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August is flying by – between work and yoga and other adventures, here’s what I have been reading:

Rivals, Katharine McGee
Queen Beatrice is hosting her first international diplomatic conference, and alliances will be formed and shattered – but by whom? Meanwhile, Princess Samantha might be falling in love – for real this time – and Prince Jeff’s girlfriend, Daphne, is reconsidering her usual scheming ways. A fun third installment in McGee’s alternate-reality YA series where America is a monarchy.

The Matchmaker’s Gift, Lynda Cohen Loigman
Sara Glikman makes her first match at age 10, as her family immigrates to the U.S. When Sara keeps using her unusual gift to make love matches, the local matchmakers – all male – join forces against her. Decades later, Sara’s granddaughter, Abby, uncovers some of her grandmother’s stories and begins to suspect she might have the gift, too. A highly enjoyable historical novel with a touch of magic. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 20).

The Dead Romantics, Ashley Poston
Romance ghostwriter Florence Day is in trouble: she doesn’t believe in love anymore, but her handsome new editor is pushing her to submit a manuscript on deadline. Then Florence’s father dies, and she flies home to South Carolina (where her family runs the funeral home) – and a very handsome ghost shows up unexpectedly. Quirky and fun and really sweet; the premise is bonkers, but I loved it. Found at the delightful Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT, and recommended by Anne.

Black Women Will Save the World: An Anthem, April Ryan
Black women are the often unsung “sheroes” who make immeasurable contributions to America’s democracy, institutions, families and communities, while facing the double bind of sexism and racism. Veteran White House reporter Ryan – herself a trailblazing Black woman – champions the accomplishments of leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, Maxine Waters, Kamala Harris and the cofounders of Black Lives Matter. Thoughtful and powerful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

The Mystwick School of Musicraft, Jessica Khoury
All her life, Amelia Jones has dreamed of studying at Mystwick, the school where her mother learned Musicraft. After a botched audition, Amelia still gets in due to a mix-up, but she gets a chance to prove she belongs there. A fun middle-grade novel with adventures, music, magic and complicated friend/frenemy dynamics. First in a series.

London’s Number One Dog Walking Agency, Kate MacDougall
In 2006, MacDougall quit her job at Sotheby’s – where she was safe but bored – to start a dog-walking company. This delightful memoir chronicles her trials and triumphs in setting up the business, navigating adulthood, getting her own dog and starting a family. Witty and warm, with lovely insights on work and building a life. Found at the wonderful Three Lives in NYC.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

This past weekend, I spent a day at Boston Fan Expo – known popularly, if not officially, as Boston Comic-Con – with my guy. He’s a comic-book geek from way back, and he and his son have been going to this event together for more than a decade.

It was my first con event ever, and I decided – after a fun but seriously overstimulating day – that it was sort of like traveling to a foreign country.

Why? First of all, it took a little effort to get there: for me, one stop on the train and then a bike ride to the convention center. G made sure to give me the lay of the land (not quite a guidebook, but close) before we went inside. But there was a lot he didn’t know, even after years of doing this, and a lot I had to figure out for myself.

Once inside, we explored and wandered. The costumes, languages and locals I saw spanned the gamut from familiar to totally unknown. I’m fairly fluent in Harry Potter, for example, and I speak a bit of Star Wars and some Lord of the Rings. But I only know a little Marvel, and even less DC (except for Wonder Woman, of course), and I don’t speak anime (or horror) at all. It reminded me of being in Spain: I could decipher some of the main language, with patience. But several of the dialects, and other languages such as Catalan and Euskara, remain totally unfamiliar to me after multiple trips there.

The people-watching, as advertised, was excellent: one vendor had a live parrot on her shoulder, and another had gone full hobbit, with pointy ears and a green Elven cloak fastened with a leaf clasp. I saw so many tattoos and costumes whose meanings I couldn’t begin to guess at, and mostly I saw a ton of folks having fun, in a world they inhabit and love.

