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bloodline book christmas tree star wars

I am, as regular readers may know, a Star Wars fan. I say that cautiously, since I can’t even aspire to the highest levels of fandom in the Lucasfilm universe. (I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi, by the way. I thought a few lines did not quite land, but I loved being back in that galaxy with a band of rebels old and new.)

I watch the original three films at least once a year. I quote them all the time: “Never tell me the odds!” And I’ve dressed up twice as Princess Leia: once in my teens for a midnight movie, once much more recently. (When my friend Nate turned 30 a few years ago, we all turned out in character to mark the occasion.)

Until this fall, though, I’d never read a Star Wars novel.

Why not? Call it confusion, or intimidation: there are dozens of novels, set in every conceivable niche of the Star Wars timeline and galaxy. Where to start? Add to that the thorny question of what’s considered “canon”: I’m not qualified to even touch that one.

But there’s a darker reason: my own literary snobbery.

Although I’m a lifelong bookworm with two literature degrees, I usually insist I’m not a book snob: I believe people should read what they love, be it a Pulitzer winner or the latest bestseller. But I secretly thought Star Wars novels had to be just cardboard imitations of the movies I loved.

Enter Claudia Gray’s novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan, which follows the young Leia as she takes a survival course and flies around the galaxy on missions of both humanitarian aid and espionage. It’s smart, fast-paced and full of the series’ signature wry humor. (Bonus: it introduces Amilyn Holdo, who appears as Vice Admiral Holdo in most of my favorite scenes in The Last Jedi.)

After devouring Princess of Alderaan, I picked up Bloodline (above), Gray’s 2016 novel recounting Leia’s political career in the New Republic (post-Return of the Jedi). I might have loved that one even more: Leia the senator is even more brave and badass (and a little wiser) than Leia the teenage rebel.

I doubt I’ll be diving into the whole Star Wars backlist any time soon. But it’s been a deep pleasure to read more of Leia’s story–and a reminder that, as Yoda says, sometimes we must unlearn what we have learned.

Have you read any Star Wars novels? Any recommendations for me?

Most of this column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, where I’m part of the book review team.

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almost sisters book christmas tree

We’re two weeks into a new year, which has included (so far) a foot of snow, a record-breaking cold snap and – thank goodness – a batch of fantastic books.

Here’s my first reading roundup for 2018:

The Almost Sisters, Joshilyn Jackson
Leia Birch Briggs, a successful graphic artist, finds out she’s pregnant with a biracial baby after a one-night stand. Then she’s summoned to Alabama to check on her grandmother, Birchie, who’s been hiding her health problems and other damaging secrets. I loved this novel – it’s funny, wise, warmhearted and thought-provoking. Leia is a great narrator and her relationship with her stepsister, Rachel, felt so real – as did her experience as a well-meaning but often clueless white woman. Recommended by Leigh and Anne.

One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together, Amy Bass
Soccer, like other sports, has historically taken a backseat to hockey in Lewiston, Maine. But an influx of Somali immigrants to this white, working-class town began to change that. And Lewiston High School’s coach, Mike McGraw, saw his chance to build a championship team. Insightful, vividly told, deeply researched nonfiction about a group of boys who became the emblem of a changing town. I’m not even much of a soccer fan, but I loved it. Reminded me of The Newcomers. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 27).

Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper
After loving The Dark is Rising, I went back and read this first book in the series, in which three children find a mysterious treasure map while on holiday in Cornwall. With the help of their great-uncle (whom I recognized from TDIR), they embark on a quest while dodging some sinister folks. Fun and enjoyable, though not nearly as compelling as TDIR.

In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a bitterly cold Advent season in upstate New York, someone leaves a newborn baby on the Episcopal church steps. The Reverend Clare Fergusson, new to town, investigates the baby’s parentage plus a few murders alongside longtime police chief Russ Van Alstyne. I’d heard about this mystery series from Lauren Winner and loved this first book: Russ, Clare and the other characters felt satisfyingly real.

Wade in the Water: Poems, Tracy K. Smith
I’d heard of Smith but really started paying attention to her when she was named poet laureate last summer. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, is on my to-read stack. This new collection of her poems was the first I’d read. It includes several “erasure poems” based on text from correspondence of former slave owners, the Declaration of Independence and other documents. But my favorites were the others, like “Ash” and “4 1/2” and “Unrest in Baton Rouge.” To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 3).

