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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

dog jack book blanket

I’ve had a couple of real duds lately: books I got pretty far into and then decided to jettison. But here’s the good stuff:

A Dog Called Jack, Ivy Pembroke
I love a sweet, witty chick-lit story once in a while – even better if it’s British. I grabbed this one at the library and happily curled up with it on a snowy weekend. It’s the story of Jack, a dog left behind by his previous owners who wins the hearts of a whole street in London. So lovely and fun.

Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me and You, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun
It’s no secret I’m a Lin-Manuel fangirl (I even got to meet him last year). My husband gave me this warm, witty book of his good-morning and good-night tweets, illustrated. I’ve been flipping through it at night and – no surprise – it is so fun and encouraging.

The Weight of a Piano, Chris Cander
It took me a while to get into this novel – about two women, one in modern-day California and the other in 1960s Soviet Russia, who are linked by the Blüthner piano they both love. Despite the slow start, it’s a compelling story and the writing is really good. Especially enjoyable if you’re a musician.

The Farmer’s Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm, John Connell
Returning to his family’s farm in Ireland, John Connell wasn’t sure he wanted to stay. But helping his father (with whom he often clashes) through a calving and lambing season helped change his perspective. Beautifully written; a bit like a modern-day, more sober-eyed James Herriot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

On Being 40(ish), edited by Lindsey Mead
Lindsey is a lovely Internet-to-real-life friend of mine, and I’m so proud of her work in editing this collection of smart, funny, honest essays. They address the experience of turning 40, navigating the next decade or so, and looking back on the experiences that led to 40. I’m 35, so I’m a little younger than the contributors, but I found much to ponder and relate to here. My favorite essay was Veronica Chambers’ “A Game of Two Halves.”

Correspondents, Tim Murphy
Since high school, Rita Khoury, the daughter of a large Lebanese-Irish Boston family, has longed to be a journalist. In the wake of 9/11, she’s sent to Beirut and then Baghdad to cover the U.S. occupation and its effects on ordinary Iraqis. She becomes close to her interpreter, Nabil, and a handful of other colleagues. Murphy tells their story with warmth and compassion. Vivid, compelling and so deeply human – highly recommended. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 14).

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

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star crossed book jeans bare feet chair

For thousands of years, human beings have watched the stars–to observe their beauty, to navigate across uncharted oceans, and (sometimes) to seek guidance for important decisions. But do the stars truly affect our lives? Does a person’s zodiac sign determine his or her personality and fate, or are human beings the masters of our own destinies?

Australian novelist Minnie Darke takes a playful approach to these questions–and the havoc that sometimes results from pursuing them–in her big-hearted and witty debut, aptly titled Star-Crossed.

Darke’s novel centers on Justine (Sagittarius, possessed of a near-photographic memory, thoroughgoing star skeptic) and Nick (dreamy Aquarius, struggling actor, true believer). Born nine months apart to mothers who were best friends, the two spent their childhoods together, but lost touch after Nick’s family moved across the country.

Darke sets up this shared history in a few breezy chapters, then leaps ahead to when Justine’s and Nick’s orbits overlap again in their 20s. Justine is an aspiring reporter at a quirky monthly magazine, and Nick has just landed the lead in a local avant-garde production of Romeo and Juliet. As the two reconnect and become friends, and as Justine’s responsibilities at the magazine shift, she starts to wonder if there’s any harm in tweaking the monthly astrology column, just a little. The results – predictably – go a bit beyond what she expected.

I read Star Crossed back in December so I could review it for Shelf Awareness – the above paragraphs are the first part of my extended review. I also got to interview Minnie via email (she lives in Tasmania). She was charming and warm and funny, like her novel (and most of its characters). Here are a few fun excerpts from our conversation:

KNG: What inspired you to write a novel focused on astrology and the stars?

MD: The idea for the novel came to me quite a long time ago, when I was a journalist at a small newspaper. Because the staff were few, and it was handy for everyone to be able to make changes to the paper right up until deadline, I had a login that gave me access to the entire publication.

I was working late one night when I had the idea that I could, if I wanted to, fiddle about with the astrology column. Hmmm, I thought. I could make the entries spookily relevant to my friends’ lives, or perhaps take a hand–invisibly–in their decisions. I’m not saying I definitely ever did any of that, but it was a seductive idea. It was also, I thought, a good basis for a novel.

We humans are reliably interested in questions of fate. Are we living out a preordained pattern? Or are we just drifting, bumbling along? We know that there are forces acting on us all the time, but are some of them as far away as the stars? Could these forces be known, and therefore harnessed in the service of our dreams? These are all interesting questions.

Justine is a Sagittarian skeptic and Nick is a true-believer Aquarius. Many of the other characters, no matter their signs, fall somewhere in between. What about you? What’s your relationship with the stars?

