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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

We’re halfway through July – in the thick of summer – and here are the books I’ve been devouring whenever I get a chance.

Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On, ed. Candace Walsh
My friend Kristin has an essay in this smart, moving, often hilarious kaleidoscope of essays by women about divorce, and life after divorce. I loved most of them, and found all of them genuine and wise. “The Love List” might be my favorite.

A Deadly Feast, Lucy Burdette
Food writer and amateur sleuth Hayley Snow is prepping for her wedding when a woman dies on a local food tour. Was it food poisoning or something more sinister? I like this series – fun cozy mysteries set in wacky Key West. Sent to me by the author.

The World That We Knew, Alice Hoffman
As the Nazis persecute German Jews, a woman named Hanni makes a terrible bargain to save her daughter, Lea. Hoffman’s narrative follows Lea, her protector Ava, a rabbi’s daughter named Ettie and the people they love as they try to survive the war, stay alive and care for one another. Powerful, dark, moving and ultimately lovely. (I adore Hoffman’s work.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 24).

Razor’s Edge (Star Wars: Empire and Rebellion), Martha Wells
The Rebel Alliance is struggling: they need supplies to build a base on Hoth, but when pirates get involved, divided loyalties make it hard to know who will survive. I love an occasional Star Wars novel, as long as it involves Princess Leia (and Han Solo). This one, set just before The Empire Strikes Back, is fast-paced, wry and a lot of fun.

Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food, Ann Hood
Food can be memory, story and love, and Hood writes about – and shares recipes for – all three. I loved her evocations of her Italian-American childhood, the meals she taught her kids to make, and the dishes that have healed her heart in rough times. Short and sweet.

Now a Major Motion Picture, Cori McCarthy
Iris Thorne’s grandmother wrote a major fantasy trilogy. But Iris wants nothing to do with it, until she (reluctantly) goes to Ireland for the filming of the adaptation with her little brother. When she meets the cast and crew, including a cute Irish boy and the powerhouse female director, Iris starts to get interested in spite of herself. A sweet, fun YA novel about family, fantasy and the stories we tell ourselves. I loved Iris’ bond with her brother, and the romance is so sweet. Recommended by Anne.

The Reckless Oath We Made, Bryn Greenwood
Zee Trego is struggling: she’s dealing with a hip injury, barely scraping by waiting tables, and then her sister gets kidnapped by a couple of the inmates at the prison where she volunteers. Against her better judgment, Zee sets out to rescue her sister with the help of Gentry Frank, an acquaintance of hers who believes himself to be her champion (and is handy with a sword). This novel was nothing like I expected, and I couldn’t put it down. Zee’s dry, straight-talking narrative voice makes the book. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 20).

Far From the Tree, Robin Benway
Grace has always known she was adopted, but never tried to find her biological mother. But when Grace gets pregnant and decides to give her baby girl up for adoption, she decides to look for her birth mom – and meets her bio siblings, Joaquin and Maya. Each of them are dealing with serious life changes, and I loved the way they bond and look out for one another. Sweet, funny and snarky – especially Maya’s voice – and the ending made me cry.

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

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rainbow spines bookshelf books color

We’re halfway through the year already (how??), and I’ve read some truly great books. Here are the year’s best, so far:

Richest Southern Novel of Nature and Love: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I loved every page of this gorgeous, layered book about Kyra, the young woman who lives alone in the marsh near her town.

Best Rereads: Marisa de los Santos’ three connected novels about Cornelia and Clare and their loved ones: Love Walked In, Belong to Me and I’ll Be Your Blue Sky. So many wise, heartfelt, luminous lines that seemed to speak directly to me. (Also The Precious One, by the same author.)

Best Book on Faith and Friendship: Cara Wall’s stunning debut novel, The Dearly Beloved, which follows the intertwined lives of two ministers and their wives in Greenwich Village. It’s lovely and thoughtful and so real.

Most Sweeping Novel of Alaska and Love: To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey. An ideal midwinter read – one of the first and best books I read this year.

