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mostly books interior abingdon uk bookshop

Every year it’s a challenge: to look back over the books I’ve read in a year (nearly 150, this time!) and choose a handful of favorites. I talked about a few gems in my first-half-of-2017 roundup, back in June. But here are the books that shine the brightest in my whole reading year:

Most Enchanting Family Saga: The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. I’ve gushed about this one a lot, and I even got to interview Hoffman for Shelf Awareness. (She was lovely and wise, and patient with my fangirling.) I fell totally in love with these characters, and a few words about their courage have remained written on my heart.

Deep and Captivating Dive into the Word-Hoard: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. I loved every page of this beautiful, keenly observed book about landscapes, the words we use to describe them, and how those things shape each other (and us). A must-read if you’re a walker, a writer or a good noticer.

Loveliest and Most Honest Memoir of Transformation: The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis. An unflinching, beautiful, often heartrending look at what it means to leave behind a faith and a marriage, and navigate new territory without a map.

Funniest Lighthearted Fiction: The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman. I couldn’t stop laughing at this wisecracking, warmhearted novel of grief, love and gardening.

Most Luminous Memoir of Faith and Struggle: In the Shelter by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Wise and lovely: always calling us to pay attention to what is here, what is real, what is full of possibility.

Timely and Vivid Nonfiction: The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe – a vivid account of refugee teenagers and their families struggling to adjust to life in Denver. Powerful, clear and compelling.

Poetry: Blue Iris by Mary Oliver, which contains so many beautiful flower poems – a perfect match to my flower walks and #FlowerReporting this spring and summer.

Favorite Reread: Either The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I love de los Santos’ warm, thought-provoking family stories, and Gilead is wise and slow (in the best way) and utterly lovely.

Gorgeous, Layered Family Saga: Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Each section in this novel focuses on a different member of the same extended family, across countries and generations. Bittersweet and absorbing.

Best Title (with Wry, Hilarious Career Advice): Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco. I really enjoyed this snarky, smart memoir about life in the Obama White House. But the title is almost my favorite part – it’s frighteningly applicable to so many situations these days.

What were your favorite books this year?

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rainbow spines bookshelf books color

As any bookworm knows, choosing your one favorite novel (or any book) is an impossible task. But this rainbow-spined shelf holds quite a few books I adore – novels and otherwise.

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anne's house of dreams book cover sea pei north shore

A few weeks ago, the hubs and I drove up to Prince Edward Island, for a quiet, blissful stretch of days (our third) on the Island’s north shore.

We first visited PEI a few summers ago, but I have known and loved it for a long time: through the beloved books of L.M. Montgomery, who introduced me to such heroines as Jane Stuart, Emily Byrd Starr, Sara Stanley, and – of course – Anne Shirley.

My mom handed me the first three Anne books when I was a child, and I read and reread them until the corners of the paperbacks were worn soft. I later did the same with the remaining five books in the series, and I still have most of my beat-up Bantam copies (though I had to replace the first one after it went missing). I’ve picked up various beautiful editions of several Anne books over the years, and I’d love to buy the entire set in the recent lovely Sourcebooks and Tundra incarnations. But when I want to find a particular passage or dive into a whole book again, I always reach for my childhood copies, their heft comforting in my hands.

I took a stack of books to PEI. This is typical vacation behavior for me, but it’s especially tempting when we drive, because luggage and space limits aren’t a problem. On our first trip to PEI a few years ago, I tucked a couple of Anne books into my suitcase on a whim. I hadn’t reread them in a while, but I thought I might want to flip through them while I was there.

What I hadn’t quite expected: I hardly wanted to read anything else.

Montgomery is a master of the elegant description, and her love for the Island comes through in the voices of her heroines – all of whom are deeply rooted in the Island’s rust-red soil. The green fields with their soft red furrows, the glimpses of blue sea around so many corners, the fields and woods and rolling hills, the rocky and sandy beaches of the north shore, were at once entirely new and utterly familiar to me.

I spent hours on that first trip rereading passages from a couple of Anne books and Jane of Lantern Hill, and I did the same thing when we went back last summer. This time, I dove straight into Anne’s House of Dreams, and I didn’t even regret ignoring the other books sitting in my tote bag. (I suppose I should have known this would happen – but I couldn’t not bring them. Just in case.)

house of dreams page sea pei north shore

For three days, I was right where I wanted to be: on the Island’s north shore in body and spirit. Sinking my toes into the sand, wading in the surf, and also walking and talking with Anne and Gilbert, Leslie Moore and Miss Cornelia and Captain Jim. I pictured Anne and Gilbert’s little white house of dreams, with its glorious garden, more vividly than ever before. And I watched the sky and the waves and the sunsets with as much love as Anne herself, I feel sure.

There’s magic, sometimes, in reading a book in the place where it’s either set or was written. I have read A Moveable Feast in a Paris hotel room, Gaudy Night in Oxford parks and cafes, Daphne Kalotay’s novels while learning the particular Boston streets she describes.

There can also be magic in utter escape from your current reality: I’m too fond of Harry Potter and Jodi Taylor’s time-travel series not to know that. But when you visit a place you’ve loved for so long, and the real, physical truth of it is just as wonderful as you imagined, it can be lovely to luxuriate in being right where you are, on and off the page.

Have you ever visited a place just because you’ve read about it – or purposely matched your reading material to your location? I’d love to hear about it, if you have.

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idlewild books nyc interior

As many of you know, I’m a regular contributor at Great New Books, where we take turns recommending (what else?) new books we love. Every December, we do a few group posts, in which we round up our favorite books of the year. (Because what’s better than one book rec? Ten book recs!)

becoming wise book sunflowers tea

Join us over at GNB to read about our favorite new books of 2016 (including mine, above); our favorite lines from books we read this year; and, today, the best books we finally got around to reading in 2016. (Keep an eye out for next week’s post – we’ll share the books we’re looking forward to reading in 2017.)

