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October is flying, y’all. Between work, running, a visit from a dear friend and a bit of travel, I’m hanging on (and loving it). Here’s what I have been reading:

Merci Suarez Can’t Dance, Meg Medina
Seventh grade is a whole new set of challenges for Merci Suarez, including taking photos at the school dance, becoming friends with a boy, and learning how to navigate tricky friendships. I love Merci and her big multigenerational family.

The Vanderbeekers Make a Wish, Karina Yan Glaser
The Vanderbeekers are making all kinds of plans for Papa’s 40th birthday – but then he’s called out of town and their difficult grandparents show up. A warmhearted installment in this lovely series about a big, happy biracial family in Harlem.

Sunrise by the Sea, Jenny Colgan
Reeling after the death of her grandfather, Marisa Rossi moves to a tiny village in Cornwall – and discovers a new community, much to her surprise. I loved this sweet story in a familiar setting with some charming new characters.

Incense and Sensibility, Sonali Dev
Gubernatorial candidate Yash Raje is famous for his focus and drive. But after his bodyguard is shot at a rally, he starts struggling with anxiety and burnout. India Dashwood, a family friend and yoga therapist, is the perfect person to help him – except they’ve got a history no one knows about. A fun installment in Dev’s updated Indian-American Austen-twist series; I like Yash’s big, loving, dramatic family.

One Night Two Souls Went Walking, Ellen Cooney
A young interfaith chaplain makes the rounds at her hospital, accompanied by a dog who may or may not be real. I love Cooney’s lyrical writing, but wanted a bit more from the ending of this one.

Honor, Thrity Umrigar
Journalist Smita Agarwal gets a call from a friend and colleague who’s been injured. She needs Smita to pick up a story: a court case brought by a woman named Meena against her two brothers, who killed Meena’s Muslim husband. Umrigar thoughtfully handles a brutal subject matter – not just honor killings, but the religious and cultural divisions in India, intertwined with Smita’s own painful memories of leaving the country at 14. Heavy, but insightful and page-turning. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 4).

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

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The books (and the rest of life) are coming thick and fast this month, friends. (Photo from the wonderful Dogtown Books in Gloucester.)

Here’s what I have been reading:

Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis
Lewis is a minister and speaker dedicated to ubuntu – the Zulu concept of interdependence, humanity and compassion. She shares her own experience as a Black woman and a minister, and calls repeatedly for her readers to pursue both joy and justice. The parts about her own story resonated with me the most. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 9).

Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story: Remaking a Life from Scratch, Erin French
Annie recommended this memoir about food and love and mistakes and finding one’s way to a calling. I read it in two days – French’s writing is compelling, with lots of gorgeous food descriptions and some hard, honest reflection on her family and herself. Lovely.

The Parker Inheritance, Varian Johnson
I loved Johnson’s YA novel The Great Greene Heist. This (much more serious) middle-grade story follows two Black kids in a small Southern town who stumble on a mystery. What they dig up deals with sports, pervasive racism, an heirloom bracelet and a former tennis coach and his family who got run out of town decades ago. Compelling, though a bit confusing at times.

Castle Shade, Laurie R. King
Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes find themselves in the depths of Roumania, investigating rumors of vampires (as one does). I loved this 17th installment in the series; it deals with village secrets, the effects of war and the challenge (for Russell and Holmes) of being married to a prickly, independent person. So fun.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears, Meg Medina
Sixth grade is no joke for Merci Suarez – homework is getting tougher, the school’s queen bee has it out for her, and she can’t play soccer this year. Her beloved Lolo is also acting strange lately. I loved this warm, funny, thoughtful middle-grade novel about family and change and growing up.

Life is Like a Musical: How to Live, Love, and Lead Like a Star, Tim Federle
Former dancer and current writer/screenwriter Federle shares the wisdom he’s gained from a life in the theater. These bite-size essays are full of fun anecdotes and musical references, and basically boil down to: work hard, be a good person and celebrate when you can. Lots of fun.

The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life’s In-Betweens to Remake the World, Kaya Oakes
Women often find themselves caught between conflicting expectations and even more complicated realities. Journalist Oakes examines the lives of women of faith – mostly women from the Bible, and saints – to make the point that feminine identity has always been transgressive and complicated. Thought-provoking– the chapters on “Barren” and “Alone” struck me especially. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 30).

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

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We are, somehow, at the end of August: poised on the edge of a new season, none of us quite sure what’s next. As we head into September, here’s what I have been reading:

Swimming to the Top of the Tide, Patricia Hanlon
I found this lovely memoir at Trident and dove in headfirst (ha). Hanlon and her husband frequently swim the creeks and salt marsh near their home north of Boston. She writes with a painter’s eye about color and seasons, and with concern about climate change. Lyrical and lovely.