Other People’s Houses, Abbi Waxman
Carpool mom Frances Bloom is used to taking care of everyone, including her neighbors’ kids. But when she catches her neighbor, Anne, in flagrante delicto with a younger man, the neighborhood is thrown for a loop and so is Frances. This was sharper and sadder than Waxman’s debut, The Garden of Small Beginnings (which I loved). Some great lines and realistic characters, but I thought it ended too abruptly. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 3).

The Library at the Edge of the World, Felicity Hayes-McCoy
I read Hayes-McCoy’s memoir, The House on an Irish Hillside, a few years ago and loved it. This novel was fluffier than that, but still enjoyable: librarian Hanna Casey, who has returned to her rural Irish hometown after a divorce, suddenly finds herself an unlikely community organizer. Lovely descriptions of western Ireland and several appealing characters.

The Woman in the Water, Charles Finch
I love Finch’s mystery series featuring Victorian gentleman detective Charles Lenox. This prequel explores Lenox’s start as a detective, as the recent Oxford graduate investigates the deaths of two unknown women. A satisfying mystery plot, and I also enjoyed the appearances by Lenox’s invaluable valet, Graham, and other familiar characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 20).

Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, Laura Thompson
Known today as the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie led a long and interesting life. Thompson explores Christie’s childhood, her two marriages, her prodigious creative output and her 11-day disappearance in 1926. I found this biography engaging, though it dragged at times, and the section on Agatha’s disappearance was decidedly odd. I’m a Christie fan (but 485 pages is a serious commitment!). To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 6).

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

What are you reading this winter?

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book stack christmas tree

Happy New Year, friends. I hope your holidays were wonderful. Mine involved our usual Texas tour: lots of family time, Tex-Mex food and twinkliness. (Then a quiet New Year’s weekend to recover.)

Here are the books I read in the second half of December – mostly on our vacation:

Ghosts of Greenglass House, Kate Milford
Milo Pine is looking forward to a quiet Christmas with his parents. But for the second year in a row, that’s not happening: the titular hotel where they live is invaded by a pair of thieves and a mysterious group of carolers (the Waits). I enjoyed this sequel to Greenglass House, though the magic got a little muddled at times.

You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins
Spanning four decades (1970s to present day), this YA novel unfolds the saga of the Das family as they move between India and the U.S., through the voices of five women. A great story of sisterhood and the push and pull between tradition, family and making your own way. I read it in one sitting on a flight.

A Casualty of War, Charles Todd
The Great War is nearly over, but for nurse Bess Crawford, there’s still much to be done for the soldiers in her care. The plight of one such soldier, a Captain Travis, sends Bess and her friend Simon Brandon to Suffolk to investigate his family history. I’ve enjoyed this series, but the previous few books have stalled a bit. This one, however, was excellent.

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, Jenny Colgan
As Christmas approaches, baker Polly Waterford is struggling: she’s exhausted at work, ambivalent about her boyfriend’s marriage proposal and worried about her pregnant best friend. I like Colgan’s cheery chick lit; this one wasn’t my favorite, but I enjoyed seeing these characters again.

The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
I’d never read this fantasy novel, but picked it up when Robert Macfarlane (whose nonfiction I adore) announced a readalong on Twitter. I loved the story: full of beautiful lines, ancient magic and bravery, as 11-year-old Will Stanton discovers he’s part of a mysterious circle that must hold back the Dark. It’s set at midwinter/Christmastime, which felt so apt. Now I want to read the rest of the series.

Leopard at the Door, Jennifer McVeigh
I grabbed this at the (rather uninspiring) DFW airport bookstore, and spent my flight home wholly absorbed in it. Rachel Fullsmith returns home to Kenya after six miserable years in an English boarding school. Her widowed father has taken up with a cold, manipulative woman, and there is increasing unrest among the Kenyan laborers. Vivid images, gorgeous writing and a heart-wrenching story of those caught up in the Mau Mau uprising. (I also enjoyed McVeigh’s debut, The Fever Tree.)

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

What are you reading in this brand-new year?

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bloodline book christmas tree star wars

The first half of December is always a contradiction in terms: the routine of daily life marches on, laced with twinkly festivity and all the holiday prep. As ever, the reading helps keep me (relatively) sane.

Here’s the latest book roundup:

And the Rest is History, Jodi Taylor
I love Taylor’s series about the wacky, tea-loving time-traveling historians of St. Mary’s Institute in England. This eighth book is full of heartbreak: Max, the narrator/heroine, her husband Leon and their colleagues are in for it, several times. But it’s also witty, fast-paced and entertaining, like the whole series. Smart, fun escapist reading.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler
I savored this collection of essays by 46 writers, riffing on lines or passages that have shaped their creative lives. Thoughtful, honest, nourishing perspectives as varied as their authors. Recommended by Lindsey, who especially loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay (so did I). Other favorites: Claire Messud, Azar Nafisi, Angela Flournoy, Sherman Alexie.

