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garden-small-beginnings-book-journal

Hello, friends. March has been a bit of a whirlwind so far: the coronavirus is disrupting work and travel plans, among other things. I’m still running, cooking, reading—trying to stay sane. Here’s what I have been reading:

Chasing Utopia, Nikki Giovanni
Thanks to the library’s Black History Month display, I picked up this “hybrid” of poetry and prose poems. I know Giovanni is an important black poet but I’ve only read her work here and there. This was a great introduction: witty, wry, vivid, lots of jazz.

The Garden of Small Beginnings, Abbi Waxman
In a post-Harry Potter fiction slump, I picked up Waxman’s fun debut for a reread. (I read it a few years ago and loved it so much I bought it for my sister—twice. True story.) Lilian, a young widow who works as an illustrator, gets roped into taking a gardening class with her sister and kids. Hijinks (vegetable-related and otherwise) ensue, as well as new friendships and the possibility of romance. Witty, warm and downright hilarious.

Don’t Overthink It: Make Easier Decisions, Stop Second-Guessing, and Bring More Joy to Your Life, Anne Bogel
Anne is a longtime Internet friend and a voice of wisdom on so many topics, including reading, fashion, personality types and, in this book, overthinking. She delves into the nitty-gritty of “analysis paralysis” and what we can do about it. Practical and wise, and you know I love any book that tells me to #buytheflowers.

The Women in Black, Madeleine St. John
In F.G. Goode’s department store in Sydney, the women in black run the dress department. Over the course of a Christmas season in the 1950s, four women (novices and veterans) form friendships that will change their lives. A lovely, witty period piece. An impulse buy at Trident. (I regret nothing.)

Good Bones, Maggie Smith
I love Smith’s heartening “Keep moving” affirmations on Twitter (can’t wait for her new book) and finally picked up this poetry collection. The titular poem is well known, but I loved lots of others too. Beautiful dark images shot through with light.

For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World, Sasha Sagan
Sagan is the daughter of astronomer Carl Sagan, and a committed secular Jew, but she still craves ritual and believes in wonder, mystery and sacred moments. This lovely book explores times and seasons (the year’s cycle, but also birth, coming of age, death) that cry out for rituals. I’m a longtime (though currently wandering) Christian, but I think people of different faiths (or no faith at all) will find Sagan’s work thoughtful and wise.

Tweet Cute, Emma Lord
Pepper is a high-achieving perfectionist, and captain of the swim team at her elite Manhattan school (where she secretly feels like a fish out of water). Jack is the class clown, used to living in his twin brother’s shadow. When they get embroiled in a Twitter war over grilled cheese, they’re both forced to confront their assumptions about themselves and each other. Sweet, snarky and so much fun. Recommended by Anne.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident.

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We’ve (nearly) made it through February, and I’ve read some great books lately. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom
Broom is the youngest of 12 children born to Ivory Mae, who bought the titular house in New Orleans East in 1961. Broom’s memoir relates her family’s history with the house and neighborhood (wrecked by Hurricane Katrina) and her own wanderings, searching for a place to call home. Started slowly, but it’s powerful and thought-provoking.

Hid from Our Eyes, Julia Spencer-Fleming
In Millers Kill, N.Y., an unidentified young woman is found dead: barefoot, wearing a party dress, not a mark on her. The case is uncannily like two others from 1952 and 1972, and Chief Russ Van Alstyne (then a young Vietnam vet) was a person of interest in the latter. As Russ tries to solve all three cases, his wife Clare Fergusson is juggling priesthood, new motherhood, a new intern and other troubles. I love this series and this ninth entry (we’d been waiting a while) was excellent: well plotted with compelling characters and plenty of depth. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 7).

The Sweeney Sisters, Lian Dolan 
Liza, Maggie and Tricia Sweeney shared a (mostly) idyllic childhood in a WASPy Connecticut town. But after their father, literary light William Sweeney, dies, they discover their former neighbor, Serena, is really their half sister. A smart, witty novel of all four grown women grappling with these revelations; juicy and funny and full of heart. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 28).

Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City, Wes Moore
Police violence against black men is (unfortunately) nothing new in this country. But after Freddie Gray’s death in April 2015, Baltimore exploded in protests and anger. Moore, himself a black Baltimore native, chronicles the week of the riots through the stories of seven people: protesters, lawyers, civic figures. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 14).

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, Tessa Arlen
This book is my catnip: a British mystery set in wartime with a smart, witty heroine who feels a bit out of place. Poppy is a newly trained air raid warden who’s back from London patrolling her little village, when two local girls are murdered. With the help of her corgi, Bess, and a handsome American pilot, she tries to solve the case. So fun.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
I love this last book in the series: big, emotional, complex, satisfying, with so many great moments for so many characters. It’s a commitment but it’s one I’m always glad to make.

The Authenticity Project, Clare Pooley
How honest are we, really, with the people in our lives? That’s the question posed in a green notebook that London cafe owner Monica picks up. What’s written inside will have a ripple effect on her life and several others. I loved the characters in this sweet, fresh novel about secrets and friendship and admitting that life is messy.

Cooking Solo: The Joy of Cooking for Yourself, Klancy Miller
I discovered Klancy via her risotto recipe on Cup of Jo, and have been loving her fresh, accessible cookbook full of yummy recipes and pithy advice on cooking for one. Favorites include her roasted veggies with tahini dressing, lemony pancakes, curried sweet potato-carrot soup, lentil soup, and that risotto.

The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion, Catriona Menzies-Pike
I read this book two winters ago, right after I became a runner. I’ve been savoring it again, slowly, this winter as I run through the grief from my divorce and the joys and challenges of my new life. Menzies-Pike surprised herself by becoming a runner (like me), and she writes well and honestly about the gifts, frustrations and soul-deep change that running can offer. Also some fascinating feminist history here. Highly recommended.

