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Posts Tagged ‘espionage’

September is flying by so far – amid work and daily adventures, here’s what I have been reading:

The Lost Summers of Newport, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
I enjoy Team W’s richly detailed historical novels (and I’ve devoured nearly all of Williams’ books). This one follows the intertwined stories of three women connected to the same Newport, R.I., mansion during different eras: architectural preservationist Andie, music teacher Ellen, and Italian-American socialite Lucia. Rife with family secrets and dripping with diamonds – great escapist reading.

The House of Eve, Sadeqa Johnson
Ruby Pearsall is on track to be her family’s first college student – but a forbidden love may derail her plans to escape her rough neighborhood. Meanwhile, Eleanor Quarles, a brilliant young woman from small-town Ohio, struggles to find her place at Howard University and with her rich boyfriend’s family. Their lives collide in an unexpected way. A powerful, sometimes wrenching novel about the struggles of Black women in the mid-1950s. So much here around shame and womanhood and making choices. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2023).

Love, Lies & Spies, Cindy Anstey
Miss Juliana Telford is more interested in publishing her research on ladybugs than diving into the London Season. Mr. Spencer Northam is far more preoccupied with espionage than with matrimony. But all this might change when they encounter one another by chance. A witty, hilarious, romantic tribute to Jane Austen and a really fun love story. Recommended by Anne.

Blood from a Stone: A Memoir of How Wine Brought Me Back from the Dead, Adam McHugh
After years as a hospice chaplain, McHugh found himself burned out, and needing not just an escape but a whole life change. His love of wine led him – several times – to California’s Santa Ynez Valley, where he began a career working in wine. An honest, sometimes snarky, well-researched, thoughtful memoir about wine and transformation. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man, Emily J. Edwards
Our titular heroine loves her job as secretary/girl Friday to NYC private eye Tommy Fortuna. But when she finds an unconscious man in the office and Tommy disappears – right after taking on a case for a wealthy client – Viv must marshal all her wits to solve the case and stay alive. A fun romp with an engaging heroine, though the dialogue read almost like a send-up of 1950s phrases. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 8).

Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration, Sara Dykman
I picked up this memoir last fall at the Harvard Book Store and have been reading it sloooowly. Dykman takes a months-long solo journey starting and ending in Mexico at the monarchs’ overwintering grounds, following their trail and giving presentations about the importance of these beautiful creatures. She’s a lovely writer, though the trip logistics dragged sometimes (as I’m sure they did in real life!). Fun bonus: she went through my dad’s tiny hometown in southwestern MO.

What Comes from Spirit, Richard Wagamese
I picked up this collection at the wonderful Savoy Bookshop in Westerly, R.I., in June. Wagamese was an Indigenous Canadian writer who wrote extensively about his journey away from and back to his Native identity, as well as noticing the natural world, building community and paying attention. Short, lovely meditations – exactly my kind of thing for slow morning reading.

The Star That Always Stays, Anna Rose Johnson
When Norvia’s parents divorce, she and her siblings move from rural Beaver Island to a small Michigan city with their mother. Norvia must navigate a new school, a tricky blended family and her own shyness and anxiety, while striving to be a heroine. A sweet middle-grade story (though the middle dragged a bit); I loved Norvia’s family, especially her spunky younger sister, Dicta. Reminded me of Emily of Deep Valley.

Saving Main Street: Small Business in the Time of COVID-19, Gary Rivlin
Americans idolize small business – though we give a lot of our money to the colossal chains. It’s common knowledge now that small shops were hit hard by COVID-19. Veteran reporter Rivlin follows several business owners, including a restaurateur, a pharmacist, a Latina hairstylist and three Black brothers making chocolate, through the first 18 months or so of the pandemic. Full of fascinating anecdotes and a thorough explanation of the government’s confusing (but ultimately sort-of-effective) struggle to help small businesses. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

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

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I love a good spy story – even better if it involves a canny female protagonist racing against the clock and a formidable enemy. So I jumped at the chance to review Ava Glass’ debut thriller, Alias Emma, which introduces intelligence officer Emma Makepeace. This interview originally ran in Shelf Awareness.