Fifty Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World, Saadia Zahidi
Muslim women are going to work in greater numbers than ever, and they are revolutionizing their homes, families and societies. Zahidi delves into the cultural, social and economic patterns that are shifting across the Muslim world. Packed with statistics, but I really enjoyed the stories of women (many, but not all, millennials) who are blazing a path for themselves. (Serendipity: Zahidi is an alumna of my workplace.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 30).

Star Wars: Bloodline, Claudia Gray
I enjoyed Gray’s new novel about the teenage Princess Leia learning to be a badass. I loved this novel, set before The Force Awakens, even more. It features Leia as a senator in the New Republic: she’s a little jaded, but brave and committed as ever, and hungry for a bit of adventure – which she gets in spades. I relished both the new characters and the appearances by familiar faces (Han Solo and C-3PO).

The Red Garden, Alice Hoffman
Hoffman’s stories weave magic seamlessly into the everyday (or simply point out what’s already there). This collection follows the town of Blackwell, Mass., and the intertwined lives of its families over three centuries. It’s a little uneven, but still enchanting.

Party Girls Die in Pearls, Plum Sykes
Ursula Flowerbutton has high hopes for her first week as a student at Oxford – but they don’t include the murder of a posh classmate. However, Ursula (a budding journalist) and her new American friend Nancy are on the case. A smart, fun, frothy, totally ’80s romp through Oxford. Perfect weekend reading.

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
A longtime obsession with birds of prey led Macdonald to acquire a goshawk named Mabel, around the time her father died. She struggles mightily with grief and emptiness while learning to fly her hawk. Luminous, heartbreaking and strange: full of sorrow and magic. I didn’t care much for the exploration of T.H. White’s journey with goshawks, but loved Macdonald’s own story. Bought last year at bookbook in Greenwich Village. Recommended by my friend Jess at Great New Books.

Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, Anne Bogel
Anne is a longtime blogging friend of mine; we finally met in person last fall in NYC. She’s also a whip-smart personality geek, and her first book explores various personality frameworks. The big takeaway: know thyself – and be willing to question your own assumptions. Thoughtful and informative. (Anne sent me an ARC – it came out in September.)

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

What are you reading?

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book culture bookstore interior yellow flowers

November was a full month, as they all are lately. I’ve been squeezing in the good books wherever I can. Here’s my latest roundup:

Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies, Brian Doyle
I love Doyle’s work (as I have said before) and enjoyed this collection of slim, bright, often funny, always lyrical, heartfelt essays. He writes about children (his and others), the aftermath of 9/11, faith, grief, birds and a thousand other everyday moments of grace.

The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, Jenn Granneman
As an introvert who sometimes relishes the way I’m wired and sometimes struggles to own it, I enjoyed this straightforward nonfiction look at various facets of introvert life: calling, career, friendships, relationships. Not a lot of brand-new information (Susan Cain’s Quiet is my gold standard for introversion insight), but practical, wise and sometimes funny. Found at the wonderful Three Lives in NYC.

Into the Bright Unknown, Rae Carson
Lee Westfall and her fellow gold prospectors have founded their own town in Gold Rush California. But the shady actions of a San Francisco businessman prompt them to travel there and see if they can take him down. I’ve loved Carson’s trilogy about Lee (who has a magical ability to sense gold). This book wasn’t my favorite, but I wanted to see how her story ended. Bought at Book Culture in NYC (pictured above) last month.

Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery
I often turn back to Windy Poplars in the autumn; it’s one of the most underrated Anne books. I’ve been lingering in Anne’s adventures in Summerside, watching her take walks with little Elizabeth, befriend the widows (really, the entire town) and write letters in her tower room. So lovely and comforting: Anne is always good company.

Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton
Cuban-American writer Marisol Ferrera grew up on her grandmother Elisa’s stories of Havana, where her family enjoyed a privileged life prior to Castro’s takeover. When her grandmother dies, Marisol travels back to Cuba to spread Elisa’s ashes and investigate a few family secrets. A lush dual-narrative story of Cuba then and now; I thought the plot wrapped up too neatly, but I loved both Elisa and Marisol. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 6).