Happy reading and browsing – and feel free to share your favorites, either here or over at GNB.

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favorites bookshelf

Tough to choose between all the books in my house, but I settled on this shelf of favorites.

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all souls college oxford radcliffe square

A week is better, of course. Or a few months. Preferably a whole semester, so you can sink into the city and learn its streets, begin to feel its ancient rhythms in your bones. But if you’re hopping over from London and only have a day, here’s what to do.

Catch an early train from Paddington, or a bus from Victoria Station. The former will deliver you to the Oxford rail station; the latter, to cobblestoned Gloucester Green, where the open market happens on Wednesdays.

Either way, when you arrive, climb down and stretch your legs, and start walking east.

Stop when you hit Cornmarket Street, the bustling, pedestrian-only artery that runs through City Centre. Look up. This is Oxford: modern shops crammed side by side with ancient colleges, plate-glass windows reflecting towers of honey-colored stone.

catte street oxford

Walk up Cornmarket (passing by St Michael at the North Gate, the oldest building in Oxford) and turn right on Broad Street, the aptly named showpiece of City Centre. It’s lined on one side with colleges: St John’s, Balliol, Trinity. (You can tour the latter two if you like – the gardens and quads are stunning.)

sheldonian theatre oxford

Farther down is the Sheldonian Theatre, home to the university’s commencement exercises, its annual Christmas carol service and various other events. It, too, is ancient and lovely, and worth touring.

Across the street is Blackwell’s, home to miles (literally miles) of books.

blackwells bookshop oxford

There are four floors’ worth – you could spend a whole day – but since you’re only here for a little while, pop in and spend half an hour browsing. If you need caffeine by now, visit Caffe Nero on the first floor (the second floor to us Americans).

After Blackwell’s, turn left at the end of the Broad and walk up Parks Road to University Parks. The two-block walk will take you past a slew of other university buildings: Wadham College, the Oxford Museum of Natural History, Keble College with its fantastically colored brickwork.

Turn in at one of the iron gates and wander around the Parks to your heart’s content.

university parks oxford

When you get hungry from all that walking, come back to the entrance of the Parks and turn right out of the north lodge, onto the busy Banbury Road. Two blocks up is a little street called North Parade, which holds On the Hoof, the best sandwich shop in the world.

on the hoof interior oxford

All their sandwiches are delicious, but I recommend the Tom’s Le Club or the Sexy Brazilian. (Both are spicy.) You can perch on a barstool to eat your sandwiches, or take them to go as you keep walking.

Head south, retracing your steps back toward City Centre – down the Banbury Road past the Parks, down Parks Road to the end of the Broad.

That massive building next to the Sheldonian is the Bodleian Library – worth touring but also amazing from the outside. Behind the Bod’s main building stands Radcliffe Square: the cobblestoned, beating heart of Oxford.

radcliffe camera st mary's tower oxford

Stand in the Square and look and look, and feel the life of the city pulsing under your feet. This is Oxford: eight hundred years’ worth of knowledge and learning, books and carvings and ancient stone walls.

When you’ve looked your fill here on the ground, cross the Square to the tall church that stands on its south side: the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.

university church tower oxford england

Go inside and look around, then pay a few pounds to climb the tower. It offers the best views of Oxford, from a narrow ledge on all four sides. Each view is different, and all four are stunning.

view st marys church oxford west side

Lean on the stone railing and look and look. This is Oxford: dreaming spires, flat-roofed modern buildings, the green handkerchief of South Park unrolling down the hill to the east.

all souls towers oxford england

After you come down from the tower, turn left at the church entrance and walk a little way down the High Street. Past the gates of All Souls and Queen’s Colleges sits Queen’s Lane Coffee House.

Tuck yourself in at a small round table, preferably near a window, and order the best cream tea in Oxford: two round, warm scones with jam and clotted cream, and plenty of hot, strong tea.

queens lane cream tea oxford

Sip your tea and munch your scones while looking out the window. Buses, taxis, students on bikes – all of Oxford passes up and down the busy High Street. Here, in the city’s oldest cafe, you can both watch and be part of it all.

Walk back up the High to where it crosses Cornmarket. If you have time, pop into the Covered Market and wander its maze of stalls, which sell everything from clothing and jewelry to art prints and fresh flowers. Grab a Ben’s Cookie for the train ride back, and pop into Whittard for a tin of tea.

bens cookies oxford covered market

From here, it’s up to you. Wander the tangle of streets in City Centre, or walk down St Aldates Street for a look at Christ Church, one of the largest and most famous colleges. Find an Evensong service to attend, or opt for dinner at a cozy pub. (The Eagle and Child is famous for being the haunt of Tolkien and Lewis, but Oxford has dozens of pubs – take your pick.)

When the sun is setting behind the hills to the west and the spires are casting long shadows onto the streets, head back to the train or bus station.

radcliffe square dusk oxford

Take a last look around, and make a silent promise you already know you’ll keep: I’ll be back.

For Lawson and Lindsey, who are going to Europe this summer and planning to spend a day in Oxford.

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great new books favorite books of 2014

I’m so pleased to be part of the review team over at Great New Books, as I’ve mentioned before. It’s a group of smart, thoughtful women, and I love reading everyone’s weekly recs (and sharing my own).

This week, we’re all sharing our top picks from 2014 at the GNB site. We’re a group of avid bookworms (obviously), and we read a LOT – so it was tough to choose our favorites, but we managed it. Head over there to read all about our faves – and share yours!

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