I don’t know if I believe in astrology, but I certainly like it. I like the way people enjoy fulfilling, and also confounding, the stereotypes of their sign. And I like the way people use astrology to understand others and their relationships. Just as humans like to seek out systems of meaning, we’re also pretty interested in classificatory systems.

As classificatory systems go, astrology is pretty good fun, and I learned this from my grandmother. She kept two very well-thumbed and dog-eared books on a shelf near her favourite chair. One was her crossword puzzle dictionary and the other was a copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. She was a great one for saying things like, “Oh, your grandfather’s just being a miserly old Capricorn.” Or, “Your dad’s not one for risks; he’s a Cancerian after all.” She was a nurse, and a classic Virgo–always ready to patch up people’s ailments, and to take a close interest in their personal affairs.

The novel is lighthearted, but it asks big questions about decisions, fate and the surprising twists our lives often take. What are your thoughts on the relationship between decisions, free will and destiny?

One of the things I love about being a writer is that it’s not my job to come up with answers or solutions to tricky questions. My job–and I think it’s the best job of all–is to keep asking those tricky questions in new and hopefully entertaining ways.

Perhaps the way the plot of Star-Crossed resolves suggests that there is such a thing as fate, or destiny. Or, perhaps Star-Crossed is simply a depiction of a series of events that take place in a world full of lucky, random chaos. It really will be up to the reader to decide.

I’d like readers to know that Star-Crossed was written in a spirit of joy and mischief, and I hope with all my heart that they will be amused, moved, uplifted and entertained by it.

You can read my full review and interview with Minnie at Shelf Awareness. The book comes out in the States in May, and – in case it wasn’t obvious – it’s really good fun. I recommend it if you’re looking for a charming, witty read with lots of heart – no matter how you feel about the stars.

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rainbow spines bookshelf books color

Real talk: more running than reading is happening these days. But here are a few novels and a bit of nonfiction I’ve really enjoyed recently. (The Marisa de los Santos rereading kick continues.)

Lost and Wanted, Nell Freudenberger
When MIT physicist Helen Clapp hears of her college roommate Charlie’s death, she’s stunned – but even more so when she begins receiving texts and calls from Charlie’s phone. Helen tries to solve that mystery while navigating her own grief, parenting her son Jack, and dealing with her complicated feelings for a colleague. Thoughtful, wry and absorbing. Bonus for me: it’s set in Cambridge – Darwin’s even makes a brief appearance (!). To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 2).

When We Left Cuba, Chanel Cleeton
Forced to flee with her family when Fidel Castro seized power, sugar heiress Beatriz Perez is bored and restless in Palm Beach. Then she meets a handsome senator who’s wrong for her for all kinds of reasons, and is (separately) approached by the CIA to aid them in a plot to kill Castro. Cleeton’s sequel of sorts to Next Year in Havana is a fascinating glimpse into the turbulent early 1960s. I liked Beatriz, though I grew frustrated with her at times. I loved Cleeton’s musings on the conflicting pull of family, duty, country, love and independence. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, Marisa de los Santos
This book is about Clare, who appears in Love Walked In and Belong to Me. It begins with her breaking her engagement to a man she knows she can’t marry. Unexpectedly, Clare then inherits a house from Edith, an elderly woman she hardly knew, and it comes with a mystery. As Clare digs into Edith’s past, she’s reckoning with her own decisions and what she wants for her future. Brave and true and lovely, like all de los Santos’ novels.

Hermanas: Deepening Our Identity and Growing Our Influence, Natalia Kohn, Noemi Vega Quinones and Kristy Garza Robinson
This is the July selection for Sarah Bessey’s spiritual formation book club, but I spotted it at the library and decided to leap ahead. Three Latina authors explore their own experience and the idea of spiritual leadership, through the stories of 12 biblical women (Rahab, Hannah, Esther, etc.). I appreciated their honesty about the challenges of being a Latina in the U.S. and in American churches. Some of the evangelical language is of the sort that frustrates me, but I think that’s more my problem than theirs. I also liked their reflections on the biblical hermanas (some of those resonated more than others). We need more stories and perspective like this.

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

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still book stack table ranunculus flower

So far this month, I’ve been flipping through old favorites and diving deep into new books. Here’s the latest roundup:

I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends, Kelsey Miller
I’m a longtime Friends fan, though I came to it late. I blew through this smart, well-researched, loving look at the origin, history and cultural impact of one of my favorite shows. Miller adores the show, but she’s not afraid to question its more difficult parts. Fascinating and so much fun.

Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength, April Yamasaki
Sarah Bessey chose this book to kick off a yearlong challenge to read spiritual formation books by people of color. My go-tos in this genre are all white women, so I appreciated the nudge. Yamasaki is wise and thoughtful. Lots of her advice is common sense – but we all need a reminder sometimes.

