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July has been a long hot month – and clearly books are one of my coping mechanisms, as always. Here’s what I have been reading:

Other Words for Home, Jasmine Warga
I flew through this sweet middle-grade novel in verse, narrated by Jude, who leaves her native Syria (with her mother) to live with relatives in Cincinnati. She misses her father, brother and best friend terribly, but gradually adjusts to her new life. Lovely.

The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid, Kate Hattemer
It’s April of Jemima Kincaid’s senior year and she’s burning to do something big to leave a legacy at her tony prep school. But she’s also dealing with teenage stuff: learning to drive, an inconvenient crush, friction with her best friend. A fun novel with a likable, flawed protagonist learning to confront her own privilege. (Warning: some truly cringeworthy teenage sex.)

Flying Free: My Victory Over Fear to Become the First Latina Pilot on the U.S. Aerobatic Team, Cecilia Aragon
Bullied as a child in her small Indiana town, Aragon found her way to a career in computer science, but still struggled with crippling fear and anxiety. A coworker’s love for flying ignited her own, and she threw herself into her new hobby, eventually competing on the U.S. Aerobatic Team. This straightforward, fascinating memoir chronicles her journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 22).

Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Brokenhearted World, Osheta Moore
Moore is a wise, compassionate voice on Instagram and elsewhere, and this, her first book, is about pursuing shalom – God’s vision for true peace. It’s part memoir, part theology, part real talk. Warm and thoughtful.

Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace
I picked up this lesser-known classic by the author of the Betsy-Tacy series for a reread. Emily Webster is one of my favorite heroines: thoughtful, sensitive and brave. She struggles with loneliness after finishing high school and feeling stuck in her small town, but she learns to “muster her wits” and build a life for herself. I love her story so much.

Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto, Kate Sekules 
Mending has existed as long as clothing has, and Sekules is here for the visible mending revolution. Packed with clothing/mending history (chiefly in the West), practical tips for sourcing vintage/mendable clothing, an extensive stitch guide and lots of snark. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 8).

House of Light, Mary Oliver
I’ve been rereading Oliver’s poems over breakfast. They are “lovely, dark and deep,” to quote Frost. Most of them are set in the woods or ponds. She is so good at paying attention.

Deadlock, Sara Paretsky
When V.I. Warshawski’s cousin, a former hockey star, dies under mysterious circumstances, V.I. begins to investigate. She finds herself drawn into a complex case involving corruption in the shipping industry. I like her snark and smarts and will keep going with the series.

Amal Unbound, Aisha Saeed
Twelve-year-old Amal dreams of becoming a teacher, though her family struggles as her mother deals with postpartum depression. But then Amal unwittingly offends the village landlord, and is forced to work as a servant in his house. She’s determined to find a way out, though. Bittersweet and inspiring, with a great cast of characters.

Bitter Medicine, Sara Paretsky
In V.I. Warshawski’s fourth adventure, she’s investigating the death of a young pregnant woman, a family friend. What she finds is potential malpractice, corruption and gang involvement – not to mention her smarmy lawyer ex. I especially loved the role played here by her elderly neighbor, Mr. Contreras.

Wild Words: Rituals, Routines, and Rhythms for Braving the Writer’s Path, Nicole Gulotta
My friend Sonia recommended this book months ago, and I’ve been reading it slowly all summer. Gulotta is wise, warm and practical, and this book (organized by “season”) has been deeply helpful for me.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal, G. Willow Wilson
Kamala Khan is an ordinary teenager, until she’s suddenly invested with strange powers she can’t quite control. A girlfriend lent me this first volume of the adventures of a young superhero growing into herself. The plot is a bit thin, but it was fun.

Blood Shot, Sara Paretsky
V.I. Warshawski isn’t crazy about going back to her South Chicago neighborhood. But a high school basketball reunion and an odd request from a friend pull her back in. Soon she’s investigating chemical corruption, chasing a friend’s (unknown) birth father and trying not to get killed. This was a grim one, but (see above) I am hooked on V.I.’s adventures.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident and Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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We’re deep into summer heat and summer reading over here. Here’s what I have been reading:

From the Desk of Zoe Washington, Janae Marks
My friend Kari recommended this middle-grade novel, narrated by aspiring baker Zoe, who begins writing to her incarcerated birth father. She has lots of questions for him, and becomes determined to clear his name. I loved Zoe’s narrative voice and the other characters, especially her grandma. Bonus: it’s set in Boston/Cambridge and contains many references to neighborhoods I know well.

