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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

maisie dobbs in this grave hour book

Female sleuths have been my heroes since childhood, from Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden to Miss Marple and Harriet Vane. But these days, my favorite female investigators have an extra dimension: their complex, layered backgrounds inform their approaches to the cases they take.

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs starts out as a scullery maid, but thanks to a wealthy patron, she attends university, then works as a battlefield nurse before hanging out her shingle as a private investigator. Her eponymous first adventure lays out her background and her first few cases, and sets up a richly drawn, insightful historical series. My favorite installments illuminate aspects of Maisie’s personal life, such as A Dangerous Place, which follows her to Gibraltar and Spain in the wake of great loss. 

mary russell books series sherlock holmes mystery

Orphaned, bookish and prickly, Mary Russell literally stumbles over Sherlock Holmes while walking on the Sussex Downs. The great detective takes her on as his protege in Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and they eventually become full partners in crime-solving and life. But Mary resolutely pursues her own scholarly interests at Oxford, which leads her to a mystery that quickly goes beyond the academic in A Letter of Mary. Russell’s complicated history, academic prowess and sharp wit make her a more-than-worthy compatriot for Holmes. (I blazed through this series when I discovered it some years ago, and have loved each new installment.)

clare russ book stack julia spencer fleming mysteries

Arriving in Millers Kill, N.Y., the newly ordained Reverend Clare Fergusson, carrying the scars of her Army career, must prove she’s a capable priest (In the Bleak Midwinter). But as Clare is drawn into several local mysteries and a growing friendship with the married police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, things get messy. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s gripping series ably explores Clare’s grit, compassion and her complex bond with Russ. Hid From Our Eyes, the long-anticipated ninth installment, is out this spring, and I can’t wait to see where Clare’s unusual talents take her next.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran last week. 

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feb-books-calendar

February is half over (happy Valentine’s Day!), and I have to say I’m relieved: the midwinter blahs have been hitting me hard. Here’s what I have been reading, to counter them:

Jewel of the Thames, Angela Misri
When Portia Adams’ beloved mother dies, she leaves her native Toronto for London, in the care of the kind but mysterious Mrs. Jones. In her new residence at 221B Baker Street, Portia begins investigating a few mysteries, including her possible connections to Holmes and Watson. A fun YA spin on the Holmes universe. Found at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC. (I wish it and the sequels were readily available in the U.S.!)

Simon the Fiddler, Paulette Jiles
As the Civil War in Texas ends with a whimper, fiddler Simon Boudlin and several other musicians form a scrappy band and begin seeking their fortunes. Simon also falls deeply and instantly in love with a pretty Irish governess, and begins scheming to win her heart. I like Jiles’ lyrical writing, though the plot of this seriously wandered and the ending was disappointing. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 14).

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss
When Mary Jekyll and her friends return to London from the Continent, they discover that both Sherlock Holmes and Alice, the kitchen maid, have disappeared. Dramatic rescue missions (in London and Cornwall) ensue–the girls uncover a plot to depose the Queen. Witty, a little macabre and so much fun. Give me a band of misfits (especially whip-smart female ones) trying to save the world, any day.

Six Square Metres: Reflections from a Small Garden, Margaret Simons
I love a gardening book in midwinter–the very idea of green growing things can be so hopeful. I loved Simons’ wry, witty reflections on the joys and struggles of her tiny Melbourne garden: planting, composting, harvesting, battling slugs and shade and McDonald’s burger wrappers. She celebrates the small joys and weaves in funny anecdotes from her family life. Reminded me quite a lot of Kate Bradbury’s The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 5).

To Night Owl from Dogfish, Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
Bett Devlin does not want a sister. Neither does Avery Bloom. They also don’t want to go to the same camp and be forced to bond. But their dads have fallen in love, so that’s what’s happening. This Parent-Trap-style setup only gets more fun, as the girls become friends and then start scheming. Told entirely in letters/emails and full of smart, layered, compassionate characters.

More to the Story, Hena Khan
Jameela Mirza has dreams of being a great journalist. But although she’s been named features editor of her middle-school paper, things are tough: her dad is working overseas and her sister Bisma might be seriously ill. I loved this sweet, modern-day spin on Little Women featuring a Pakistani-American family in Georgia. Funny and lovely and smart.

Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics, Leonard Mlodinow
In Stephen Hawking’s later years, he and Mlodinow co-authored two books. This slim memoir is Mlodinow’s account of their friendship and their work on The Grand Design. I find physics fascinating but challenging, and Mlodinow summarizes his and Hawking’s ideas in an accessible way, while painting a nuanced portrait of the man. File under: much more interesting than I expected. (Flashbacks to the film The Theory of Everything, which I loved.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 12).

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

What are you reading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were your favorite books this year?