Tell us about the inspiration for Alias Emma.

It’s fair to say Alias Emma was inspired by real life. Britain has always been a hotbed of espionage. Perched at the edge of Europe but a strong ally of the U.S., it’s a magnet for spies from around the world. People are murdered here with poison-tipped umbrellas, radiation in tea cups, nerve agents on door knobs–these are the headlines I’m reading. How could I not want to write about this? It’s crying out to be explored.

Besides the headlines, how did you originally become interested in spies and espionage?

Before I started writing books, I worked for the British government in the department that’s sort of the equivalent of the U.S. Homeland Security agency. My job brought me into glancing contact with spies, and that gave me just the merest glimpse of their world. Before then I’d been a journalist and an editor, so I knew nothing at all about espionage or intelligence work. I was a complete innocent in that way. During that time, I met a young female intelligence officer. She was in her 20s and so smart and fearless; she seemed decades older than her age, and incredibly capable. Alias Emma is my opportunity to imagine what her life might be like.

Modern-day intelligence work often relies on technology: mobile phones, tracking devices, surveillance systems. Tell us how you explore those technologies–either using them or eliminating them–as part of this story.

This is always somewhat tricky. In Alias Emma, the job Emma’s assigned is extracting Michael, the son of a Russian spy who has defected to the U.K. The Russians want their asset back, so she and her husband are taken into protective custody [by British officials], but their adult son refuses to go with them. If Emma can’t get him to safety, he’ll be killed. He doesn’t understand the danger he’s in. During this rescue, Emma is ordered to use no technology that can be tracked. So, she can use no phones, bank cards, computers or tablets. At the same time, London’s extensive CCTV system has been hacked by the Russians who are using the cameras to hunt for Emma and Michael. Technology is everywhere (including the CCTV cameras), but Emma can’t access any of it.

Britain and Russia are old enemies (the Great Game and the Cold War both come to mind), but this story is set in the 21st century and feels very fresh. Why a British/Russian conflict?

I believe the Great Game never ended. We all thought it stopped when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, but we were wrong. It went on. That became quite clear when a former Russian FSB agent named Alexander Litvenenko was murdered by his ex-colleagues with polonium placed in a teapot in an expensive London hotel in 2006. That was followed by a spate of mysterious deaths of Russian exiles and former spies and government officials in the U.K. until, finally, a Russian exile named Sergei Skripal and his daughter were attacked with nerve gas in a leafy town (near where I live) in 2018. That was when it occurred to me that this secret war might make an interesting subject for a series of novels.

Much of this story is about identity. There are false identities, conflicting identities, Michael’s reluctance to leave the life he’s built for himself behind. Can you speak to that?

To an extent. In my time, I’ve changed careers, towns, even nations. Each move always feels like an opportunity to reinvent yourself. And yet, in my experience, no matter how far you travel, you can’t escape yourself. The past tags along. No matter how hard you try to leave it behind, it always packs itself in your luggage. And this is one lesson that Emma Makepeace is learning in Alias Emma. She can change her appearance, her name, even her eye color–but she will always be shaped by her past.

Will we see Emma in future adventures? Can you give us a teaser?

I’m actually writing the last chapters of book two now! The second book takes Emma out of London and into an undercover operation on an oligarch’s yacht in the Mediterranean. An MI6 analyst has been murdered in a bizarre way that looks like a hallmark of the Russian spy agency GRU. The Agency believes the analyst got too close to revealing a conspiracy by Russian businessmen in London to sell chemical weapons to rogue nations. But the conspiracy may run much deeper than Emma thinks. And it will take her to very dangerous places.

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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!