Sweetest, Wittiest British Chick Lit: A Dog Called Jack by Ivy Pembroke. The perfect book to curl up with on a snowy weekend in March.

Best Memoir By Someone I’d Love to Be Friends With: Becoming by Michelle Obama. The Internet has gushed about this one enough – but I will say it is warmhearted, wise and fascinating.

Loveliest Clarion Call to Joy: The Book of Delights by Ross Gay – dozens of small essays on delights that take you to unexpected places.

What are the best books you’ve read so far this year?

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beach reads buttonwood books

Summer reading is one of my favorites, y’all. I wrote a column for Shelf Awareness about a few recent reads I think would be perfect for your beach bag. Here it is, and please share yours!

One of the true readerly delights of summer is heading to the beach (or the back porch) with a book you’re dying to dig into. Whether it’s a traditionally “summery” novel, a new twist on a classic or an inventive take on summer in the city, the bookish possibilities are endless–and all of them pair perfectly with sun, sand and iced tea.

Meg Mitchell Moore (The Admissions, So Far Away) takes readers to bucolic Block Island, R.I., in her fifth novel, The Islanders. Her three protagonists – harried whoopie-pie baker Joy, disgraced author Anthony and bored stay-at-home mom Lu – are each hiding something, and their stories intersect in surprising ways. Both Moore’s setting and her characters have instant appeal, but it’s their deeper layers that make for a breezy yet entirely satisfying read.

(Two side notes: I’ve met Meg once or twice and she is lovely. And: my girl Allison lent me her ARC of The Islanders – so much fun.)

Literature teacher Alys Binat, the outspoken second of five daughters, has sworn never to marry, despite her mother’s constant marital machinations. When Valentine Darsee and his friend Fahad “Bungles” Bingla come to town, things get interesting for Alys and her whole family. Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal’s modern-day Pakistani take on Pride and Prejudice, contains all the classic elements of Austen’s love story, but its witty dialogue, cultural dynamics and a few other updates help it feel fresh. (This one is straight from Anne’s Summer Reading Guide.)

Sierra Santiago hopes to spend her summer painting murals and hanging with her friends in Brooklyn. But then she discovers she’s a shadowshaper: an heir to a kind of magic channeled through art. Along with various members of her family and a very intriguing boy, Sierra must figure out how to stop the spirits before they destroy everyone she loves. Daniel José Older brings together art, myth, race relations and an epic battle between good and evil in the young adult novel Shadowshaper and its sequel, Shadowhouse Fall. (I cannot wait for the third in this series, which – I think? – comes out next year.)

Whatever and wherever you’re reading this summer, I wish you a literary one.

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plot thickens boston public library steps

The second half of June has flown by – life is a bit scattered but the books are helping keep me sane. (As is my library – pictured above.) Here’s the latest roundup:

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, Ruth Reichl
Reichl, a longtime food critic, became the editor of Gourmet magazine in 1998. This memoir is the inside-baseball story of her years there, Gourmet’s evolution, some of its most famous stories (and personalities), and its eventual end. I like Reichl’s writing, but I want to love her and I don’t quite. I can’t figure out why. Still an entertaining, well-written story for foodies.

The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, Elizabeth L. Cline
I loved Cline’s first book, Overdressed – a hard look at the fast-fashion culture and what it’s costing us. Her second book lays out methods for clearing out our closets and then shopping consciously: buying less, recycling or donating old clothes responsibly, and buying better-quality clothing made by brands that pay fair wages and treat the earth with care. Lots of common sense, but it’s great to have all this info in one place. Several fascinating Q&As with fashion industry pros. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 20).

The Blue Castle, L.M. Montgomery
I’d only read this little-known Montgomery novel once, and then Jenny co-hosted a read-along on Instagram. I was way too late to join, but loved my second read of Valancy’s story. She’s a delight, and I loved watching her step into exactly the life she wanted.