Luck of the Titanic, Stacey Lee
Valora Luck has dreams of an acrobatic career with her twin brother, Jamie. But when she tries to board the Titanic, she learns Chinese people aren’t allowed in America. So Val stows away and tries to figure out a new plan. A fast-paced, compelling YA story inspired by real Chinese people on board the doomed ship.

The Guncle, Steven Rowley
Semi-retired actor Patrick loves being the fun “guncle” to his niece and nephew – occasionally. But when they come to spend the summer with him after losing their mother, it’s an adjustment for everyone. Took me a bit to get into this novel, but I ended up loving this funny, unusual family story. Recommended by Annie.

The Lost Spells, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
I love everything Macfarlane writes and adored this pocket-size, gorgeously illustrated book of acrostic “spells” about birds and beasts and flowers and trees. Utterly lovely.

A Match Made for Murder, Iona Whishaw
On their honeymoon in Arizona, Lane Winslow and Inspector Darling stumble onto a murder case – and some complications involving an old colleague of Darling’s. Meanwhile, back in King’s Cove, Sergeant Ames and his new constable are dealing with vandalism and murder. A wonderful installment in this great series. (I received a free copy from the publisher.)

On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed
I remember learning about Juneteenth as a child (like Gordon-Reed, I grew up in Texas), but it’s gotten national attention recently. These essays blend memoir with history about Texas independence and statehood, Black people in Texas and the Juneteenth holiday itself. Fascinating and so readable – I learned a lot.

The Shape of Thunder, Jasmine Warga
Cora and Quinn, former best friends, haven’t spoken in a year since a tragedy divided them. But then Quinn leaves Cora a birthday present that starts the girls on a journey toward time travel. A powerful, often heartbreaking book about grief and friendship, race and adolescence. Really well done.

Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us, ed. Colleen Kinder
We all have them: those brief encounters with strangers that echo throughout our lives. Kinder, cofounder of Off Assignment magazine, collects 65 essays exploring that topic in this book. A lovely, often poignant, kaleidoscopic collection. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 5).

Roll with It, Jamie Sumner
Ellie Cowan dreams of being a professional baker – but her problems (like being the kid in a wheelchair) are more immediate. When Ellie and her mom move to Oklahoma to help out her grandparents, Ellie finds some unexpected friends – and new challenges. A sweet, funny middle-grade novel that gets real about disability and prejudice.

Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu
Rachel (whom some of you may remember) was a passionate thinker, writer and speaker who wrestled mightily with faith, and insisted on God’s big, deep, ungraspable love. This, her last posthumous book for adults, is a collection of her writings on faith, doubt and Christian community. Jeff Chu did a masterful job of weaving her words together, and I loved the epilogue by Nadia Bolz-Weber. There’s some familiar and some new material, but it all sounds like Rachel. Warm, thoughtful and honest, just like her. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 2).

A Rogue’s Company, Allison Montclair
After solving a murder, the Right Sort Marriage Bureau is getting back on its feet. But the arrival of a new African client and the return of Gwen’s tyrannical father-in-law from his travels spell trouble for Gwen and the bureau. An adventurous, witty installment in a really fun mystery series.

Eighty Days to Elsewhere, kc dyer
Travel-shy Romy Keene loves working at her uncles’ East Village bookstore. But when a new landlord threatens the shop, she takes off on a round-the-world adventure (trying to score a lucrative new job). The problem? The landlord’s nephew is her main competitor for the job – and he’s really cute. I found this one on the sale table at Trident and flew through it – so much fun, with some insights about travel and privilege.

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

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We’re 10 days into June and the books are flowing – which is just how I like it. Here’s what I have been reading:

City of Flickering Light, Juliette Fay
Desperate to escape a cruel employment situation, three young people jump off a moving train and make their way to Hollywood. Fay’s novel follows sensible Irene, guileless but thoughtful Millie, and dependable Henry as they navigate the sparkle and grit of 1920s Tinseltown. I flew through this in two days – it was captivating.

Dear Martin, Nic Stone
Justyce McAllister is a top student at a tony Atlanta prep school. But none of that matters when he encounters a police officer, or when his best friend gets shot – the police (and most of the public) only care that they’re Black. A thoughtful, compelling YA novel about race, first love and navigating friendships, with some parallels to The Hate U Give.