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y’all come sing

newport-goodnight-irene

Several times recently, I’ve found myself in a friend’s living room, paging through a hymnal or flipping through a binder of Christmas-themed sheet music. I’ve joined a holiday choir in my neighborhood, and we’re rehearsing a mixture of classic, well-known carols (O Come O Come Emmanuel, The First Noel, Silent Night) and choral arrangements that are new to me.

I used to do this all the time when I lived in Texas, whether it was a praise team rehearsal early on a Sunday morning (standing in a rough circle in the passageway leading to the baptistry) or gathering in Gail and Calvin’s living room on a Sunday night. More recently, there were many Sunday nights at Ryan and Amy’s, west of Boston, where we’d pull out the hymnals after dinner and sing a few favorite songs.

As a college student, I sang in ACU’s choir, where we performed mostly classical music – some of it complex and demanding. Our kind-eyed director, Dr. Mike, would occasionally grow frustrated when we got sloppy during an opera chorus or failed to hit the harmonies precisely. This was not, he would sometimes remind us, a “y’all come sing.” We were aiming for technique and skill beyond that.

Every Thursday, though, we would end rehearsals for the week with The Lord Bless You and Keep You, sitting on carpeted risers in the rehearsal room that felt like home. Letting the harmonies and the sevenfold Amen wind over and around each other, we let our voices be a benediction to one another before we parted for the weekend. In those moments, we simply had to show up and sing.

I understood Dr. Mike’s point, then and now: we were practicing a craft, learning new techniques and often performing really difficult music. Those pieces took focus and discipline; we couldn’t just open our mouths and sing any old way. But he knew – and so do I – that there is a place for “y’all come sing.”

There’s a place for letting the music be the reason we gather, rather than a polished end in itself. There’s a place for y’all – because where I come from, y’all means everyone. There’s a place for the beauty that comes in missed notes and unfamiliar lyrics and those moments where it all comes together in a way that feels, just a little bit, like grace.

(Photo from the end of this year’s Newport Folk Festival, which was a different kind of “y’all come sing.”)

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reasonable-miracles-book

And just like that (after a rainy, blustery Halloween), it’s November. Here’s what I have been reading:

A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende
Amid the chaos of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of refugees fled the continent, some ending up in Chile (thanks to the poet Pablo Neruda). Allende traces the lives of two families, a Spanish refugee couple and a wealthy Chilean family they meet on arrival, from the 1930s to the 1990s. A complex, fascinating, often heartbreaking story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 21).

The Paris Library, Janet Skeslien Charles
When Odile Souchet lands a job at the American Library in Paris, she’s over the moon – but the Nazis are trying to conquer Europe, and Odile and her cadre of international colleagues are inevitably caught up in their net. Charles interweaves Odile’s story with that of a young teenager, Lily, who lives next door to Odile in 1980s Montana. So engaging, full of wonderful characters and book catnip. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 2).

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God, Sarah Bessey
Sarah is a longtime Internet friend. Like me, she’s spent the past several years wrestling with the black-and-white certainty of the evangelical faith we both once knew. This book tells the story of a car accident, a trip to Rome to meet the Pope, miraculous healing and chronic pain living side by side. I love Sarah’s writing and while this book wanders a bit (on purpose), it ends with fierce, tender, powerful hope.

Heaven, My Home, Attica Locke
Still reeling from his last complicated case (and his mother’s blackmail), Texas Ranger Darren Mathews is called out to find a missing child – the son of white supremacists – in an East Texas town simmering with racial tension. Locke’s writing crackles and her characters, especially Darren, feel complicated and real.

The Wicked Redhead, Beatriz Williams
Flapper Geneva “Gin” Kelly surprised herself and everyone else by falling in love with a Prohibition agent. In this sequel to The Wicked City, Gin tries to reckon with her new love and care for her orphaned young sister, while a woman named Ella (connected both to Gin and Williams’ illustrious Schuyler family) tries to extricate herself from a troublesome marriage. Deliciously addictive and entertaining (though Ella drove me nuts) – Gin is a stellar character. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 10).

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

What are you reading?

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lost-in-stacks-strand

Starting with a Labor Day weekend jaunt to NYC, here’s what I have been reading:

The Accidental Beauty Queen, Teri Wilson
Anne put this one in her Summer Reading Guide and I flew through it on the train to NYC. Charlotte gets tapped to impersonate her identical twin, Ginny, in a beauty pageant, much to both their chagrin. I loved the nods to Harry Potter (Charlotte is a fan), the way both women had their preconceived notions tested, and the insights about family. So much fun.

Here if You Need Me, Kate Braestrup
When her husband died, Braestrup took up his dream of becoming a minister, and found herself serving as a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. This thoughtful, often wry memoir is a glimpse into that world, and into her family life. Engaging, though I wanted more, somehow. Found recently at More Than Words.