We made sure to hydrate and take breaks, and I came away with a few fun souvenirs, including a Gryffindor keychain. I loved chatting with the locals (i.e. a few vendors) and exploring a part of G’s world alongside him. But by the end – I have to say – I was very ready to go home. We picked up tacos from a favorite local spot, headed back to my house, cracked open a new cider, and crashed.

Have you been to a con or other event like this? Did it feel like a foreign country to you?

brattle bookshop doors boston

Seven or eight years ago now, I got an email from an author, offering to send me an ARC of a cozy mystery for review. I said yes with reservations: I love a mystery, but cozies are sometimes too cutesy for me, plus the writing isn’t always very good. But I devoured (ha) Death with All the Trimmings, my introduction to Lucy Burdette’s series featuring Key West food critic Hayley Snow. The series – now 12 books strong, and counting – has continued to make me smile, and I’m always happy to get a new installment in the mail.

After following her boyfriend down to Key West and realizing he’s kind of a jerk (an understatement), Hayley has to build a new life for herself. She lives on a houseboat with Miss Gloria, the world’s spunkiest, sparkliest octogenarian, plus assorted cats, and makes her living writing foodie articles for Key Zest magazine. Of course, as Hayley zips around town on her scooter, she runs across lots of mysteries, which only multiply when her mom and stepdad move to the island and open a catering company.

Hayley’s sleuthing often puts her at cross purposes with Nathan Bransford, a handsome but grumpy detective, and his much friendlier fellow cop Steve Torrence. Gradually, Hayley builds up quite the reputation as an amateur sleuth, and quite the relationship with Bransford. I wasn’t a huge fan of his character for a long time, but I’ve gradually warmed to him, especially as Burdette has explored Nathan’s own history in the last few books.

After reading the first book Burdette sent me, I went back and read the previous four – all out of order, but it didn’t really matter. I’ve continued to enjoy Hayley’s (sometimes zany) adventures, all of which draw heavily on Key West local color and lore. The Hemingway House, the island’s mix of tourists and locals, the wacky festivals and (of course) the seafood are on full display; Burdette clearly loves the island, and it shows. Since Hayley’s job involves trying restaurants and writing about them, Burdette gets to glory in the island’s culinary offerings, and there are always a few recipes at the back of each book.

I’ve especially loved escaping to Key West a few times in the dead of winter; I’ve never been there in person, but it’s always a sun-soaked literary getaway. Hayley’s narration is keen-eyed, wryly humorous and often quite entertaining. And I love the ensemble cast, including Hayley’s levelheaded mom, her sweet stepdad, Lorenzo the tarot card reader, the local cops (including Bransford), and especially Miss Gloria, whose pluck and humor know no bounds. I love the cats and the wacky, friendly atmosphere of the island, and I love knowing everything will (mostly) turn out all right in the end.

Are you a fan of cozy mysteries? Any series I should check out?

August has, so far, been hot and full and lovely. Between (and during) weekend adventures and heat waves, here’s what I have been reading:

Horse, Geraldine Brooks
I love Brooks’ thoughtful fiction that takes readers to unexpected places – all her novels are so different. This one deals with a discarded painting, a horse skeleton, a Civil War-era Black horse trainer and an NYC art dealer, among other things. I especially loved the sections about Jarret, the trainer. Rich and thought-provoking, like all her books.

Flying Solo, Linda Holmes
After calling off her wedding, Laurie Sassalyn returns to small-town Maine to clear out her elderly aunt’s house. She finds a carved wooden duck buried in a blanket chest, and tries to figure out how it got there. This is a sweet story with a bit of a mystery, but it’s mostly Laurie coming to terms with what she wants from her life. I loved the side characters like Laurie’s best friend June and actor brother Ryan, and I appreciated the musings on how womanhood and relationships don’t have to look the same for everyone.

By Any Other Name, Lauren Kate
Editor Lanie Bloom prides herself on handling crises at work, and snagging the perfect guy who fits her (long) list of criteria for a mate. But when Lanie gets (provisionally) promoted and finally meets her reclusive top-tier author, everything she thought she knew about life and love is thrown into question. I loved this sweet, witty publishing rom-com – shades of Nora Ephron, for sure – especially the subplot involving an elderly couple picnicking in Central Park. (Reminded me of this.)

Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A-Z of Literary Persuasion, Louise Willder
Blurbs are “the outside story” of a book – and there’s more to them than most people think. Veteran copywriter Willder takes readers through the (literal) A-Z of blurbs, touching on publishing history, literary snobbery, racism, gender politics, puns (so many puns!) and other entertaining absurdities. Smart, nerdy and so much bookish fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

The Key to Deceit, Ashley Weaver
London, 1940: Ellie McDonnell, locksmith and sometime thief, has (mostly) gone straight since getting caught by British intelligence. When Major Ramsey comes asking for her help again (albeit reluctantly), Ellie gets swept up in a mystery involving a young drowned woman, espionage, and more. I love Weaver’s elegant Amory Ames series and enjoyed Ellie’s first adventure; this one was even better.

Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage, Nathalia Holt
The CIA as we know it is relatively new – it was founded after WWII, and a small cadre of sharp, accomplished women was instrumental in its founding and early years. Holt peels back the curtain on five “wise gals” who shaped the agency, fought for equity and did critical work. Insightful, compelling and so well researched – a brilliant slice of mostly unknown history. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 13).

The Cannonball Tree Mystery, Ovidia Yu
As the WWII Japanese occupation of Singapore drags on, Chen Su Lin is translating propaganda articles, cooking for Japanese officials and trying to stay alive. When a relative of hers – a known blackmailer – ends up dead, Su Lin gets drawn into the case, especially when she realizes it might involve sensitive photos and info relating to the war. This mystery was still fairly grim, but a bit more hopeful as Su Lin reconnects with a few friends and the tide of the war begins (slowly) to turn.

Summer Solstice: An Essay, Nina MacLaughlin
I loved MacLaughlin’s thoughtful, lyrical memoir, Hammer Head, and picked up this slim essay at the Booksmith. She writes about summer’s fullness, its nostalgia, its mythical status as a season, its beauty and lushness and even its end. Lovely.

Vinyl Resting Place, Olivia Blacke
Juniper “Juni” Jessup has just moved back to her hometown to open Sip & Spin, a record shop she co-owns with her sisters. But when a local young woman is found dead after the opening-night party – and their uncle, suspiciously, skips town – Juni and her sisters investigate. A fun cozy mystery; first in a new series. I liked Juni and the Texas setting, though the other characters were a little thin. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 27).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

It started off small, as so many things do: with a job I hated and a commitment to buying myself flowers on Mondays.

My essay “Becoming the Crazy Flower Lady” is up at Random Sample Review! Please click over to read it, and let me know what you think, if you’d like.

It’s suddenly August (how??) and between work, a couple of weekend getaways and serious summer heat, here’s what’s saving my life right now:

  • Poetry Unbound. I had missed the most recent season, but am catching up, and it’s a joy to hear Padraig’s lilting Irish voice and discover new-to-me poets.
  • Daylilies, echinacea and sunflowers – it’s hot, but these beauties (like me) are hanging on.
  • The teeny tiny cherry tomatoes I’m growing on the back patio.
  • Sitting out back in the evenings with a book and some lemonade, when I can.
  • My favorite denim shorts, my trusty Allbirds sneakers and a few new tops from a friend, which amounts to a mini wardrobe refresh.
  • Lots and lots (and lots) of water.
  • Tea, always tea: MEM ginger peach, Trader Joe’s watermelon mint, the occasional iced chai.
  • Texts from a couple of lifesaving faraway friends.
  • Planning a couple of August adventures.
  • Watermelon facial mist from Trader Joe’s, which sounds ridiculous but is very refreshing.
  • Ukulele fun at my workplace: “Ode to Joy,” Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me” and assorted other tunes.
  • Fun books: rom-coms, mysteries, middle grade, a super nerdy nonfiction book about blurbs.
  • An occasional walk to the neighborhood park to watch the sunset (see above).

What’s saving your life in these deep summer days?