An Old, Cold Grave, Iona Whishaw
It’s early spring and the Hughes ladies are cleaning out their root cellar when they stumble on a child’s skeleton. Who was the child, and how did he/she get buried there? The local police ask Lane Winslow to help investigate. This third mystery digs into the complex relationships in King’s Cove, and delves into the mutual attraction between Lane and Inspector Darling. So thoughtful and well plotted.

The Queen Bee and Me, Gillian McDunn
Shy Meg has always been happy to live in her best friend Beatrix’s shadow. But both girls are changing as they go through middle school. When Meg takes a science elective on her own and makes friends with a quirky new girl, Beatrix is not pleased. A warm, honest middle-grade story of tricky friendships and learning to stand up for yourself.

Fortune Favors the Dead, Stephen Spotswood
Willowjean “Will” Parker is a circus girl working a side gig when she meets intrepid investigator Lillian Pentecost. Will becomes Lillian’s apprentice, and together the two crack some tough cases in 1940s New York City. A smart, hard-boiled noirish mystery with a sassy, slangy narrator. Lots of fun.

Dial A for Aunties, Jesse Q. Sutanto
When photographer Meddelin “Meddy” Chan accidentally kills her blind date, she calls her mother and three aunts to help her move the body. Unfortunately, all five women are in the middle of a big wedding weekend, which could be huge for their family business. A hilarious, zany story featuring complex Chinese-Indonesian family dynamics, a sweet love story and some insight about claiming your own independence. An impulse buy at Target and totally worth it.

Lookout: Love, Solitude, and Searching for Wildfire in the Boreal Forest, Trina Moyles
Writer and development worker Trina Moyles loved her childhood in rural Canada, but she never expected to find herself spending summers as a fire lookout. This is the story of Moyles’ journey deep into the woods, her first few summers there, and the challenges and beauty she found. Gorgeous, insightful writing and vivid characters – I loved Holly the tower dog and Trina’s lookout neighbors. One of my faves of 2021. Found at the wonderful Sundog Books in Seaside, FL.

The Memory Keeper, Jennifer Camiccia
Lulu Carter, almost 13, has a highly unusual memory: she can remember specific details from every day in her life. As Lulu’s memory sharpens, her beloved Gram seems to be losing hers, so Lulu and her friends dig into Gram’s past to see if they can help. Funny and sweet, with tons of information about the brain and a sensitive handling of tough family stories. Also found at Sundog Books.

The Paris Connection, Lorraine Brown
Hannah and her boyfriend Si are traveling from Venice to Si’s sister’s wedding in Amsterdam, when the train uncouples in the middle of the night and takes Hannah to Paris. She spends the day with Leo, a handsome but irritating (aren’t they always?) French guy who is also stranded. The day, and Leo, prompt her to rethink her life. A sweet rom-com with some deep introspection on Hannah’s part and lots of lovely Paris details. To review for Shelf Awareness out Aug. 24).

All Things Wise and Wonderful, James Herriot
In this third volume of his memoirs, Herriot has signed up for the RAF and spends a lot of his time in training immersed in thoughts of Yorkshire. I remembered a few moments in this book from reading it 20 years ago, but most of it was fresh to me. Witty, warm and so comforting.

Most links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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I rewatched While You Were Sleeping around Christmastime – which is when I usually watch it, since it takes place during Christmas week. I cracked up at all the best lines – “These mashed potatoes are so creamy!” “New Year’s Eve hasn’t been the same since Guy Lombardo died!” “I got Ice Capades!” – and reveled in the happy cacophony of the Callaghan family’s holiday celebrations. But this time, I was focused on a different aspect of the story: the loneliness.

When the movie opens, Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock’s character) sits all day in a CTA booth taking subway tokens from strangers. She’s single, childless, without family since her dad’s passing, and her boss is asking her (again) to work on Christmas. Although she spends a lot of the movie interacting with the Callaghans (and trying to figure out how to tell them she’s not actually engaged to their comatose son), there are a number of scenes where she’s alone in her apartment, with her cat and the Christmas tree that broke the window early in the film. She’s so desperate for connection that she goes along with a lie, and nearly ends up marrying the wrong man just so she can be part of a family.

I read an article this winter about how While You Were Sleeping is the perfect movie for a pandemic: many of us, like Lucy, have spent the past year missing the communities we used to have (or wanted to have, or thought we were supposed to have). Lucy has never been part of a big family, but she’s thrilled to be welcomed into the Callaghan clan. She accepts hugs, chokes on Christmas eggnog, and cradles her wrapped present as the others tear into theirs; having spent years starved for community, she doesn’t want to miss savoring even a moment of it.