We Walked the Sky, Lisa Fiedler
Calliope VanDrexel is following in her grandmother’s footsteps as a tightrope walker. But when her mother gets a new job at an animal sanctuary, Callie has to leave the circus and she’s not happy about it. This dual-narrative YA novel tells both Callie’s story and that of her grandmother, Victoria (in the 1960s). I enjoyed both narratives (though Callie drove me nuts), and the circus setting is so fun.

The Right Sort of Man, Allison Montclair
As London recovers from World War II, Gwen Bainbridge, widowed and bored, and Iris Sparks, a snarky former intelligence agent, join forces to launch the Right Sort Marriage Bureau. But when one of their clients is murdered, presumably by another one, the women jump into an investigation to clear his name (and theirs). I love plucky amateur sleuths, especially British ones, and this story was great fun, especially the witty dialogue. First in a new series; found at the Strand.

The Book of Lost Saints, Daniel José Older
Marisol disappeared during the Cuban Revolution, lost to her family and the world. Half a century later, her spirit visits her nephew, Ramon, a hospital worker by day/DJ by night in New Jersey. Haunted by dreams that are really Marisol’s memories, Ramon starts digging into his family’s messy history. I love Older’s Shadowshaper YA series. This novel (for adults) is a gritty, sometimes bleak, often wisecracking look at cubano family ties and the ways past actions reverberate down through the generations. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 5).

Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke
Temporarily in limbo in both his job and his marriage, Texas Ranger Darren Mathews drives up to tiny Lark, Texas, to investigate two murders: a local white girl and a black man who was passing through. This well-crafted mystery explores the layers of race, love and conflicting loyalties in East Texas. (Darren is black, raised by two uncles: a Texas Ranger and a lawyer.) I loved the true-to-life portraits of locals and the exploration of exile and the pull of home.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay
I loved Gay’s essay collection, The Book of Delights, and my friend Kate sent me this book of his poetry. The poems are – as one of the blurbs says – “bold and wild and weird.” Family, love, racial politics, music, grief, and the orchard Gay works in and loves – they’re all here.

This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, Cameron Dezen Hammon
After converting to Christianity as a young woman, Hammon moved to Houston with her then-boyfriend and became a worship minister. This memoir traces her struggle to reconcile the gender politics of evangelical churches with her own craving for love and past scars. Thoughtful, though a bit vague at times; some of her frustrations definitely reflected my own. We need more stories like these. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 22).

Death and Love Among the Cheetahs, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch is finally married, and she and her Irish husband, Darcy, head to Kenya for an extended honeymoon. But instead of paradise, they find complicated sexual politics, theft and murder. I love Georgie and her adventures, but I’d hoped for a slightly more peaceful honeymoon for her!

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

What are you reading?

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what I know about Kelly

 

flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter

My friend Kelly passed away last week.

I hadn’t seen her for some months, since her health began to fail (she had battled cancer for two decades, but the last stretch has been particularly rough). She and her family are a part of the church here in Boston where, for eight years, I spent nearly every Sunday. I always loved catching up with them at common meal, or in the back of the sanctuary after service. Since my time at that church ended, abruptly and painfully, last fall, I had mostly heard updates about her health through the grapevine.

By some measures, I didn’t know Kelly very well. I know she came to Boston from Oklahoma, many years ago, and chose to make a life here with her husband, Joe. I know she fought hard to beat back the cancer long enough to watch her two daughters grow up. I know she makes a delicious cranberry relish, which she would sometimes bring to Turkeypalooza, and sometimes Amy would bring it, made from Kelly’s recipe. I know she listened well, and was honest about her pain while never letting it dominate a conversation. A few years ago, she and Joe hosted the church Christmas party, and we ate and laughed, and sang carols in their living room. I know she enjoyed having everyone there.

Most of all, this is what I know about Kelly: she is a person who loved, and was loved.

I ran into Kelly on the library steps a few months back, when she was on her way to meet friends for afternoon tea and I was heading to the farmers’ market. We hugged, caught up a bit, and there was sorrow and kindness in her gentle eyes. We miss you, she said. I know, I said. I miss you too. We chatted about her girls, and my then-new job at Berklee, and we parted with another hug. I can’t remember if we said I love you, but I know we both felt it that day.

Last year, on Easter Sunday, J and I stood in front of the congregation and sang an old hymn I have known all my life: There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins. J played the guitar and we took turns singing, and I looked at Kelly sitting in one of the front pews, quietly singing along with us. It was her lips moving to those familiar words, and the joy on her face, that prompted me to invite everyone to join us on the last verse: Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die. 

Kelly lived by redeeming love, walking a hard road with faith and compassion for many years. She embodied the names she gave to her daughters: grace and hope. And she is – I hope with all my heart – at peace and at rest from her pain.

Rest well, good and faithful friend. I believe you are healed. We will miss you here, but I look forward to hugging you and singing with you again one day.

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