of time there this spring, and falling completely in love.
  • Related: moved into my own apartment for the first time in more than a decade.
  • run several 5Ks, one of them in a cape and one in a Wonder Woman costume.
  • run my first 10K, this summer – a triumph.
  • flown to Texas several times, once to celebrate my grandfather’s 85th birthday with the whole fam.
  • spent hours and hours on the Neponset River trail, the Charles River Esplanade and the East Boston Harborwalk and Greenway, running to my heart’s content.
  • done a lot of yoga, at three different studios: Healing Tree in my old neighborhood, Erin’s shiny new Savin Hill Fitness Studio, and The Point in my new neighborhood.
  • read more than 150 books, and reviewed 58 (I think) for Shelf Awareness. (Still the best.)
  • Related: interviewed nine authors for the Shelf, all of whom were lovely and fascinating.
  • attended my first Newport Folk Festival and had a fabulous time.
  • filled up half a dozen or so journals (and – gasp – I got rid of at least six boxes of old ones when I moved).
  • started going to therapy.
  • gone through a divorce.
  • spent many weekday mornings at Mem Church, and a few Sundays at assorted churches here and there.
  • drunk so many chai lattes, mostly from the Boston Public Library and (of course) Darwin’s.
  • bought and enjoyed countless bouquets of flowers, most of them from my beloved Brattle Square Florist.
  • taken a number of BlueBike rides across town and along the river.
  • spent a weekend in rural Pennsylvania with my friend Christie and her family – so good for the soul.
  • hosted my longtime friend Abigail in my new digs for a glorious long weekend.
  • spent Thanksgiving with my friends Joe and Lauryn, and assorted other friends old and new.
  • taken Phoenix, the sweetest mini golden doodle, on many walks through East Boston. (And cuddled him a lot.)
  • followed thrive as my one little word, to sometimes unexpected places.

What has 2019 looked like for you?

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It’s been…a year. Somehow, amid all the upheaval, I have read more than 150 books, and as usual, I’m highlighting a few of the best to share with you. Here are my faves:

Most Honest, Insightful Book on Women Entering Midlife: Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun. This one comes out next month and if you are, or if you love, a woman in her 30s or 40s, please go get yourself (or her) a copy. I will be talking about this one with lots of my girlfriends.

Most Eye-Opening, Validating Book About Sexuality: Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. I was late to the party on this one and I am still so glad I read it. Smart, funny, packed with valuable information and absolutely fantastic.

Best Reread: either I’ll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos or The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice. The latter is charming and British and lovely, and the former felt like a friend holding my hand through a rough time.

Most Inventive WWII Love Story: Lovely War by Julie Berry, narrated largely by Aphrodite as she stands trial (after a fashion) in a Manhattan hotel room. It’s wonderful.

Truest Novel About Friendship and Faith: The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, about which I have already gushed. So good.

Best Celebration of Joy: The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, which is full of robust, irreverent, real delight.

Most Powerful Memoir of Making Change: The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. Thoughtful, wise, fascinating, so interesting.

What were your favorite books this year?

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Due to review deadlines, library deadlines and general pre-holiday craziness, my brain feels scrambled lately. Here’s what I have been reading – much of it several months ahead:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s second adventure at Hogwarts is as much fun as the first. I love seeing the characters grow, and the narrative of the series begin to build. Fast, fun and highly enjoyable.

Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change, Eitan Hersh
Most people who are engaged in political hobbyism – following, and wringing their hands about, the news – aren’t doing work to make real, appreciable change. Hersh investigates the history of political engagement in the U.S., interviews grassroots activists (the strongest part of the book) and asks how to truly get involved in local politics. Interesting, though a bit tedious at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 14).

The Golden Hour, Beatriz Williams
Widowed journalist Lulu Randolph is sent to Nassau in 1941 to write a society column focusing mainly on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. While there, she falls in love – but when her new husband becomes a POW, she goes to London to try to rescue him. The narrative shifts between Lulu’s story and that of her husband’s German mother, Elfriede, in the early 1900s. Lush, compelling, slightly scandalous.

Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land, Noé Álvarez
The son of Mexican immigrants, Álvarez grew up poor in eastern Washington. Feeling aimless as a college student, he joined the Peace and Dignity Journeys to run a punishing 6,000-mile ultramarathon through North America, in a quest to honor indigenous peoples and their stories. This memoir is beautifully written and contains some compelling ideas, but I couldn’t always find the through line of his insights. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 3).

Siri, Who Am I?, Sam Tschida
A young woman wakes up in the hospital wearing a yellow Prada gown, with nothing in her possession but a tube of Chanel lipstick and an iPhone. She can’t even remember her own name (Mia), but gamely tries to reconstruct her life via Instagram. A snarky, fast-paced take on the selfie culture – fun, though I wanted more depth. I really liked Mia’s sidekick/love interest, Max the “Black Einstein” neuroscientist. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 5).

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

What are you reading?

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And just like that, it’s December – it’s sleeting today (ugh), but the world is still twinkly. (The photo above is from Brookline Booksmith’s cheery holiday pop-up shop.) Here’s what I have been reading, over Thanksgiving and beforehand:

Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson’s latest slim novel follows three generations of a black family in Brooklyn: teenager Melody, her mother Iris (who got pregnant at 15) and Iris’s parents. It’s spare and lovely, a lyrical exploration of complicated family dynamics. I did want more from the ending, but I remember feeling that way about Another Brooklyn, too.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
I love this series so much, and this first book is pure joy, as Harry discovers Hogwarts and makes new friends. Rereading these means I see more of the threads that will make up the tapestry of the whole series.

You Were There Too, Colleen Oakley
Reeling from a miscarriage, artist Mia and her surgeon husband (who is racked with guilt from losing a patient) move from Philly to a tiny town. While there, Mia meets Oliver, a man who has been appearing in her dreams for years, with no rational explanation. They try to figure out what it means, as Mia struggles to settle into her new life. This was mostly engaging, but the ending killed me. I received an ARC (it’s out Jan. 7).

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, Anissa Gray
I picked this up at the library and read it in one day. When Althea and her husband, Proctor, are sent to prison for fraud, her sisters Viola and Lillian must step in to care for Althea’s twin teenage daughters. A powerful exploration of family – love and loss and the effects of past traumas. Really well done.

Thistles and Thieves, Molly MacRae
MacRae’s third Highland Bookshop mystery finds her characters trying to solve several murders, while one of them gets back into cycling and another one takes up darts. I like the gentle village setting and the banter, though the plot of this one was so-so. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 7).

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss
Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, and Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde and their compatriots set off for the Continent to rescue her and thwart the activities of a sinister society. Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes has disappeared. This second book in Goss’s series is engaging, but way too long. I like the characters, but we didn’t need every single plot incident. (Also: too many vampires for me.)

Live Alone and Like It, Marjorie Hillis
My friend Rachel sent me this archly witty guide to single-girl living, first published in 1936. I loved it – while it’s (obviously) a bit outdated in spots, it’s full of practical, pert, entertaining advice for women living on their own.

Evvie Drake Starts Over, Linda Holmes
After Evvie Drake’s husband dies, everyone thinks she’s grieving – no one knows she was on the point of leaving him. When a struggling major-league pitcher moves to town and becomes Evvie’s tenant, they become friends and both begin to inch toward the next chapter of their lives. This novel was so much fun – witty, warm and engaging.

The Irregulars, Steven-Elliot Altman, J. Michael Reaves and Bong Dazo
A friend passed on this slim graphic novel about Sherlock Holmes’ Irregulars, a ragtag band of children who are trying to stop a serial kidnapper/killer in London. I love Holmes, but I’m not a huge graphic novel fan and this one didn’t really work for me.

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

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