That scene made me well up: after I’ve spent so much of the past 14-ish months alone in my apartment, Lucy’s loneliness hit much closer to home. I have been grateful for every scrap of community I’ve found this year, including my online writing class, the few neighborhood friends I’ve been seeing, and in-person time with my sweet guy. But I have missed other connections: time with my family; in-person interactions with coworkers and other friends; the chance to build on new neighborhood relationships I had just started forming when the pandemic hit.

Ultimately, Lucy – and I – must make some choices about the kind of community that’s really worth pursuing. She decides, in the end, to tell the truth rather than end up married to a man she doesn’t love (and barely knows), even if that means losing the family she’s recently gained. As I continue to navigate life post-divorce (and as we all emerge slowly from the pandemic), I have to make choices, too. Which relationships are worth continuing to foster, and which ones do I need to let go? Was I hanging onto some connections – or the idea of them – long past their sell-by date? Where I can I find, or continue to seek, community that lets me be seen and loved?

After New Year’s, Lucy gets her happy ending – including a honeymoon to Florence with her beloved Jack. I’m hopeful, these days, that more connection is coming for me, too. But I think it’s worth remembering that loneliness isn’t limited to times of great isolation, and that we can all work to provide (and ask for) connections to those we love or those we encounter. (It is also, of course, worth remembering that Argentina has great beef, that Guy Lombardo didn’t play the clarinet, and that John Wayne was tall.)

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Hi friends. April is nearly over, and I’m back from a stint of dog-sitting in Cambridge (down the street from my beloved Darwin’s, so of course I treated myself – see above).

Here’s what I have been reading:

The 24-Hour Cafe, Libby Page
I adore Page’s debut novel, Mornings with Rosemary, and finally ordered this one from my beloved Blackwell’s in Oxford because it’s not out in the U.S. It follows Hannah and Mona, flatmates and friends who work at the titular cafe and are each facing career crossroads (Hannah is a singer, Mona a dancer). It’s lovely and bittersweet – Page really digs into the complexities of female friendship – and I loved glimpsing the lives of their colleagues and customers, too.

God Spare the Girls, Kelsey McKinney
Pastor’s daughter Caroline Nolan has always lived in the shadow of her adored big sister, Abigail. But she’s starting to question both her faith and the rules of the community she grew up in. When the sisters find out their father has had an affair–weeks before Abigail’s wedding–they retreat to their grandmother’s ranch. McKinney is a fellow transplanted Texan and she writes so well about summer heat and tangled church politics. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 22).

A Woman of Intelligence, Karin Tanabe
Katharina “Rina” Edgeworth speaks four languages, has a graduate degree from Columbia – and is bored stiff with her life as a Manhattan society wife. When she’s recruited by the FBI to work as an informant, she says yes so she can find a purpose again. An interesting, complicated novel in McCarthy-era New York; Rina’s inner journey is stronger than the external plot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 20).

How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope, ed. James Crews
I found this lovely anthology at the beginning of April and have savored its entries about delights, gratitude, family, the natural world and other loveliness. Poignant and lovely. (I wanted more poems from poets of color, but know I need to seek them out on my own.)

Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, Anna Qu
As a teenager, Qu was forced to work in her family’s Manhattan sweatshop, and treated as a maid at home. She eventually calls child services on her mother, and as an adult, tries to piece together the fragments of her growing-up years. This was powerful at times but felt really disjointed; parts of the narrative seemed to be missing. I received an ARC from the publisher; it’s out Aug. 11.

All Things Bright and Beautiful, James Herriot
This second volume of Herriot’s memoirs picks up when he’s a newlywed and hitting his stride in veterinary practice. I love the familiar characters – Siegfried, Tristan, Helen – and the local folk they encounter. Charming and gentle.

You Have a Match, Emma Lord
Abby sent away for a DNA test in solidarity with her best friend, Leo, who’s searching for info about his birth family. But Abby’s the one who ends up with a surprise sister – Instagram sensation Savannah. They all head to summer camp and shenanigans ensue: tree-climbing, kitchen duty, family secrets and first love. This was my post-vaccine impulse buy at Target and I regret nothing. So much fun.

A Killer in King’s Cove, Iona Whishaw
After World War II, former intelligence agent Lane Winslow has moved to rural British Columbia for some peace and quiet. She’s just getting to know her neighbors when a stranger comes to town and ends up dead – and she’s a suspect. I loved this smart first entry in a series and will definitely read more.

Blue Horses, Mary Oliver
This was one of the only Oliver collections I hadn’t read. I loved spending a few mornings with late-life Mary and her keen, unsentimental eye. She writes so well about nature: its beauty, its darkness, its details.