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June is flying by, and I’m flying through stacks of review and library books. Here’s what I have been reading:

Empathy Economics: Janet Yellen’s Remarkable Rise to Power and Her Drive to Forge Prosperity for All, Owen Ullmann
Janet Yellen is a fascinating figure: not only is she the first woman to hold several key US financial positions, including Treasury secretary, but her approach to economics consistently aims to benefit ordinary citizens. Ullmann has written a thorough, well-researched biography of Yellen’s life and career, which is also a crash course in the U.S. financial system. Dense at times, but mostly very clear, and important. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 27).

Now What? How to Move Forward When We’re Divided (About Basically Everything), Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers
I love the ladies of Pantsuit Politics and their wise, thoughtful approach to politics and other difficult conversations. This, their second book, explores how to talk about tough stuff with our families, friends and communities. Practical and thought-provoking, with examples from their own lives; I loved it.

The Betel Nut Tree Mystery, Ovidia Yu
Just after Britain’s king abdicates to marry Wallis Simpson, a wealthy British man (engaged to an American widow) is murdered in Singapore. Chen Su Lin, assistant to Chief Inspector Le Froy, investigates. A fun second adventure with an engaging protagonist, and a fascinating slice of colonial life.

The Last Karankawas, Kimberly Garza
Garza’s stunning debut novel takes us into the Filipino- and Mexican-American communities in Galveston and nearby parts of south Texas. I loved her narrative voice, and the way her characters’ lives are intertwined. As Hurricane Ike heads for the Gulf Coast, residents must make the choice to evacuate or to stay and hunker down. This is a part of Texas I don’t know as well; it is recognizable but also new. Gorgeous. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 9).

Alias Emma, Ava Glass
Emma Makepeace (not her real name, of course) always wanted to be a spy: her father died honorably attempting to help bring democracy to Russia. Years later, Emma receives her first major assignment: she must ferry the son of Russian dissidents across London, before sunrise, while staying well away from the city’s surveillance system. A fun, twisty modern-day British spy thriller; first in a new series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 2).

With Love from Wish & Co., Minnie Darke
Marnie Fairchild has spent her adult life working hard to build up her gift-wrapping and -buying business – and wishing she could move into her grandfather’s old shop. When she mixes up the gifts intended for a wealthy client’s wife and his mistress, trouble ensues – and to top it off, Marnie finds herself falling for the client’s son. A warmhearted story with some interesting ethical questions at its center and engaging characters. I particularly liked Suzanne, the client’s wife, and Saski, Marnie’s big-hearted accountant and friend. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 16).

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

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March is nearly halfway done – and has included a wild mix of weather, as usual. The daffodils are sprouting, though. Here’s what I have been reading:

The Wide Starlight, Nicole Lesperance
When Eline was six years old, her mother disappeared under the northern lights on Svalbard. Ten years later, Eline – now living on Cape Cod with her dad – starts receiving strange messages, and goes back to try and find her mother. A complex, atmospheric, magical (sometimes creepy) story about family, loss, and the unexplainable at the edges of things. Found at Copper Dog Books in Beverly.

The Last Dance of the Debutante, Julia Kelly
I enjoy Kelly’s historical novels about female friendship. This one follows several of the last debutantes to be presented to Queen Elizabeth in the late 1950s. Protagonist Lily Nicholls, who has always felt like an outsider, learns to navigate the swirl of the Season amid various family secrets. Compelling (though a little sad) and a fascinating slice of history.

Shady Hollow, Juneau Black
Nothing much ever happens in Shady Hollow – until the local curmudgeonly toad ends up murdered. Vera Vixen, a reporter with a nose for news, and her friend Lenore (a raven who runs Nevermore Books, naturally) begin to investigate. A totally charming murder mystery set in a village full of different creatures. First in a series and I can’t wait to read the others.

Our Last Days in Barcelona, Chanel Cleeton
Cleeton returns to the saga of the Cuban-American Perez sisters in this lush historical novel. It flips back and forth in time between the 1960s, when eldest sister Isabel goes to Barcelona to find her sister Beatriz (and do some soul-searching of her own), and the 1930s, when Alicia – the Perez matriarch – finds herself in Barcelona as the Spanish Civil War escalates. There’s romance here, but what I really loved was Isabel’s inner journey, and Alicia’s, too. Cleeton writes strong female leads so well. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 24).