Dead Land, Sara Paretsky
Chicago private eye V.I. Warshawski gets caught up in a tangled case involving two murders, a mass shooting several years before, a plan to redevelop some public lakeshore property, and a mentally ill homeless woman who might hold the keys to all of it. This is Paretsky’s 20th Warshawski novel but the first I’d read; I really enjoyed both the plot and V.I.’s smart, snarky voice.

Infused: Adventures in Tea, Henrietta Lovell
Lovell is the founder of the Rare Tea Company, and this charming memoir chronicles her journeys to source and brew the best teas. Each brief chapter focuses on one tea/location, and they’re packed with travel anecdotes and useful information about all kinds of tea. Found at Three Lives & Co. during my last NYC trip, back in January.

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, Sarah Smarsh
Dolly Parton is indisputably a cultural icon, but there’s more to her than rhinestones and big boobs and twang. Smarsh delves into Parton’s long career, her business empire and her smart-but-subtle feminism, adding anecdotes from her own life that help illuminate Parton’s appeal. I loved Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, and this is a strong follow-up. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 13).

Not Like the Movies, Kerry Winfrey
Chloe Sanderson is used to taking care of everything: her coffee-shop job, her online business classes, her dad (who has early-onset Alzheimer’s). But since her best friend Annie wrote a rom-com inspired by Chloe’s life, it’s getting harder to hold things together. I loved this sequel to Waiting for Tom Hanks, which forces Chloe to confront her past pain and is also a sweet love story with great characters.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
A friend lent me this classic memoir, which I’d never read. Angelou chronicles her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, the trauma of being raped by her mother’s boyfriend in St. Louis, and her eventual move to California. Vivid and arresting, with lots of colorful characters, including Angelou’s family.

Indemnity Only, Sara Paretsky
After enjoying Dead Land, I went back to read V.I. Warshawski’s first adventure. It involves a missing college girl, her murdered boyfriend, crooked union men, insurance fraud and lots of wisecracks. A solid mystery and a good setup for the series.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident, Brookline Booksmith and Frugal Books.

What are you reading?

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rock-heart-hello-friend

Earlier this summer, I spoke with Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, cohosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. Longtime friends and media professionals who live on opposite coasts, they explore the phenomenon of “Big Friendship” through their own experience in their first book, Big Friendship, which came out this week.

I loved talking with Ann and Aminatou about the joys and challenges of friendship for Shelf Awareness, and I want to buy their book for half a dozen of my female friends. In celebration of the book’s publication, here are some excerpts from our conversation:

You’ve been co-hosting Call Your Girlfriend since 2014, so you are known on the Internet for being friends. How does your book explore friendship–specifically yours–in different ways than the podcast?

Aminatou Sow: Like many of our collaborations, none of it is calculated. The book asks: What does life look like when the people at the center of your life are your friends? That’s a meta-conversation the two of us have been having for a long time. We wrote this book as a way of explaining our own relationship to each other, but also opening up a robust conversation around what it means to really choose your friends and have them be vital parts of your lives.

Early in your friendship, you created a “story of sameness,” and later, you discuss the need to upend that narrative. 

Ann Friedman: The term “story of sameness” belongs to the linguist Deborah Tannen. We didn’t even realize, early on in our friendship, how we had created this story of all the ways we were similar. Some of it was superficial: we both like to eat dinner at the bar! But it happened very subtly, as part of the larger process of falling in love with each other as friends. We only realized later that we had made a practice of choosing to focus on these similarities. Our ability to recognize and deal with our differences became very important later on.

All friendships go through challenges: discrete moments that cause pain, a gradual growing apart, or a combination of those. You use “stretching” as a metaphor for tough times in a friendship.