Today We Go Home, Kelli Estes
When Larkin Bennett comes back home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan, she’s grieving the death of her best friend Sarah and struggling with PTSD. Among Sarah’s possessions, Larkin finds a diary written by Emily Wilson, an ancestor of Sarah’s who lived and fought as a man during the Civil War. Estes’ second novel is a solid dual-narrative story of several strong women, a century and a half apart, fighting to be taken seriously on and off the battlefield. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 3).

The Library of Lost and Found, Phaedra Patrick
Martha Storm, volunteer librarian, spends her time offering to do tasks for other people so she can feel useful. But when she reconnects with her grandmother Zelda–after believing Zelda died 30 years ago–Martha starts rethinking some of her life choices and possibilities. A sweet, engaging, bookish story, though I had trouble believing Martha was quite that naive.

The Scent Keeper, Erica Bauermeister
Emmeline spends her childhood on a remote island with her father in the Pacific Northwest. He keeps drawers full of scents in glass bottles, and they forage for food. But as a teenager, Emmeline is forced into the outside world, where she finds friends but also betrayal. I’ve loved Bauermeister’s previous novels, and this one – despite a slow start – is engaging and lovely. I don’t think the plot is quite as strong as her others, but I loved the characters and the musings on scent and memory.

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You, Dina Nayeri
Most of us see “the refugee crisis” in the headlines but don’t have a sense of what these individual human experiences are like. Nayeri, a former refugee from Iran, delves into her own experience and that of many others: living in camps, awaiting asylum hearings, living underground (in various countries) after being rejected. She’s blistering in some of her critiques, strikingly human in her storytelling. Compassionate, prickly and compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 3).

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

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bookstore lenox interior shelves

Since June began, I’ve flown to Texas and back, endured flight delays and up-and-down weather, taken on all the new writing assignments at work, and squeezed in half a dozen books. Here they are:

Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, Aarti Namdev Shahani
Like so many immigrants, the Shahani family came to the U.S. for a better life. When Aarti was a young teenager, her father and uncle were accused of selling electronics to a notorious cartel. The case dragged on for years and had a powerful effect on the whole family. She brings it to vivid life: both her family’s experience and the glaring failures of the U.S. immigration and legal systems. Powerful and timely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 1). I also got to interview Aarti, who is now an NPR correspondent, and she was lovely.

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah
France, 1940: the world is at war, the Nazis are suddenly everywhere, and many Frenchmen are conscripted. Sisters Vianne and Isabelle, who have long had a contentious relationship, must figure out how to survive. I finally read this novel at my sister’s (repeated) urging. A super slow start, and Vianne and Isabelle both drove me crazy for a while, but it was a compelling look at women in France during the war. (The ending will break your heart several times over.)

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Kim Michele Richardson
Cussy Mary Carter is the last of her kind: a rare blue-skinned people living in the hills of Kentucky during the Depression. She’s also a Pack Horse librarian, delivering books and magazines (via her mule, Junia) to people in isolated rural communities. I loved learning about the Pack Horse librarians (who were real people), but some of the plot was a bit lacking.

The Last Romantics, Tara Conklin
Fiona Skinner, youngest of four children and renowned poet, is asked about her most famous work and its origin. She goes back to a time they called the Pause: after her father died, her mother remained bedridden for nearly three years. The events of the Pause affect Fiona, her sisters and their brother for years to come. Conklin is a strong writer (I loved her first novel, The House Girl). This one kept me turning pages, but I wasn’t sure I really knew the characters by the end.

Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits, Anna Meriano
Leo Legroño is trying to learn magic, keep her older sisters happy, and be there for her best friend, Caroline. When Leo’s deceased abuela and several other spirits accidentally cross into this world from the other side, Leo and Caroline must figure out how to send them back. A sweet, funny, magical second entry in this middle-grade series.

The Floating Feldmans, Elyssa Friedland
Annette Feldman is turning 70, and she’s determined to have the perfect family vacation to celebrate. But forcing her husband, two bickering grown children, their partners and her daughter’s two teenagers onto a cruise ship has unexpected results. A fast, funny, often bitingly witty novel about family and secrets. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 23).