A Trip of One’s Own: Hope, Heartbreak, and Why Traveling Solo Could Change Your Life, Kate Wills
Travel writer Kate Wills spent years relishing her solo trips – but when her marriage fell apart, she found herself thinking about travel very differently. I loved this frank, funny memoir that weaves together Wills’ own experiences with practical tips and the stories of other intrepid female explorers. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 3).

Homicide and Halo-Halo, Mia P. Manansala
Lila Macapagal is getting ready to open the Brew-ha cafe with her friends – but she’s also still dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic murder case and judging a local beauty pageant (as one does). When one of her fellow judges is murdered, Lila gets pulled into the case and is also forced to confront her complicated feelings about pageants. I loved this second cozy mystery from Manansala – yummy food descriptions and more depth than the first one.

When You Get the Chance, Emma Lord
Millie Price is going to be a Broadway star – just as soon as she rocks the prestigious precollege program she’s been accepted into. But when her dad refuses to let her go, Millie embarks on a Mamma Mia-style search for her birth mom. This was the most fun theater-kid YA rom-com, with serious themes of identity and friendship. I loved Millie’s journey.

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

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We’re into December already (and recovering from a doubleheader at work – Giving Tuesday and our 30th anniversary gala/fundraiser on the same day!). Here’s what I have been reading:

I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home, Jami Attenberg
I have yet to read Attenberg’s fiction, but I love her newsletter on writing and life. This memoir-in-essays follows her as she learns to be a writer, travels the world, wrestles with sexism and her sense of self, and visits various haunted locales. She is clever, funny and honest. I am not sure there’s much of an arc here, but I enjoyed spending time with Attenberg as a narrator. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 11).

A Lethal Lesson, Iona Whishaw
When Lane Winslow finds her town’s local schoolchildren without a teacher – one teacher has been attacked, and the other one has disappeared – she signs on as a temporary substitute while also trying to solve the case. This eighth entry also finds Lane and Inspector Darling navigating newlywed life. I love this series – so insightful and with a great cast of characters.

Our Woman in Moscow, Beatriz Williams
Twin sisters Ruth and Iris Macallister were always inseparable – until a heartbreaking parting in Rome in 1940. Then Ruth gets a postcard from Iris in 1952, four years after Iris and her family disappeared from their flat in London. Ruth, naturally, heads straight to Europe to rescue her sister from whatever trouble she’s in. I love Williams’ twisty, elegant fiction populated by strong women and the (usually dapper) men who love them. This was great Thanksgiving break reading.

A Soft Place to Land, Janae Marks
When Joy Taylor’s dad loses his job, her family has to move into a small apartment and Joy can’t take piano lessons anymore. But she makes new friends in her new building. I didn’t love this one quite as much as Marks’ debut, but this is a sweet middle-grade story about family and friendship and dealing with change.

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

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We are halfway through November (already?) and the leaves are still gorgeous, thought the nights are getting colder (and darker!). Here’s what I have been reading:

Our American Friend, Anna Pitoniak
First Lady Lara Caine, a Russian and former model, has always been a bit of a mystery. When she invites journalist Sofie Morse to write her biography, Sofie’s not sure what to think – but she finds herself drawn into Lara’s world. A twisty, fascinating novel – part thriller, part Cold War history, part meditation on making one’s way in the world as a woman. Clearly inspired by Melania Trump, but very much its own thing. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 4).

The Whispers of War, Julia Kelly
As Europe hurtles toward another war, three friends – two Englishwomen and a German immigrant – struggle with the implications for their lives and friendship. Kelly writes warm, engaging novels about female friendship, and this one was really well done. Found at the Book Shop of Beverly Farms.