AF: The “stretch” is a phrase both of us have uttered when things were difficult, as in, “I’m feeling really stretched by this relationship and what it is asking of me.” I think the metaphor also has a normalizing effect. We understand that our romantic partners are going to hurt us, and there’s emotional support for working through that. But there’s not the same kind of support or expectation for working through conflicts with friends.

AS: We are both words people, and I have real discomfort expressing my negative feelings. I was trying to find the gentlest way to say, “I feel hurt. I don’t want our relationship to end, and I would like to talk about it.” We reach for metaphors to try and explain our feelings.

You also address the challenges of being in a close interracial friendship.

AS: We are a Black and white friendship, which is very different than any other racial pairing. There is a direct correlation between the relationships white people have with Black people and the policy that governs how Black people are treated. It’s a painful reality to understand that if you are not understood in an intimate way in your relationships with white people, it will manifest itself in incredibly dangerous ways with white people whom you do not know, like police officers.

AF: The particular dynamics of interracial friendships for adults are really under-researched. It is also not an experience of close friendship that, statistically, a lot of white people have had. We really wanted to center that in the book, because not having interracial friendships is mainly a white experience. Thinking back to when we talked about stretching: it feels important to normalize conversation about the hard things. Just because you ignore the conversation [about race] doesn’t mean it goes away.

Tell us about the process of writing “every sentence together,” as you say early in the book.

AS: Ann looked up at me toward the end of this project and said, “Wow, we really did this the hard way.”

AF: That was about all our life choices, not just writing the book! [laughter]

AS: [The process] was informed by the way we work on other things. We knew it could not be a book where we wrote in a duelling voice, because we were trying to arrive at a joint truth of what our relationship was. It opened up another line of communication for us to dig through some past incidents and make decisions about the stories we were trying to tell. We would outline, make decisions, go away separately to write about those, come back together and knit them into the text you have. It was really hard! But we are also very practiced at being in conversation together.

AF: It feels really good to me that no one can say “I’m Team Ann” or “I’m Team Aminatou.” And since we were telling a story that feels emotionally risky, this was a way for both of us to feel protected. We could agree on stories to use as examples of bigger themes we are talking about. And there’s a lot of respect for each other: we could say, “I don’t want to tell anything you’re not comfortable sharing.”

AS: Though I want the record to reflect that I am 100% Team Ann.

What would you tell readers who are not sure how to nurture their own Big Friendships, or where to start?

AS: It’s an interesting conversation, because people define for themselves what a Big Friendship is and what it looks like for them. The thing I have learned in writing this book, and in my relationship with Ann, is that communication is very important! So: Talk to the people you’re in Big Friendships with, and define that bond and those values for yourself, because no two friendships look alike.

You can buy Big Friendship wherever books are sold – please consider supporting an independent bookstore. You can also read my full review at Shelf Awareness

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Last fall, on a whim and a discount code, I decided to try Birchbox, one of those seemingly ubiquitous beauty-subscription boxes. (This post is not sponsored or perked – I don’t even subscribe anymore. I’m simply musing about my experience.)

At the time, I was still in the throes of my divorce and my move to East Boston, and in stereotypically American-female fashion, I thought a little pampering might help. (Though I wasn’t sure it would, honestly. I’m hardly a beauty-product junkie; I dye my own hair from a box every few weeks, and I haven’t had a manicure since 2011. But I love a good lip gloss and I adore getting fun mail.)

I went online, filled out the quiz with details about my hair type, skin type, preferences, etc., and waited for my first box to arrive. When it did, I was charmed by the colorful packaging, breezy info card detailing how to use each product, and the fun array of samples: lip gloss, highlighter (what is that?), moisturizer, mascara. I was surprised, in fact, by how delighted I was.

As a lifelong bookworm, an English major and a feminist who grew up in Texas, I embody a few contradictions: I want people to love me for my brain and heart before my body, and I’d rather browse a bookstore than Sephora any day. But I was raised by a mother who never leaves the house without makeup, and I believe in the importance of both self-care and looking put together. Even during quarantine, I’ve been blow-drying my hair and putting on makeup most days: both routines help signal that I’m ready for whatever the day brings.

