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We’re halfway through August already (!) and I’m trying to hang on – and diving into all the books, naturally. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, Natalie Goldberg
I heard Natalie read from this, her newest memoir, last month in Lenox, Mass. She was a delight, and this book about her journey with cancer contains both great pain and moments of joy. Short, lyrical chapters trace Natalie’s diagnosis, treatment and wrestling with her own mortality, all while her partner was also fighting cancer. I carried it in my bag for weeks, reading it slowly. It’s heartbreaking, sometimes lovely, fiercely honest all the way through.

Island of the Mad, Laurie R. King
When a college friend of Mary Russell’s asks Mary to locate her missing aunt, Russell and Holmes find themselves wandering Venice, which (in 1925) is brimming with both carefree aristocrats and grim Blackshirts. I love Russell’s narrative voice – so smart and insightful. The case and the elaborate parties (and Cole Porter!) are extremely diverting.

Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, Stephen L. Carter
Few people know that a black female lawyer – Eunice Hunton Carter – was part of the team that took down NYC mobster Lucky Luciano in the 1930s. Stephen Carter – her grandson – sets out to tell her remarkable story. A deeply researched, insightful biography of an extraordinary woman. (I also enjoyed Carter’s novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln a few years back.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 9).

Tango Lessons, Meghan Flaherty
Flaherty first fell in love with tango as a teenager visiting Argentina, but it took her years to try it for herself. She chronicles her journey into New York’s tango scene, and the ways tango has challenged her ideas about dance, desire, taking risks and many other things. Well written and engaging, if occasionally too self-conscious.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I picked up this old favorite and fell instantly back in love with Francie Nolan’s story of growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Francie is smart, thoughtful, keenly observant – so many of her insights still ring true. I also love her fiercely hardworking mother, Katie, and her generous aunt, Sissy. This is a story of deep poverty and struggle, but it’s also about fighting to make your way in the world, being proud of where you came from, and the joys and disappointments of love (romantic and otherwise). So good.

Forever and a Day, Anthony Horowitz
Marseilles, 1950: The original 007 has been killed by three bullets, and the British intelligence service has sent a new man – James Bond – to find out who killed him and why. This prequel gives Bond an intriguing first assignment, complete with a mysterious woman (of course) and associates who may or may not be what they seem. Well done, though the ending fell a bit flat. I’ve never read the original Ian Fleming novels, but now I want to. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 6).

The Valley at the Centre of the World, Malachy Tallack
To most people, Shetland is the end of the world – but to its residents, it’s the titular center. Tallack’s novel follows the intertwined lives of a few people living in the titular valley. Beautiful and quiet. Possibly to review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 6).

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

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the long run book snow menzies-pike

I know we’re more than halfway through the year, but I still thought it would be worthwhile (and fun!) to share the best books I’ve read so far this year. Technically I’d read 102 books by the end of June, so here are the real standouts from the first half of 2018:

Most Eloquent, Relatable Memoir of Running and Grit: The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. I think of lines from this witty, beautiful book regularly while I’m running.

Candid, Witty Essays on Marriage: Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun. Honest and funny and so real – perfect for reading after a decade of marriage.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s brilliant series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. I cannot shut up about these books: the mystery plots are solid, but the characters and their complex relationships are on another level.

Best Twisty Tale of Badass Female Spies: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Just so good.

Most Blazing, Gorgeous Novel of Love and Heartbreak: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. I did not think I could read another Hemingway novel, but Martha Gellhorn’s narrative voice grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Most Vivid and Heartrending Refugee Story: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. (I liked Exit West too, but this dual narrative with its two scrappy female protagonists stole my heart.)

Best Reread: A Wrinkle in Time, which I picked up after seeing the new film. I liked the movie, but L’Engle’s classic has more depth and heart and grit – and oh, I love Meg Murry.

Best Travel Memoir That’s About So Much More: Lands of Lost Borders, Kate Harris’ luminous, gritty memoir of spending nearly a year cycling along the Silk Road.