It’s no secret I love a British mystery – particularly one featuring a whip-smart female sleuth or two. Bonus points for chic fashions, romantic tensions, and lingering effects of one or both world wars. (Maisie Dobbs does this last particularly well.) During a browse at the Strand a few years ago, I discovered a (then) brand-new series that I’ve continued to enjoy: the adventures of The Right Sort Marriage Bureau and its proprietors, Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge.

As London recovers from World War II, both women are also recovering: Gwen lost her husband and suffered a subsequent mental breakdown, which led to her aristocratic in-laws taking away her rights of guardianship over her young son, Ronnie. Iris is less forthcoming about her war wounds, but her top-secret job in British intelligence and her romantic entanglements have both left their scars.

The two women, who meet at a mutual friend’s wedding, join forces to launch the Right Sort Marriage Bureau. (Their motto: “The world must be peopled!”) But when one of their clients is murdered, presumably by another one, the women jump into an investigation to clear his name (and theirs). Of course, they’re not professionals, though Iris has a few clues – so they stumble about a bit, but do eventually manage to save the day (and their agency).

Montclair’s series is four books strong now, and I think it’s getting better with each book: the protagonists, while smart and compassionate to begin with, are learning (more) street savvy and also taking leaps in their personal lives. Gwen, at first completely cowed by her in-laws, begins to fight back (with the help of Iris and her therapist), determined to gain back custody of her son and build their life together on her own terms. Iris insists she doesn’t really believe in love, but she finds herself cautiously optimistic in that area, as well as opening up to friendships with Gwen and others. I recently reviewed the fourth book, The Unkept Woman, for Shelf Awareness, and I’m looking forward to the next adventures of Sparks and Bainbridge.

July is (almost) over, and while sweating through a heat wave, here’s what I have been reading:

The Mimosa Tree Mystery, Ovidia Yu
As World War II rages, the Japanese have occupied Singapore, and Chen Su Lin finds herself coerced into helping them solve the murder of her neighbor, Mr. Mirza. Much grimmer than Su Lin’s first three adventures, this is a sobering look at life under Japanese occupation and a compelling mystery.

The Murder of Mr. Wickham, Claudia Gray
I loved this fun mystery (recommended by Anne) that brings together the main characters from many of Jane Austen’s novels for a house party hosted by Emma and George Knightley. Mr. Wickham (that cad!) shows up uninvited, and before long he ends up dead. Juliet Tilney, Catherine’s daughter, and Jonathan Darcy, son of Elizabeth, band together to find the killer. Witty and entertaining, with some interesting subplots. I’d absolutely read a sequel.

Welcome to the School by the Sea, Jenny Colgan
I usually enjoy Colgan’s gentle British rom-coms, often set in charming small towns. This is an older book of hers, reissued, and it shows: there are some fun moments, but the character development is thin, and there is so much fat-shaming. First in a series.

Where There’s a Whisk, Sarah J. Schmitt
Peyton Sinclaire believes she has one shot to escape her trailer-park life in Florida: winning the Top Teen Chef reality show competition. But when she arrives in Manhattan and starts navigating the show’s cooking challenges and interpersonal dynamics, she learns a thing or two she didn’t expect. I loved this sweet, foodie YA novel, especially the way it wrapped up.

Finding Me, Viola Davis
I’ve been impressed by Davis as an actor, but didn’t know her story. She tells it at a sometimes breakneck pace – from growing up in abject poverty in Rhode Island to college to Juilliard to success on stage and film, to marriage and complicated family dynamics. A brutally honest account of her life; so much trauma, so much grit and hard work, and finally some joy. Recommended by Anne.

For the Love of the Bard, Jessica Martin
Miranda Barnes – literary agent, middle child, YA writer under a pseudonym – goes back to her Shakespeare-obsessed hometown for its annual Bard festival. While there, she has to deal with scary health news for a family member, festival committee politics, and – oh yeah – the guy who broke her heart back in high school. I loved this theater-nerd romance with complex sibling dynamics, totally relatable life struggles and a swoony romance. Found at the wonderful Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT.