As I played around with Birchbox samples of eye cream, lipstick, primer (which I had never used before) and a gold-foil face mask that made me look like Iron Man, I realized something else: I had internalized some serious snobbery about women who self-soothe with beauty products. I still reach for a book and a cup of tea first when I’m stressed or sad, but I had discounted the fun of sticking on sparkly eye pads or trying a new shade of blush. Sometimes, frankly, pampering does nothing at all – but sometimes it helps me see myself a little differently, or just adds a shot of whimsy to the day.

The products didn’t all feel like me, and I ended up passing on a few extras to my mom, sister and girlfriends. (I haven’t used mousse since the eighties, and I’m not sorry about it.) But I found a few favorites that I still use, and several more that I enjoyed trying out on a limited basis. I’ve got a stockpile of still others in the bathroom, waiting for the day I need a pick-me-up and decide to try out that shade of eyeshadow or new face scrub. (Bonus: I haven’t had to buy mascara in months.)

This isn’t quite the because-you’re-worth-it narrative familiar to any woman who’s ever watched a L’Oreal commercial (though I am worth it, in case you were wondering). It’s more about trying something just because I wanted to, and being surprised and delighted by it. Birchbox even made it onto one of my lifesaving lists, because the boxes and their contents were sources of joy. I eventually stopped my subscription because I had enough products for now, but I’m still glad I tried it out. (And I am now a serious fan of Kiehl’s moisturizer and Dr. Lipp lip gloss.)

Have you tried Birchbox or something similar – and/or been forced to confront your own snobbery about makeup? I’d love to hear your stories.

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I posted this book stack the other day on Instagram – it was/is the result of a quick scan of my shelves, pulling off books by black authors that have been (for me) powerful and thought-provoking. Some are longtime favorites, some newer discoveries.

Like any book list, it is only a small beginning. I am reading and listening to black voices on social media: Osheta Moore, Austin Channing Brown, Well-Read Black Girl. I am ordering and placing library holds on books by black authors. I signed a NAACP petition calling for an independent investigation into the murder of George Floyd, and broader police reform. I donated to my local bail fund after more than 50 protesters were arrested this weekend in Boston.

None of this is “enough” or gets me off the hook for doing more. I share what I’ve been doing because so many of us white folks don’t know where to start. But we have to start, if we haven’t already. Until everyone is able to thrive in this country, the work will not be done. And we have to look hard at our own hearts – our biases and hesitation and fear – because the real work happens internally, too.

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brazen-book

Somehow, it’s June – and my heart is heavy from the last week or so of murders, police violence and protests. I’m doing a lot of reading and listening to black folks online, and I urge you to do the same. These horrors cannot continue, and we are all responsible for our part in making sure they don’t.

Meanwhile: I have been reading a combination of long-unread paper books, old favorites, physical books borrowed from friends, and digital books on my sister’s old Kindle. I do not love ebooks, but the Kindle is a lot better than scrolling through pdf files on my laptop. In all formats and at all times, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Everything is Spiritual: Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here, Rob Bell
Bell is a former megachurch evangelical pastor, who these days is (still) a writer, speaker, podcaster and thinker. His new book traces his journey from small-town Michigan through his young adulthood and those pastoring days to the point where he wanted something more, outside the confines of church work. It’s got quantum physics and family history and lots of Big Questions. The style is unusual and it wanders, but the ideas are big and interesting, and Bell’s style is warm and conversational. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 15).

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
I was in serious need of some cheer, so I turned back to this first book about the Melendys. Siblings Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver live in pre-WWII Manhattan with their father and their beloved housekeeper, Cuffy. They decide to pool their allowances for Saturday adventures, and they have all sorts of fun. I adore this series – the characters are all so creative and funny and kind.

The Four-Story Mistake, Elizabeth Enright
The Melendys (see above) move to a big house (topped by a teeny cupola, hence the “mistake”) in upstate New York, and continue having adventures. Enright’s writing is both lyrical and funny, and I adore the siblings and the fun they get up to together.

The War Widow, Tara Moss
World War II is officially over, but even in Australia its effects are still being felt. Journalist Billie Walker, who lost her photographer husband in the war, takes up the mantle of her late father’s investigative agency. This first book in a new series follows Billie and her assistant, Sam, as they look for a missing teenage boy and try to unravel a case that points to war crimes, theft and kidnapping. Lots of setup, but once it got going this was a solid mystery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 29).