Most Perfect Gothic Novel to Read in Spain: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Twisty, atmospheric, witty, packed with great characters and surprise moments.

Your turn: what are the best books you’ve read so far this year?

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alice network book chai red

It’s no secret I love a good spy story – especially if it features a badass female protagonist. This column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Spies are paradoxically famous for flying under the radar. Both their livelihood and their success depend on remaining undetected. For women, their gender often provides an additional layer of disguise: many men overlook women or doubt them to be capable of a spy’s cunning and deceit. (They’re wrong.)

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network brings to life the work of female spies in occupied France during World War I. The titular network revolves around whip-smart Alice Dubois (an alias, of course), who smuggles information up the Allied ranks via hairpins, skirt seams and her web of crackerjack female agents. Though Quinn’s protagonist Eve Gardiner is fictional, “Alice” and her compatriots really existed, and the novel is a fitting homage to their courage.

Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga finds herself swept up and then abandoned by a charming man in Maria Duenas’s powerful novel The Time in Between. Stranded in Morocco, Sira hones her sewing skills and becomes a successful couturier whose designs eventually catch the eye of Nazi diplomats’ wives. As war swirls on the Continent, first in Spain and then everywhere, Sira passes coded information through her elegant gowns, stitching herself into the complex worlds of high fashion and espionage.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is used to being underestimated: as a retired widow, she’s also downright bored. Presenting herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., she argues her way into a position as an undercover agent, launching an unorthodox career that has her crisscrossing continents throughout the Cold War (though her neighbors never know it). Dorothy Gilman’s series, which spans 14 novels, lives up to the name of its first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, in delightful fashion.

In fiction as in real life, female spies are often underrated–but their stories are reliably fascinating.

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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alice network book chai red

I’m back from a trip out west to see some dear friends, and (no surprise) I did a lot of airplane reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
I found this one at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford, last fall. It took me weeks: it’s a bit dense in places, but fascinating. Bunting explores the Outer Hebrides off the northwestern coast of Scotland and delves into their complicated histories. Less memoir-y than I wanted, though she does muse on the ideas of home, remoteness and living on the (literal) edge.

To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a single November day in Millers Kill, N.Y., events unfold that will change multiple lives. A young woman goes missing, a corporate land deal inches toward completion, a few men see their future plans crumbling (for varied reasons). Spencer-Fleming’s fourth mystery charts the complicated web of people affected by these events, including her protagonists, Rev. Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. So layered and so good.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
This YA novel needs no introduction from me: it’s been all over the bestseller lists, and for good reason. Starr Carter, a young black woman, is the only witness to her childhood best friend’s murder at the hands of a white police officer. Starr is already navigating two worlds as a student at a mostly white prep school, but Khalil’s murder smashes her two worlds together. Stunning, heartbreaking, powerful. I was gripped and saddened by the main plot, but I also loved Thomas’ depiction of Starr’s tight-knit, complicated family.

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
In 1915, a young Englishwoman named Evelyn Gardiner is recruited to spy for the titular network in German-occupied France. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair finds herself pregnant, adrift and searching desperately for news of her French cousin Rose, who disappeared in World War II. Quinn expertly ties Charlie’s and Eve’s stories together, with a propulsive plot, some truly fantastic supporting characters and a ruthless villain. I devoured this on a plane ride (and a passing flight attendant exclaimed, “It’s so good!”). Highly recommended.

All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are still struggling to navigate their relationship. When Russ’ recently estranged wife is found murdered in her kitchen, events spin wildly out of control. This mystery packed in so much pain and surprise – not just for Russ and Clare but for many of the supporting cast, who are fully realized characters in their own right. Broke my heart, but it was the best yet in this series.

A Desperate Fortune, Susanna Kearsley
I picked up this fascinating novel after loving Kearsley’s The Winter Sea. Sara Thomas, an amateur codebreaker, travels to France to decipher a young woman’s diary from the 1730s. Kearsley weaves Sara’s story together with that of the diary’s author, Mary Dundas, who finds herself mixed up with the Jacobites. I loved both narratives, but especially enjoyed watching Mary adapt to her rapidly changing circumstances and step into her own bravery.