What Now?, Ann Patchett
I love Patchett’s essays and some of her novels (and Parnassus, the Nashville bookstore she founded). This quick read is based on her commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. Warmhearted, wise advice for college grads and anyone who’s ever wondered about their winding path (which I bet is most of us).

Wishtree, Katherine Applegate
I picked up this slim middle-grade novel at Porter Square Books. It’s narrated by Red, a red oak tree who serves as the neighborhood “wishtree” – people tie wishes to its branches. When a young, lonely girl moves in next door, Red becomes determined to help her find a friend. A sweet story with gorgeous illustrations (and I loved Bongo the crow).

Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
After rereading Love Walked In last month, I turned back to this sequel-of-sorts, which finds Cornelia in the suburbs, struggling with new challenges. This book is full of warmth and vivid detail and characters I want to be friends with – even Piper, Cornelia’s neighbor, who is hard to like at first, but I’ve come to adore her. So many good and true lines.

Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, Sarah Bessey
Reading Four Gifts (see above) spurred me to (finally) pick up Sarah’s second book, on her struggles with church and faith and how she found her way back. I love the sorting metaphor, and it feels particularly apt right now as I am between churches. Her words on community and grief and calling are so good.

The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is back for a 10th adventure, involving a human finger found in her sister’s wedding cake and a couple of mysterious deaths (naturally). I like this series, though I think it’s struggling a bit lately. Really fun escapist British mystery.

Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace, Christie Purifoy
Christie is a gardener, a writer and an Internet friend of mine. This, her second book, examines the places she’s lived and loved (each chapter has a different tree motif) and her efforts to care for them. So much here about loss, grief, joy, transition, community and how we shape and are shaped by our places. I loved it. To review for Shelf Awareness(out March 12).

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

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Ivey book slippers twinkle lights

January has been unpredictable, weather-wise: frigid, icy, blustery, mild, wet, sunshiny. As always, the books are getting me through. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Island of Sea Women, Lisa See
The women of Jeju, an island off the south coast of Korea, traditionally made their living as haenyeo, deep-sea divers. See explores the island’s matriarchal culture and the powerful changes wrought by the 20th century (wars, occupation, new technologies) through the story of two haenyeo, Kim Young-sook and Han Mi-ja. Young-sook recounts their childhood friendship, their years of diving together and the heart-wrenching losses they suffered. Really well done; See is prolific but I hadn’t read her before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Christmas on the Island, Jenny Colgan
Colgan returns to the Scottish island of Mure for a Christmas-themed novel. I find Flora and Joel (the main couple) frustrating, but I like Flora’s family, her teacher friend Lorna, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor. Entertaining, though not my favorite Colgan.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Year of Gardening and (Wild)Life, Kate Bradbury
The tiny back garden of Kate Bradbury’s flat in Brighton, England, was covered in decking when she bought it. She set out to revive it: ripping up the decking, planting ground cover and shrubs, finding flowers to attract bees and birds. She writes movingly about her childhood garden memories, the loss of habitat for wildlife in the UK, and her mother’s illness. Keenly observed; slow in places. Took me weeks, but it was lovely. Found, as so many good things are, at Three Lives (in December).

To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey
In 1885, Colonel Allen Forrester heads out into the (mostly) unmapped Alaska Territory with two men, while his wife Sophie must stay behind. Ivey tells their story, and that of the Colonel’s encounters with Alaska and its people, through journal entries and letters. I loved Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, but loved this one even more. Ivey’s writing is stunning, and I adored Sophie (bright, curious, determined and so human) and the Colonel’s keen eye and compassion.

Mistletoe and Murder, Robin Stevens
Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are spending Christmas (1935) in Cambridge, where, predictably, a murder finds them. Hazel narrates their fifth adventure in this fun British middle-grade series. I find Daisy a bit irritating, but I like Hazel and the mysteries are always good fun. I also liked the deft handling here of race and immigration in the UK – not a new issue but an important one.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Sonia Purnell
Losing her leg in a hunting accident didn’t slow Virginia Hall down: she would go on to become a key force for the Allies in World War II, working undercover in France to coordinate and support the Resistance. Purnell delves deeply into Virginia’s (formerly classified) story to weave a gripping tale of an extraordinary woman. Fascinating, well-researched and cinematic at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

This Much Country, Kristin Knight Pace
Reeling from a broken heart, Kristin Knight agreed to spend a winter in Alaska caring for a team of sled dogs. To her own surprise, she fell in love with the dogs and the place, becoming a dog musher and eventually opening her own kennel. She found romantic love again, too. Her memoir is a bit uneven, but the setting is captivating, and there are some wonderful lines. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Becoming, Michelle Obama
This memoir was on so many “best of 2018” lists (and broke all kinds of publishing records). It’s a wise, warm, thoughtful account of Obama’s childhood on the South Side of Chicago, her experiences at Princeton and beyond, and life as the First Lady. But it’s also more than that: a graceful meditation on how we become ourselves, a plainspoken tribute to all the folks who have supported her, and a call for all of us to keep investing in children who need it. Well written and just so good.