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
I rediscovered Jane a few years ago, and I reach for her story almost every spring/summer. She (grudgingly) goes to PEI to visit her estranged father, and ends up falling totally in love with both him and the Island. I love PEI almost as much as Jane does, and her story is so full of hope and charm and spunk. Wonderful.

Words in Deep Blue, Cath Crowley
Henry and Rachel used to be best friends. But then Rachel moved away and her brother drowned, and she’s been reeling ever since. When she moves back to town, Henry’s family bookshop is struggling, and the two of them gradually find their way back to one another. I liked the setting (Howling Books) and the secondary characters much better than Rachel and Henry, but this is still a sweet, sad story. Recommended by Anne.

The Wedding Party, Jasmine Guillory
I like Guillory’s fun, snappy romance novels featuring loosely connected characters. This one centers on Maddie and Theo, who are the two BFFs of Alexa (from The Wedding Date). They think they hate each other, but (spoiler alert) this is not the case, as they embark on a secret affair that might be something more. I had to seriously suspend my disbelief (did they really think no one would catch on?) and skip over a few steamy scenes (not my thing), but this was fun holiday weekend reading.

Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise, Richard Beck
Richard is a friend of mine, and a psychology professor at my alma mater. He writes an excellent blog, and he also spends a lot of time these days with prisoners and low-income folks. Stranger God is his memoir-cum-psychological exploration of why most of us (privileged) Christians don’t do that, and why we should. Thoughtful, straightforward and very well-researched (in other words, vintage Richard).

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Friendships are vital to most of our lives, but there’s hardly any sound research or advice on how to make them work long-term. Sow and Friedman, who have been close for more than a decade, unfold the story of their Big Friendship (known to some through their Call Your Girlfriend podcast) alongside expert voices on friendship. They share their hard-won wisdom and their challenges, in a wise, fresh, thought-provoking format. I want to buy this for all my girlfriends when it comes out. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 14).

Then There Were Five, Elizabeth Enright
The Melendys (see above) are loving their lives at the Four-Story Mistake. This third book introduces them (and readers) to Mark Herron, an orphan who (spoiler alert) ends up becoming part of their family. Full of warmth, charm and summer adventures. (The cover art on these new editions is kind of terrible, but the stories are so good.)

The Land, Mildred D. Taylor
I loved Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as a child, and picked up this prequel, which tells the story of her biracial grandfather, Paul-Edward Logan. It’s set in post-Civil War Mississippi, and it is powerful and compelling. I raced through it in two nights.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, Pénélope Bagieu
My comics-loving guy gave me this book for Christmas. It’s a collection of graphic mini-biographies of badass women, from a Chinese empress and a gynecologist in ancient Greece to contemporary figures like Leymah Gbowee and Temple Grandin. The art is both whimsical and arresting and the stories are fantastic.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident.

What are you reading?

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Hello, everyone. March is (nearly) over – I don’t think anyone expected this month to go the way it has. But here we are. Photo of the last stack of books I was able to pick up before my beloved Boston Public Library closed for a while. And here are the ones I’ve been reading:

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, Marisa de los Santos
It is impossible to overstate how much I love de los Santos’ work. I turned back to this novel for some deep soul comfort, just as everything was going sideways. It’s the story of Clare, who inherits a house right after she calls off her wedding, and Edith, who gave Clare the house. Lovely, luminous and wise, like all her books.

Every Reason We Shouldn’t, Sara Fujimura
Olivia Kennedy is the daughter of two Olympic champions, and she had medal dreams, too, until a disastrous performance. When speed skater Jonah Choi starts skating at her parents’ ice rink, Olivia is forced to deal with her fears (and she might also be falling in love). Sweet and funny – I especially loved Olivia’s friend Mack, aspiring roller derby queen.

Revolutions: How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels, Hannah Ross
Cycling has long been a male-dominated sphere, but women have been riding for decades and they’re damn good at it. Ross charts the history of cycling and feminism, and calls for more representation in the industry and better bike-friendly infrastructure. (Yes please.) Well-written, informative and interesting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 9).