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

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book apple bench sunlight

And just like that, it’s June. I’m still catching up from a very full May – so here are the books I’ve been reading lately. It’s a short list, but a good one:

The Chelsea Girls, Fiona Davis
Hazel Ripley is expected to follow in her actor father’s footsteps, especially after her brother is killed in WWII. But a USO tour to Italy sparks her budding creativity as a playwright. Davis tells the story of Hazel, her fellow actress and friend Maxine, and the legendary Chelsea Hotel in NYC. A solid historical novel about female friendship, ambition and secrets. (I like Davis’ work.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 30).

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, Sarah Parcak
Space archaeology sounds like a cross between Indiana Jones and Star Wars – but it’s a real thing, and it’s changing the face of archaeology. Parcak shares stories from the field and explains how high-tech satellite imagery can make a real difference to the future of her field. Engaging, smart nonfiction. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9).

God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, Lyz Lenz
America is divided: we hear this all the time, and many of us are living some version of it. Lenz, a journalist who’s lived in the Midwest for years, saw her marriage and her church fall apart in the wake of the 2016 election. She’s spent time with many Christian pastors and congregants to try and understand what’s going on. The story, as you might imagine, is complicated. I’m a Texan living in New England and I have small-town Midwestern roots, so Lenz’s reporting and her personal experience resonated deeply with me. So insightful and honest. To review for Shelf Awareness (out August 1).

Sherwood, Meagan Spooner
Robin of Locksley is dead, and his people – including Maid Marian – are devastated. When Will Scarlet is thrown into prison, Marian impersonates Robin to help get him out. But her actions create a ripple effect, and while she loves her new role as Robin, she must keep it secret for various reasons. A clever YA take on the Robin Hood myth – though I didn’t love a couple of the plot elements. (I did love the Merry Men, especially Alan-a-Dale, and Marian’s maid, Elena.)

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal
Literature teacher Alys Binat, the second of five daughters, has sworn never to marry. But when she meets one Valentine Darsee, that may change. Kamal’s Pride and Prejudice retelling, set in early-2000s Pakistan, is funny and fresh. I especially loved Alys’ relationship with her best friend Sherry, and a few scenes between Alys and her father. Recommended by Anne.

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

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light leaves village nyc

I have what I call “the Liberty problem” when I really love a book: I want to do what Liberty Hardy sometimes does on All the Books! and gush, “It’s so good. It’s SO GOOD!” It’s challenging, though, when I have to review a book I love that much – and write about it (somewhat) intelligently.

That’s how I feel about The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall’s debut novel about two ministers and their wives who live and work in Greenwich Village, starting in the 1960s. (Bonus: the church in the book is inspired by Wall’s childhood church, First Presbyterian in NYC – or at least located on the exact same spot. It’s in the part of the Village I love dearly, and I’ve walked by it many times; I even went to a Christmas fair there, back in December.)

I got to read an advance copy of The Dearly Beloved and interview Cara for Shelf Awareness. Below is part of my review, and some excerpts from our email conversation.

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The son of a respected classics professor at Harvard, Charles Barrett has always expected to follow in his father’s academic footsteps. During his undergraduate years as a history major, he is caught off guard by two seismic events. First, he realizes, suddenly and irrevocably, that he wants to be a minister, for reasons he can’t entirely explain. At nearly the same time, he meets Lily, a brilliant, reserved orphan studying at Radcliffe. She captivates Charles, though she tells him immediately that she can never believe in God. Over the next several years, Charles convinces Lily to build a life with him, despite knowing that she will always stand resolutely apart from his faith.

James MacNally, the youngest son of a drunken father and a worried mother, has hardly thought about God until a distant uncle offers him the chance to go to college, to escape his bleak Chicago neighborhood. Growing impatient with abstract philosophy and rhetoric, he moves toward the church as a way to confront the injustices he sees in the world. He meets Nan, a Southern minister’s daughter studying music, and they marry. When, in 1963, Charles and James are jointly called to pastor a Presbyterian church in Greenwich Village, these four lives become inextricably and permanently intertwined.