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

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Saturday evening girls club book Christmas tree

I started the new year in a serious reading slump – nothing on my stacks looked or sounded good. Fortunately, these books helped pull me out of it. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Saturday Evening Girls Club, Jane Healey
I grabbed this one at the library and flew through it in a day. An enjoyable, well-told story of four young women who belong to the titular club in early 20th-century Boston. I loved the North End setting, the details about culture and traditions in Russian Jewish and Italian families, and the fierce friendship of the four main characters.

The Age of Light, Whitney Scharer
I’m sort of sick of these woman-behind-the-famous-man stories. But Scharer tells this one well: it’s the story of Lee Miller, Vogue model and muse to Man Ray who became a writer and photographer in her own right. Starting in the 1960s, Scharer flashes back to Miller’s time in Paris with Man, and her later work as a war photographer. I wanted more of the latter, but this is still an evocative novel. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 5).

The Book of Delights, Ross Gay
Delight, Gay insists, is worth celebrating, and he does – to the tune of several dozen small essays, written over the course of a year. So many quirky, everyday moments and blessings, which also draw in race, family, work, memories, gardening and all of life. Aptly, the book is itself a delight. Wonderful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 12).

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton
This twisty mystery is exactly as billed: Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day, with a dash of Twin Peaks. Aiden Bishop wakes up every morning in the body of a different host at Blackheath, a crumbling, spooky English estate. He has eight days (and hosts) to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, which keeps happening every night. Meanwhile, he’s trying to help a mysterious woman named Anna and not lose his mind completely. Jaclyn and I agree: this one is BONKERS, but a lot of fun.

On Turpentine Lane, Elinor Lipman
I like Lipman’s sharp, funny romantic comedies, and this one was highly entertaining. Faith Frankel buys a house whose previous owner may or may not have killed her husbands (!) in it. Meanwhile, her fiancé is walking across America (why?), her father is having a midlife artistic and personal crisis, and her handsome coworker needs a place to crash. Witty and amusing.

The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins
I’ve loved Collins’ work since I was a student, and (belatedly) picked up his latest collection at Trident. Whimsical, sometimes wistful, often funny. He has a gift for observing the ordinary. Not my favorite of his, but it has some wonderful lines.

Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos
This novel is one of my very favorites, and I savored it over a series of cold nights. I love everything about it: Cornelia’s warm, rambling narrative voice; her insight and empathy; and her deep mutual bond with Clare, 11 years old and in desperate need of love. Nourishing and lyrical and so well done.

The Tiny Journalist: Poems, Naomi Shihab Nye
Shihab Nye writes powerful, sharp-eyed poems about our common humanity. The titular poem, and several more, refer to Janna Jihad, a young Palestinian girl who films her daily life under Israeli occupation. Shihab Nye (a Palestinian-American) explores the connections between Janna’s work, her late father (a journalist), her own creative work, and the ways in which all people deserve to live safe, healthy lives. I find poetry tough to write about, but Shihab Nye is always worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

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

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strand bookstore cookbook shelves

I read 191 books in 2018. So many of them were good ones – not least because I got to review a few dozen gems (and interview a few authors) for Shelf Awareness, my longtime freelance gig.

I shared some favorites halfway through the year, but looking back over all of 2018, these are the ones I couldn’t stop talking about. (A few from my half-year roundup are reposted below.)

Best Feminist Reimagining of Mythology: Circe by Madeline Miller. A fantastic, well-written story of a “minor” sorceress who steps into her own power.

Best Antidote to the Current Political Madness: The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes’ memoir of the near-decade he spent working on communications and foreign policy for President Obama. So insightful and interesting.

Most Essential Reading on Race: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which weaves together marriage and mass incarceration; and Black is the Body by Emily Bernard, an incisive essay collection about family, race and womanhood.

Best Conversation Starter: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle. Who would you have at your ideal dinner party? This one was fun and surprisingly moving.

Best Reread: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which grabbed my heart just as it did when I was protagonist Francie’s age.

Most Blazing, Gorgeous Novel of Love and Heartbreak: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. I did not think I could read another Hemingway novel, but Martha Gellhorn’s narrative voice grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Most Vivid and Heartrending Refugee Story: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. (I liked Exit West too, but this dual narrative with its two scrappy female protagonists stole my heart.)

Most Eloquent, Relatable Memoir of Running and Grit: The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. I think of lines from this witty, beautiful book regularly while I’m running.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne.

What were your favorite books of 2018?

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