They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl’s Fight for Freedom, Ahed Tamimi and Dena Takruri
Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi made international news after a video of her slapping an Israeli soldier went viral. This memoir recounts her childhood, her family’s life under the Israeli occupation, her arrest and imprisonment (and other traumas), and her continuing fight to liberate Palestine. Short, but heavy and heartbreaking. An important perspective we don’t often get in the U.S. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 6).

The Marlow Murder Club, Robert Thorogood
I picked this one up on a whim at the library and blew through it in two days. Judith Potts, age 77, is swimming naked in the Thames (her daily ritual) when she hears a gunshot from her neighbor’s garden. It turns out he was murdered – but by whom? Judith joins forces with local dog walker Suzie and the vicar’s buttoned-up wife, Becks, to solve the case. Witty and clever and so British. I loved it.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

Back in the winter, Lyric Stage (my favorite local theater company) tweeted about needing volunteer ushers for their early spring production, The Book of Will. I’d never even thought about ushering before that, but I signed up and happily showed up early to hand out programs, direct patrons to their seats, and see the show for free. One of my fellow ushers said she’d been doing this for years: “It’s a whole scene!” she told me. I resolved to look into it.

Since then, I’ve ushered at two more Lyric Stage productions, and last month, I expanded my efforts to other theaters: the Huntington, which was showing the brand-new production Common Ground Revisited, and the ART in Cambridge, which just finished its run of the fantastic revival of 1776. I spent three out of four Friday nights in June ushering at local shows, and I have to say, it’s the best volunteer gig in town.

I love live theater, and I missed it sorely during the worst of the pandemic: streaming a play or two online, as I did, just isn’t the same thing. There’s something visceral and immediate – and so much fun – about being in a space with live actors, watching them tell stories in real time.

Volunteering has allowed me a glimpse behind the scenes, too: I’ve met a few staff members as well as fellow volunteers, and watched the audience stream in, excited or indifferent or anxious to find their seats, and settle in for an evening (or an afternoon) of storytelling. It’s a delight to be a small part of making the show happen, and (of course) the reward is wonderful: getting to see the show for free in exchange for a bit of time.

Several of Boston’s theaters are dark for the summer right now, but you can bet I’ll be ushering again this fall. I’m so thrilled to have discovered this new-to-me slice of the city I live in and love.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

We’ve arrived in mid- to late July, and thus the annual summer heat is here. June was dry but temperate this year, with most evenings falling to the 60s overnight: what my New England friends call “good sleeping weather.”

I love summer, with its fresh produce, abundant bright flowers and long, light evenings. But even for this Texas girl, a true heat wave can be rough. Here are some of the signs:

  • I’m running both box fans in my apartment 24/7, and pulling down the shades when I leave for work. At night, I turn on the tiny green fan next to my bed for an extra breeze.
  • I’m sleeping on top of the covers, and remembering childhood summer nights at Neno’s, when my sister would flop onto the bed dramatically and exclaim, “It’s too hot to live!”
  • I’m still running in the mornings (yes, I am), but I can wring out my headwrap in the bathroom sink when I get home, and a cool shower sounds quite appealing.
  • It’s iced chai weather – I’ve been frequenting Travelmug, the local coffee cart, and also getting a weekly smoothie from my friends at Eagle Hill Cafe.
  • I’m trying not to turn on the stove, except to boil water for tea, or to make that chickpea thing I’m eating almost every week lately.
  • I’m tending my cherry tomatoes (in pots, on the back patio) carefully, which right now means watering them almost every day.
  • I’m sipping Trader Joe’s limeade (in addition to lots of water) and eating raspberry sorbet in the evenings.
  • I’m strategically seeking out air-conditioning: at work, of course, but also at the yoga studio, the library, the grocery store or indoor cafes.
  • I’m trying to catch a sea breeze wherever I can: in the park, by the waterfront or even in my own backyard. It helps.
  • I am (of course) reading fun, summery books: YA and mysteries and lighthearted fiction. Preferably outdoors, and/or with a cool drink to hand.

How are you beating the heat this summer?