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

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star crossed book jeans bare feet chair

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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june books 2

Wedding Season, Katie Fforde
I like Fforde’s gentle, witty British chick-lit novels, and enjoyed this one about Sarah, a cynical wedding planner who thinks she doesn’t believe in love. (Sarah drove me a little nuts – I liked her friends, dressmaker Elsa and hairdresser Bron, much better.) Found at McKay’s Used Books in Nashville.

Styx and Stones, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple’s brother-in-law is receiving nasty anonymous letters, and begs her to investigate. It turns out his village is a hotbed of gossip – and then a murder occurs. Daisy, her policeman fiance Alec, and the local inspector solve the case together.

Lois Lane: Fallout, Gwenda Bond
Lois Lane is resolved to fit in at her new school – until she sees another student being bullied. Trying to help the girl, Lois unearths a sinister mind-control plot, which she must hijack with the help of her fellow teenage reporters at the Daily Scoop. A fun, snarky, fast-paced YA novel – Superman meets Veronica Mars. I’m hoping for a sequel.

Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse, Faith Sullivan
Nell Stillman has lived a quiet life in Harvester, Minnesota: teaching third grade, raising her son, caring for friends and neighbors, and reading voraciously (especially P.G. Wodehouse). A truly wonderful story of a sensitive, intelligent, gracious woman. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 15).

Rattle His Bones, Carola Dunn
When Daisy Dalrymple begins researching an article about London’s Natural History Museum, she uncovers all sorts of fascinating things – including, of course, a murder. A tangled, entertaining mystery – one of my favorites in the series so far.

The Invisibles, Cecilia Galante
Nora Walker has built a safe, quiet life for herself, hiding from the trauma of her early years. But an unexpected reunion with her three best friends forces all four women to deal with past and present wounds, and to help each other move forward. Deeply moving, quietly hopeful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 4).

Silver Bay, Jojo Moyes
Tucked away on Australia’s eastern coast, Silver Bay is frequently visited by whales, dolphins and not many people. When an English developer arrives planning to build a new resort, the town’s inhabitants – particularly a tightly knit group of whale-watchers – are less than pleased. A romantic, heart-tugging read in Moyes’ signature breezy style.

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

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Mar 2013 019

Together Tea, Marjan Kamali
Darya, an Iranian immigrant to the U.S., loves mathematics so much that she makes spreadsheets and graphs for each of her daughter’s potential suitors. But Mina – 25, single, unhappy in business school and longing to become an artist – wants her mother to stop the matchmaking. When the two women travel back to Iran for the first time in 15 years, they gain a new perspective on their homeland, their adopted country, and each other. Light, funny and also moving – a wonderful mother-daughter story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 21).

The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman
An evocative, heartbreaking story of Tom, a WWI vet who becomes a lighthouse keeper, and takes his new bride Isabel to a posting off the western coast of Australia. After they lose their third baby, a boat washes up on shore with a dead man and a live baby girl in it. They bury the man and begin raising the child as their own. But Tom’s conscience plagues him: what about the baby’s mother? After four years, he makes a fateful decision. Beautifully written, but deeply sad.

Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
It’s 1935 and Moose Flanagan, age 12, has just moved with his family to Alcatraz, where his father works as a prison guard. As if that weren’t enough, Moose has to adjust to a new school, watch out for his severely autistic sister Natalie, and steer clear of Piper, the warden’s bold, troublemaking daughter. I loved Moose’s honest (sometimes snarky) voice, and his deep affection for Natalie (though he gets frustrated with her at times, like any brother). A fascinating sliver of history in a highly unusual setting. I’ll be reading the sequel.

Espresso Tales, Alexander McCall Smith
The sequel to 44 Scotland Street, which I also enjoyed, takes us back to that building in Edinburgh and its quirky tenants. Pat is taking charge of her life; her widowed neighbor Domenica tries matchmaking with mixed results; and six-year-old Bertie and his father, Stuart, band together to stand up to Bertie’s overbearing mother, Irene. Meandering and whimsical; gently philosophical at times, gently absurdist at others. Fun.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne
Bruno, age nine, is not happy about his family’s sudden move from Berlin to a house in the middle of nowhere, next to a camp he knows only as “Out-With.” He’s bored at first, but goes exploring and meets the titular boy, Shmuel, who lives on the other side of a long wire fence. Bruno and Shmuel become friends, though Bruno has no idea what life is like on Shmuel’s side of the fence. A moving story, though I found Bruno overly naive at times.

Kissed a Sad Goodbye, Deborah Crombie
The sixth mystery featuring detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James finds them investigating a murder on London’s Isle of Dogs. Duncan is also trying to navigate his new relationship with Kit, the 11-year-old son he only recently met. Lots of personal issues; also some fascinating London history, with flashbacks to World War II, and a peek into the tea industry (the victim’s family owns a tea company).

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
I love Jane Stuart – dreamy and thoughtful, yet spunky and capable. And I love the story of how she goes to spend a summer on Prince Edward Island with the father she’s never met – and it changes her whole world. Beautiful descriptions, colorful supporting characters, and a wonderful portrait of both inner and outer renewal. The perfect book for these weeks between winter and spring.

A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, Theresa Levitt
Augustin Fresnel, French physicist and engineer, shocked the scientific community with his experiments on light and its wavelike behavior. He then invented a lighthouse lens that produced beams far brighter than the reflector system then in place. Levitt traces the development of his work, its adoption by the French and English (and eventually the Americans), and the prominence of lighthouses in several wars. Overly detailed at times, but interesting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 3).

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

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