Red is My Heart, Antoine Laurain, illus. Le Sonneur
I have loved several of Laurain’s whimsical novels about life and love in Paris. This one is different – snippets of musings from a man going through a breakup, illustrated by street artists Le Sonneur. A bit enigmatic, a bit pensive. I received an advance copy; it’s out Jan. 18.

The Magnolia Palace, Fiona Davis
New York, 1919: artists’ model Lillian Carter needs a new career, and stumbles into a position as private secretary to Helen Clay Frick (whose father created the Frick Collection). In 1961, a young English model named Veronica finds herself stranded at the Frick in a snowstorm and uncovers a mystery. I love Davis’ richly detailed historical novels – this one was engaging and fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 25).

Call Us What We Carry, Amanda Gorman
Like a lot of people, I found out about Gorman when she wowed us at President Biden’s inauguration. Her new collection is piercingly honest and deeply felt – about race, the pandemic and the vagaries of being human. Lyrical and healing; her skill amazes me. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 7).

Her Path Forward: 21 Stories of Transformation and Inspiration, ed. Chris Olsen and Julie Burton
My Tuesday morning writing group has saved my life during the pandemic. Chris (a member) and Julie (who runs ModernWell) have co-launched Publish Her Press, and this is their first project. (And several of my friends are in it!) A wide-ranging collection of stories by and about women finding their way.

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

What are you reading?

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It has been a strange July: hot one minute, pouring rain the next. I’m still struggling to find a rhythm at my new job – I am enjoying it, but so much to absorb! Meanwhile, here’s what I have been reading:

A Deceptive Devotion, Iona Whishaw
Lane Winslow and Inspector Darling are finally engaged – but before they can get married, they have to solve a murder (naturally). This one involves an elderly Russian countess, a pair of hunters (and former friends), and a perhaps overeager new constable. I adore this series and this entry is so good.

A Most Clever Girl, Stephanie Marie Thornton
Double agent Elizabeth Bentley had a long career spying for the Soviet Union and then informing for the FBI. Thornton’s novel unravels her story in the form of a long conversation with Catherine Gray, a young woman who tracks Elizabeth down seeking answers about her own mother. The narrative – like Elizabeth – rambles a bit, but eventually picks up speed. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 14).

New Girl in Little Cove, Damhnait Monaghan
Reeling from her father’s death and a bad breakup, Rachel O’Brien takes a teaching position in rural Newfoundland. She’s greeted with equal parts welcome and suspicion – and this story of her first year there is completely delightful. The blurb compares it to Come From Away, which I adore, and that’s true – the island’s culture shines through. Found at the wonderful Excelsior Bay Books in Minneapolis.

Take Me Home Tonight, Morgan Matson
Best friends Kat and Stevie, both theater kids at a posh Connecticut high school, head into NYC for a night of adventure. Things quickly go wrong; the girls end up phoneless (with a Pomeranian in tow) and then get separated. But their individual escapades force both of them to reflect on their friendship and other parts of their lives. Funny and insightful.

Solo: How to Work Alone (and Not Lose Your Mind), Rebecca Seal
British journalist Seal has worked alone for years – it can be hard, and also rewarding. This warm, wise, insightful book dives into the pressures and joys of working alone. So helpful and validating as I’m working on a hybrid model after 18 months of profound isolation. I’m going to check out her podcast too.

A Scone of Contention, Lucy Burdette
Hayley Snow and her policeman husband are headed to Scotland for their honeymoon (with Hayley’s 80-something friend Miss Gloria in tow). Once they arrive, there’s plenty of family drama – and then murder – to go along with the scones. I love this cozy mystery series and it was fun to see Hayley in a different setting than her Key West home. I received an early copy; it’s out Aug. 10.

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

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manchester-by-the-book-canoe

We are nearly through June – which has felt endless – and I’ve been reading a lot. Here’s the latest roundup. (Photo from Manchester by the Book, where I popped in for a properly masked/distanced browse with a girlfriend recently. It was so nourishing to be in a real bookstore again.)