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, Camille Pagán
Libby Miller has always tried (relentlessly) to look on the bright side, since losing her mother to cancer at age 10. But then her marriage implodes in the same week she’s diagnosed with cancer herself. Libby escapes to Puerto Rico, where she tries to avoid (but eventually sorts out) her feelings about treatment and her future. Surprisingly light and funny for such serious subject matter.

The Downstairs Girl, Stacey Lee
Chinese-American Jo Kuan and her guardian, Old Gin, don’t quite fit on either side of Atlanta’s strict racial divide. When Jo loses her job as a milliner’s assistant, she becomes a maid and also starts writing a newspaper column (anonymously). I’ve enjoyed Lee’s previous books, Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon, and I really liked this one: it draws together race, family, horse racing and feminism, with warmth and wit.

The Joys of Baking: Recipes and Stories for a Sweet Life, Samantha Seneviratne
I grabbed this at the BPL: mouthwatering recipes and brief essays about (among other things) navigating a divorce? Yes please. I liked the author’s voice and have marked a couple recipes to try during quarantine baking.

I’d Give Anything, Marisa de los Santos
At eighteen, Ginny Beale loves her life (in spite of her difficult mother): she has a brother she adores and fiercely loyal friends. But one terrible night changes everything. Nearly twenty years later, when Ginny’s marriage falls apart, she learns some new truths about that night, and about herself. Moving and lovely and well written, like all de los Santos’ books (see above). To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 12).

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here, Hope Jahren
I loved Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, which I read back in 2016. This slim book is a cogent, straightforward explanation of how population growth, technological advances and (hugely) increased consumption of energy and food have led us to the current climate crisis. It’s packed with data but highly readable. The diagnosis is daunting, but Jahren does offer some practical tips and reasons for hope.

Love Sugar Magic: A Mixture of Mischief, Anna Meriano
Leo Logroño is finally learning some of the magic recipes that her family uses at their Texas bakery. But when her paternal abuelo shows up, telling her new things about her own magic, she’s not sure what to believe. And a new café in town just might mean trouble for her family. I like this sweet series, and this book was a fun conclusion.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident. I love them and it’s especially important to support independent bookstores right now. 

What are you reading?

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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.

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fire-on-high-book

I feel like I blinked and it’s mid-August. I’m still settling into my new apartment and all the life changes (thank you for the kind comments on my recent post about that). Here’s what I have been reading, when my overstuffed brain will allow:

Where the Light Enters, Sara Donati
Donati’s sequel to The Gilded Hour (which I haven’t read) picks up the lives of her characters, notably two female physicians (who are cousins) in 1880s New York. Sophie is grieving the death of her husband, trying to decide whether to resume practicing obstetrics, and planning to establish a scholarship for young women of color to study medicine. Anna is struggling with various personal and professional challenges. Both of them are called in by Anna’s cop husband, Jack, to consult on a tricky case of multiple murders of pregnant women. A sweeping, complicated, engaging novel set largely in my favorite tangle of streets in the West Village. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 10).

American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
I grabbed this at the library after reading a review in the Shelf. Marie Mitchell is a frustrated FBI agent in 1980s NYC who is tapped for a mission involving Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso. A young, intelligent black woman, she’s perfect for the role, but she feels uneasy about it, especially since one of her handlers has a connection to her deceased sister. An ambitious spy thriller and family drama – Marie is a great character – but the ending was far too abrupt.

With the Fire on High, Elizabeth Acevedo
A high school senior and gifted chef, Emoni Santiago has a lot to juggle, including caring for her young daughter and helping out her abuela. When she gets the chance to take a cooking class, it might catapult her dreams forward–but she’s keenly aware of her obligations. A vivid, thoughtful, sweet, funny, engaging YA novel about a teen mom who’s much more than that. So good.

The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste
Ethiopia, 1935: the country is bracing for an Italian invasion, and Hirut, a young servant girl, is caught up in her masters’ plans to raise an army. She becomes a warrior and a guard, and her path crosses with an Italian Jewish photographer who isn’t sure he wants to be a soldier. Powerful, complicated and dark; I didn’t know about this piece of history and it’s a brutal one. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 10).

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

What are you reading?

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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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