Brave Enough, Cheryl Strayed
My mom gave me this little book of Strayed’s quotes for Christmas, and I’ve been dipping into it. I’m a bit ambivalent about her work, but there is some pithy, no-nonsense wisdom here.

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

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strand books nyc exterior

We’re only nine days into November, but I’ve already read some cracking good books this month. (Hooray!) Here’s the latest roundup:

The Lake House, Kate Morton
In 1933, toddler Theo Edevane disappears from his family’s isolated country estate in Cornwall. His body is never found. Seventy years later, London detective Sadie Sparrow, reeling from a professional crisis, comes to the area on holiday and decides to reopen the cold case. Morton’s latest is full of lush descriptions, family secrets and hidden passions. A richly layered plot – I devoured it.

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, Nancy Springer
Springer’s second Enola Holmes mystery finds her protagonist living alone in London, dodging her brother Sherlock, helping the poor, and trying to solve a few cases. When a peer’s daughter goes missing, Enola investigates, with surprising results. Another fun middle-grade mystery.

The Stargazer’s Sister, Carrie Brown
The 18th-century astronomer William Herschel was justly famous for his pioneering work with telescopes and discovery of several celestial bodies. But his sister and longtime assistant, Caroline, was herself an accomplished astronomer. In this lyrical novelization of Caroline’s story, Brown explores the limits, sacrifices and rewards of love and dedication. Absolutely beautiful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 19).

Black Ship, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher and her family have moved into a new house near Hampstead Heath. But when a dead body turns up in the garden, Daisy and Alec get mixed up in another investigation. An engaging plot, combining the tricky business of British liquor sales during U.S. Prohibition with the delicate matter of interrogating one’s brand-new neighbors.

The Hours Count, Jillian Cantor
Before Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage, they were simply a Jewish family living in New York. Cantor tells their story through a fictional neighbor, Millie Stein, who is struggling with her own troubled son and unhappy marriage, and is drawn into the Rosenbergs’ lives. Beautifully written and heartbreaking. I also loved Cantor’s previous novel, Margot.

Death on the Cherwell, Mavis Doriel Hay
The unpopular bursar of Persephone College, Oxford, is found dead in her canoe. Four spirited undergraduate ladies investigate. Oxford + mysteries + plucky heroines = my literary catnip. Well written and so much fun. Found at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC.

Eat The City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York, Robin Shulman
New York City is known as a concrete jungle, but it has supported robust production of various food products – vegetables, meat, beer and wine – over the years. Shulman explores the city’s history through its food producers, past and present. Meticulously researched and fascinating. Found at the Strand on my solo trip to NYC.

The Way to Stay in Destiny, Augusta Scattergood
When Theo Thomas ends up in Destiny, Florida, with his taciturn uncle, he doesn’t plan on staying. But a baseball-crazy girl and a dance-studio piano might just save his summer – and help him find a new home. A sweet middle-grade novel about family, music and finding home. I also loved Scattergood’s previous novel, Glory Be.

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

I’ll be linking up with Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

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china cabinet bookcase books

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, Ruth Reichl
As the new food critic at the New York Times, Ruth Reichl can no longer eat out anonymously. So she invents half a dozen disguises – including a timid divorcée, a warmhearted hippie, and her own mother – to fool the waitstaff at NYC dining spots. Each disguise teaches her something about herself (and I love how none of them fazed her young son). Delicious, moving and entertaining.

Mrs. Pollifax on Safari, Dorothy Gilman
Mrs. Pollifax is off to the wilds of Africa, to take photos of animals and track down a fugitive assassin. Of course, nothing goes as planned – she gets kidnapped by Rhodesian terrorists. A little weak, plot-wise, but still a fun ride.

Parnassus on Wheels, Christopher Morley
New England housewife Helen McGill is surprised when a traveling bookstore shows up at her doorstep – and surprises herself, by buying the bookstore and taking to the open road. Utterly charming and packed with adventure. Highly recommended by Anne.