Most links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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Notions

Look at the silver lining, they say.
But what if, instead,
I pluck it off
and use that tensile strand to bind
myself to those things I do not 
want to lose sight of.

Families knit together by evening walks,
board games, laughter. 
The filament fixing us to friends
no matter the distance apart.
A braid of gratitude for small kindnesses.
The thin gauge wire of loss.

Let me twist that lining 
around my finger, 
it’s silvery glint a reminder 
of just how quickly life can change. 
I will remember to love more.
I will remember to give more.

I will remember to be still

I will knot the string tightly. 
So it won’t slip away.
So I won’t forget.

I found Paula’s poem in the anthology How to Love the World, and was struck by the idea of silver linings becoming tangible. You can read more of her poetry on her Facebook page.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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How is it the end of March already? Then again, we’ve been stuck in a strange time warp for a year. Here’s what I have been reading:

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, Clint Smith III
Poet and educator Clint Smith visits eight locations with deep ties to the history of slavery, to explore how the U.S. has (and has not) reckoned with the brutality and the deep scars. He’s such a good writer–this book is thoughtful, clear and evocative, though obviously heavy, given the subject matter. Highly recommended. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 1).

This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, Jacqueline Winspear
I love Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mystery series. This memoir chronicles her childhood in rural Kent, but also explores her family dynamics and the effects of two wars on her elders (a theme she continually returns to in her novels). Elegant, thoughtful and full of rich period detail.

84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff
A friend mentioned the lovely film adaptation of this book and I pulled out my old copy, above (bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, years ago). Hanff struck up a friendship with the booksellers at Marks & Co. in London, and their letters make for warm, amusing reading. So much fun.

You Go First, Erin Entrada Kelly
Charlotte’s dad just had a heart attack. Ben’s parents are getting a divorce. Through their online Scrabble game, they help each other navigate a seriously tough week (plus the usual middle school ugh). This was cute, but I wanted more from the connection between the characters.

A Deadly Inside Scoop, Abby Collette
Bronwyn Crewse is thrilled to be reopening her family’s ice cream shop. But when a dead body turns up and her dad is a prime suspect, she turns her attention to amateur sleuthing. This premise was cute, but Win’s best friend Maisie, who helps her solve the case, was seriously obnoxious. So-so, in the end.

Murder-on-Sea, Julie Wassmer
It’s nearly Christmas in Whitstable, and Pearl Nolan is juggling work and holiday plans when several of her neighbors receive nasty Christmas cards and ask her to investigate. The plot of this one was so-so, but I like Pearl and her cast of supporting characters.

Perestroika in Paris, Jane Smiley
I adored this charming tale about a curious filly–Paras, short for Perstroika–who noses out of her stall one night and finds her way to Paris. She joins up with Frida, a savvy dog; Raoul, a voluble raven; a pair of ducks and a lonely young boy, Etienne. A delight from start to finish.

Most links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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Casual weeknights around the table: spaghetti, chicken, pizza or takeout Chinese. The kids (and Chloe the cat) drift in and out. We watch videos, laugh, and I’m part of a family. 

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For a spill of yellow calla lilies and long-stemmed roses tipped with crimson, both from my beloved Cambridge florist.

For morning runs along the harborwalk and up the greenway, sea and sky and breath and music in my earbuds, a ritual that makes me stronger and happier and more at peace.

For three bags of cranberries and plump sweet potatoes, homemade mac & cheese and beef en croute from Trader Joe’s, with cider from Downeast for our tiny, two-person feast.

For daily chats with my girl Allison in California, whose good humor and grace and honesty about the vagaries of pandemic life have kept me sane for so many months now.

For Friends Thanksgiving gifs shared with my sister, weekly phone chats with my parents, Thanksgiving cards from my aunts. I am far from most of my family, but we love one another fiercely, even in these strange times.

For the memories of past Thanksgivings, in Texas and Oxford and Missouri and a few miles away in Brookline. There is pain in some of those memories, but also community, and joy.

For a light-filled, wood-floored apartment near the harbor, which has been a true refuge and home during a turbulent year and a half.

For a man who loves me deeply and shares my joy in the fact that we get to twine our lives together.

For the freelance writing projects that have helped give me purpose and income and a chance to use my skills in these furloughed months.

For strong black tea brewed in my favorite mugs, stacks of library books and e-galleys, candles on the mantel and cozy plaid slippers and all the comforts of home.

For the nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, delivery folks, farmers and other essential workers who are keeping us all going.

It has been a hard and sobering year, but there is still and always so much to give thanks for. If you are celebrating today, I wish you a Thanksgiving full of love and gratitude.

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