I’m Fine and Neither Are You, Camille Pagán
Penelope Ruiz-Kar loves her husband and kids, but she’s exhausted from juggling it all, and secretly envious of her put-together best friend Jenny. When tragedy strikes, Penelope is forced to examine her misconceptions about Jenny’s life, and take a hard look at her own. Funny and breezy with surprising depth – Pagán does that combination so well.

Two Truths and a Lie, Meg Mitchell Moore
When Sherri Griffin and her daughter arrive in Newburyport, Mass., they’re running from more than just a “bad divorce.” The local Mom Squad is curious, but it’s the former squad queen, Rebecca, who actually connects with Sherri. Recently widowed, Rebecca has struggles and secrets of her own, and so does her teenage daughter. Fast-paced and compelling, full of summer sunsets, compassion and snark.

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, Jeanne Birdsall
It’s summer in New England and the Penderwick sisters (with their widowed father and big dog, Hound) are staying at a lovely estate in the Berkshires. All sorts of adventures ensue, as they make friends with the resident boy, try to dodge his snooty mother, and do their best to take care of each other. This series is a little bit precious, but the characters are so much fun.

The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo
I loved Acevedo’s second novel, With the Fire on High, and finally picked up her debut novel-in-verse. Xiomara Batista is a Dominican-American teenager living in Harlem. She has lots of questions about God, boys and life (and her strict Catholic mami doesn’t want to hear them). She starts writing poetry, then gets invited to join her school’s slam poetry club. I loved reading Xiomara’s powerful, honest, fiery words, and seeing how she cares for her twin brother and friends.

Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, Barbara Neely
I read about Neely in a recent Shelf Awareness obituary, and picked up her second mystery (for $3!) at Manchester by the Book. (Serendipity!) Blanche White is a domestic worker who’s spending a well-earned vacation at an all-black resort in Maine. Two dead bodies turn up, and she gets mixed up in a nest of secrets, while dealing with tricky interpersonal dynamics. A well-plotted mystery and an incisive look at colorism in the black community.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, Jeanne Birdsall
The Penderwick girls are back at home, dealing with school, sports, new neighbors and – to their chagrin – their father’s attempts at dating. This sequel is sweet and funny, and I love the ending.

Dear Haiti, Love Alaine, Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite
When Alaine Beauparlant’s journalist mother makes a scene on the air, and Alaine herself gives a disastrous school presentation, they both end up back in Haiti with Alaine’s aunt Estelle. Alaine is a sassy, snappy narrator who’s trying to figure out some family business (a curse?) while working for her aunt’s nonprofit (where something definitely smells fishy). This epistolary YA novel, written by two sisters, was so much fun.

Atomic Love, Jennie Fields
Rosalind Porter enjoyed success as a scientist, working on nuclear projects during World War II. But she’s haunted by the destruction caused by the atomic bomb. When her British ex-lover turns back up, so does the FBI: they think he might be selling secrets to the Russians. Rosalind walks a fine line as she tries to help the FBI and protect her own heart. A compelling, twisty story of love, science and conflicting loyalties. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 18).

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor
I read this book back in fourth grade and it has stayed with me all these years. It’s the centerpiece of Taylor’s family saga about the Logans, a black landowning family in Depression-era Mississippi. Narrated by Cassie, age nine, this book tells the story of one year when racial tensions erupt, with disastrous consequences, but it’s also a story of love and strength. I adore Cassie – opinionated, headstrong, with a firm sense of justice – and Taylor’s writing is so powerful.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo
This book is everywhere right now, and for good reason: so many of us white folks are waking up to conversations about race. DiAngelo (who is white, and has been doing inclusion/antiracism work for years) pulls no punches in her examination of white supremacy as a system, the ways it shapes all of us, and how we can begin to interrupt that system. Powerful and thought-provoking.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, Jeanne Birdsall
It’s summer and the three younger Penderwick girls are off to Maine with Aunt Claire. Before long, their friend Jeffrey turns up too, and all sorts of adventures ensue while Skye tries to wrap her head around being in charge. Sweet and funny, like its predecessors.