Scones and Scoundrels, Molly MacRae
MacRae’s second Highland Bookshop mystery finds the town of Inversgail (and its bookshop, Yon Bonnie Books) preparing to welcome back Daphne Wood, an eccentric writer and environmentalist who grew up there. Once Daphne arrives, she puts nearly everyone off with her rude and abrupt manner – and then the murders start happening. A solid cozy mystery (with plenty of scones). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 2).

Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Claudia Gray
I’d never read a Star Wars novel before, though I love the original films and I adore Leia Organa. I thoroughly enjoyed this story of the teenaged Leia serving as a senator-in-training, taking a pathfinding class and learning about her parents’ mysterious work against the Empire. Smart, fast-paced and full of heart. Made me even more excited for The Last Jedi.

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

What are you reading?

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shakespeare co nyc autumn window bookstore

I am, it seems, constantly in the middle of five books at once, these days. But I have managed to finish a few lately. (And admire a perfectly autumnal window display at Shakespeare & Co. in NYC.)

Here’s what I have been reading:

Three Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak
Peri, a wealthy Turkish housewife, is mugged on her way to a dinner party in Istanbul. The thief unearths an old photo, which takes Peri back 15 years to her time as a student at Oxford, and the professor who fascinated her. A well-written novel of a woman caught between several worlds. Peri’s character frustrated me at times, but I enjoyed the glimpses of Oxford, my favorite city. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 5).

Woman Enters Left, Jessica Brockmole
I loved Brockmole’s previous two historical novels, Letters from Skye and At the Edge of Summer. This one moves into the U.S. and the 20th century, following actress Louise Wilde as she drives cross-country in 1952, trying to unravel a mystery involving her mother. (We also get glimpses into her mother’s earlier road trip along a similar route.) An engaging story with three likable protagonists, though I found the ending abrupt.

Hunted, Meagan Spooner
This YA reimagining of Beauty and the Beast (recommended by Leigh) is gorgeous and compelling. When Yeva’s father loses his fortune, begins acting strangely and then disappears, Yeva takes off into the woods, determined to find him and the creature he’s been tracking. What – and who – she finds is surprising. A fascinating take on this familiar story, weaving in Russian folklore and the tale of the Firebird. I loved Yeva and her sisters.

All We Saw, Anne Michaels
I heard about this new collection of poems on love and grief via the Knopf poetry newsletter, and picked it up at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford. It is spare and haunting and jarring and lovely. One of my favorite lines: “forgiveness is not about the past but the future / and needs another word.”

Here is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World, Nate Staniforth
After working for years as a touring magician, Staniforth found himself totally burned out. So he headed to India with a friend and almost no plan, hoping to rediscover a sense of wonder. A highly enjoyable, honest memoir about the hard work of doing what you love, dealing with disillusionment and finding wonder in it again. I liked Nate’s voice and he has some wonderful insights about magic (the non-staged kind). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 16).

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

What are you reading?

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book geraniums captains daughter sandals porch flowers

My reading slowed waaaay down in August, but I read some fantastic books. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Salt Houses, Hala Alyan
When Salma Yacoub reads her daughter Alia’s tea leaves on the eve of Alia’s wedding, she sees trouble – unrest, displacement, grief – and also luck. From there unfolds the rich, layered, multigenerational saga of the Yacoub family, who are uprooted from Palestine during the Six-Day War of 1967. Over five decades and at least as many countries, Salma’s family continue to live: they struggle, they migrate, they work, they fight, they love. A powerful and absolutely gorgeous novel about family, belonging, restlessness, the secrets we keep and the selves we become. Recommended by my colleagues at Shelf Awareness.

The Rules of Magic, Alice Hoffman
The Owens women aren’t like other women: they have certain unusual powers, but they’re also under a longstanding curse. Hoffman tells the story of Franny, her sister Bridget (known as Jet) and their aunt Isabelle. I loved this book; it broke my heart and mended it, over and over, and gave me a few good words about courage. Lush and gorgeous and moving and powerful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 10).

Epiphanies & Elegies, Brian Doyle
My Brian Doyle kick continues: this is a slim, whimsical collection of poems on Ireland, animals, “wild holy children” and more. My favorites: “Instructions to the New Puppy,” “Lilies,” and “Goose Arrested at the Corner of Winter & Summer.”

The Captain’s Daughter, Meg Mitchell Moore
I love Moore’s insightful, honest novels about family and finding our place in the world. This one focuses on Eliza Barnes, who is called back to her tiny Maine hometown when her lobsterman father is injured. Eliza worked hard to build a different life for herself and she’s proud of that, but being back home makes her question her choices, and she also befriends a local teenager, Mary, who is facing her own crisis. Powerful and lovely and real.

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

What are you reading?

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