Small Blessings, Martha Woodroof
Tom Putnam, mild-mannered English professor, has resigned himself to a quiet, dull life. But then his wife dies, he learns he has a son (who then shows up on his doorstep), and he falls in love with Rose, the new woman on campus. Predictable but entertaining, with a cast of (sometimes overly) wacky characters. (I received an ARC; this book comes out Aug. 5.)

Lola and the Boy Next Door, Stephanie Perkins
Lola Nolan, budding costume designer, is happy with her life in San Francisco – until her former crush moves back in next door. Lola is sweet and funny, though not very self-aware. A fun, offbeat YA love story (though I liked Anna and the French Kiss a lot better).

The Angel of Losses, Stephanie Feldman
An odd, mystical family saga, linking Jewish folktale with modern-day scholarship and the European ghettos of World War II. Interesting concept, so-so execution. (I received an ARC; this book comes out July 29.)

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe, Jenny Colgan
After being laid off, Isabel Randall decides to take a leap of faith, opening the titular cafe in north London. A delicious story (with recipes) of friendship, pursuing your dreams, and a bit of romance. Classic and highly enjoyable chick lit.

Enemies at Home, Lindsey Davis
Private informer Flavia Albia takes on a complicated case: a double murder and robbery, possibly committed by slaves. A fun, snarky (if at times confusing) mystery set in ancient Rome. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 15).

Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station, Dorothy Gilman
Mrs. Pollifax goes undercover again – this time into China, to help smuggle a man out of the country. Twisty plot, interesting characters and a happy ending. Perfect.

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

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mrs pollifax series books

I should know by now that when my friend Jacque recommends something, I am basically guaranteed to love it. This has been true for Gilmore Girls, bacon-and-egg baguettes, pasta carbonara (her famous recipe), and many, many books. (She is also partly responsible for the three semesters I spent in Oxford, and by a lovely trick of fate, she was present for all of them.)

Jacque has been urging me to pick up the Mrs. Pollifax series for years. When I recently found the first one in the used-book basement at the Harvard Book Store, I snapped it up (along with – ahem – a few others). And I am hooked.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is a widow living quietly in Cold War-era New Brunswick, N.J. She volunteers at the hospital, attends the Garden Club, keeps her apartment tidy – and is bored out of her mind. So, one day, on a whim, she presents herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, offering her services as an agent. Mr. Carstairs, chief of operations, sends her into Mexico on a simple courier assignment, which (of course) soon goes hilariously off track. The first book takes her to Albania, and its sequels have her flying all over the world, from Turkey to Bulgaria to Switzerland and back again.

Mrs. Pollifax is kind, compassionate, curious and quick-thinking. She harbors a fondness for both adventure and highly unusual hats (several of which play important roles in her CIA assignments). She inevitably gets caught up in far more tangled situations than she’s supposed to – usually because she’s spoken to a stranger, wandered into an unfamiliar neighborhood, or otherwise failed to follow directions. Carstairs and his assistant, Bishop, spend most of each book worrying about her, though as Bishop reminds Carstairs in The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax, they wouldn’t have it any other way:

She goes off on tangents. Operates on impulse and trusts her intuition. When she stops upsetting you, sir, it’ll be because she’s turned into a well-behaved, well-trained and completely predictable operator. You’ll sleep nights and stop swearing. And then she’ll be like all your professional agents, and of no use to you at all, will she?

It’s true: both Mrs. Pollifax’s charm and her usefulness to the CIA are largely a result of her unorthodox way of operating. And in the grand tradition of Miss Marple, her little-old-lady cover makes her an excellent spy. She always returns home having successfully completed her assignment and prevented an international incident – though, of course, she can never tell her neighbors where she’s been.

Packed with political intrigue, oddball characters and sometimes wildly improbable plots, these books are so much fun. If I ever became a spy, I’d want Mrs. Pollifax on my team.

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