Why I Wake Early, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s poetry and have been reading a few of these each morning. Her luminous imagery is helping me to pay attention in these strange days.

Let the Circle Be Unbroken, Mildred D. Taylor
Taylor’s sequel to Roll of Thunder (above) picks up the adventures of the Logan family in the 1930s. A friend of theirs stands trial for robbery and murder; their biracial cousin comes to visit and tries to pass as white; and Cassie and her siblings continue learning what it means to be black in America. So compelling and vivid.

The Penderwicks in Spring, Jeanne Birdsall
The Penderwicks are back, and Batty is finding her singing voice, starting a dog-walking business, and dealing with some really tough emotional stuff. Some sad parts in this one, but I love Birdsall’s fictional family.

The Penderwicks at Last, Jeanne Birdsall
Rosalind is getting married – and all the Penderwicks are back at Arundel, the estate where the series began. Eleven-year-old Lydia takes center stage in this last book, and it’s so much fun.

A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside, Susan Branch
My friend Kate sent me this book months ago, and I’ve been dipping into its pages at night when life feels too hard. Branch and her husband, Joe, sail on the Queen Mary 2 for an extended tour of charming English villages, and her illustrated travelogue is cozy and sweet.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident, Brookline Booksmith and Frugal Books.

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This January has felt years long. But it’s finally (almost) over. Here’s what I have been reading, on a whirlwind trip to NYC (I came home early) and since then:

The Henna Artist, Alka Joshi
After fleeing her abusive husband, Lakshmi has made a name for herself doing elaborate henna designs for Jaipur’s wealthy women. But the arrival of her teenage sister upends her carefully constructed world, and the secrets it’s built on. An evocative novel of a woman fighting to make her own way in 1950s India. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 3).

Code Name Hélène, Ariel Lawhon
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was an Australian socialite who became one of World War II’s most daring, dangerous spies. Lawhon’s fourth novel explores her career, her heroics in France toward the end of the war, and her deep love for her French husband. I’ve read a lot of stories about badass female spies, but this one is great: powerful, fast-paced, heartbreaking and stylish. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 31).

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, ed. Glory Edim
This collection comprises 21 brief, powerful essays on what it means to be a black woman (and the books that helped shape these particular black women), plus several lists of book recommendations. My TBR just exploded, both because of the essays and the book lists. Well worth reading.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling
This series grows with every book, and I love this one for its new elements and characters (Tonks! Luna!), and the emotional heft of the ending. (Also: Fred and George Weasley at their finest.) This sets up so much of what’s coming in the next two books, and Harry (though he is so angsty) does a lot of growing up.

Agatha Oddly: Murder at the Museum, Lena Jones
Agatha Oddly is back on the case–investigating a murder at the British Museum and its possible links to a disused Tube station. The setup is a bit of a stretch, but Agatha is a great character (I love her sidekicks/friends, too) and this was a fun adventure. Found at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC.

Running: A Love Story, Jen A. Miller
I read one of Miller’s running essays in the New York Times a while back, and liked her voice. I blew through this memoir in one day: it’s breezy and accessible. I got tired of reading about her terrible romantic decisions, but the running parts were worthwhile.

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
My friend Lisa recommended this book since I am navigating lots of change (hello, post-divorce transition). Sandberg lost her husband suddenly in 2015, and this book is her account of moving through grief, plus lots of research-backed strategies for building resilience (my word for 2020) after trauma and sadness. Practical, wise and “not too heavy,” as Lisa said. The right book at the right time for me.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
Harry and crew are back at Hogwarts: navigating grief, worrying about Lord Voldemort and (oh yeah) dealing with the usual teenage angst. Despite the increasing darkness, this is really the last book where they get to be normal teenagers: playing Quidditch, sneaking around the castle, making romantic missteps. (So. Much. Snogging.) I also love Harry’s lessons with Dumbledore and his gradual coming to terms with what he’s facing, with so much courage and love.

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

What are you reading?

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