As the church–historically comfortable, white and middle-class–struggles to adapt to the turbulent 1960s, its two young ministers must adjust to their new jobs, their multifaceted joint responsibilities and to each other. Jane Atlas, the long-time, no-nonsense church secretary, guides them both with a steady hand. But they must learn to navigate the politics of ministry on their own, and work in tandem while respecting one another’s vastly different perspectives.

Wall uses the backdrop of professional ministry and the pressing questions of faith and vocation to expertly explore the layers of connection that exist within each marriage and between the two couples. Over the years, James, Charles and Nan each grow into a deep personal faith, but all of them wrestle mightily with doubts and fears, especially when one of Charles and Lily’s twin sons, Will, is diagnosed with autism. Charles, to his own shame, finds it particularly difficult to accept his son as he is, but all four adults ultimately respond to Will in ways that make them more compassionate, more human.

Wall probes the deep love that exists in each marriage, and the (non-religious) faith both pairs of spouses must place in one another. Through decades of heartbreak, happiness and many ordinary days, they build lives and families the best way they know how; with honesty, compassion and as much grace as they can give themselves and one another. At the end of the book, they have all become people “who had loved and hoped and worked and lost and failed and made amends.”

Quiet, sharply observed and stunning in its simple compassion, The Dearly Beloved is a powerful meditation on friendship, calling, marriage and what happens when faith meets truly hard times.

KNG: Tell us about your inspiration for The Dearly Beloved.

CW: I didn’t set out to write a story about ministers. I was reading Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, which is about two couples. I loved the way she wrote about marriage and explored what happens after the traditional “happily ever after” wedding moment.

I grew up in a church with two ministers. One was very tall and the other was fiery. They were both dignified, commanding and august. This book is inspired by my memories of them, which are full of reverence and the tiniest sprinkle of fear.

My family history is steeped in religion. My mother and father were raised as Nazarenes–my paternal grandmother converted when she had a vision of an angel on the other side of the washing line. It was a strict religion–no drinking, dancing or listening to music outside the church. But my grandparents’ churches were also warm and welcoming.

Lily tells Charles early in their relationship that she can never believe in God. But he loves her and builds a life with her anyway. Can you talk about this central disagreement in their marriage?

I see Charles and Lily as very much alike. They are both intellectuals, and both make deliberate decisions about the way they want to live their lives. They both grew up in loving families but felt isolated because they were more serious than everyone around them. Charles hadn’t experienced tragedy in the way Lily had, but he was familiar with her feeling of isolation. He and Lily respond to that loneliness in each other–they understand it intuitively. To me, the central issue in their marriage is not religion, per se–it is that Charles wants Lily to be happy, and Lily has accepted the fact that she will never be happy. She lives in pragmatism and he lives in hope.

Also, Charles didn’t discover God until just a few years before he met Lily. His faith is still forming as he courts her, and it grows around her in the same way trees will grow around boulders and fences. Her atheism causes him to constantly re-evaluate his life. He is never on autopilot, because he is always deciding what it means to be a minister whose wife does not believe in God. If he were married to a believer he might be less substantial, his faith lighter and easier. His relationship with Lily makes his faith–and his life–richer and more nuanced. More challenging, certainly, but a challenge that makes him stronger and better able to lead a church.

The book tells the story of Charles’s and James’s work, and how the church responds to them as ministers. That response is sometimes contentious.

The biggest misconception about churches is that everyone gets along. This is not true! A church is like a co-op building–it has a board and voting members. It’s a hierarchy, which causes power struggles. For every member, church is one of the most important places in their lives, which means they’re intensely invested in how it’s run.

Charles and James come into a divided church, in a divided time, in a divided society. They are caught between preserving the historical identity of a respected institution while steering it through the cultural changes of the 1960s in a way that makes it relevant to modern times. This is like turning a cruise ship: there is more than one propeller to redirect, and it takes a long time to head in a new direction. Charles and James make choose that new direction for their church. This is not, generally, the way Presbyterian churches make decisions, so they get in some trouble. But James’s inherent need to take action made it plausible that he would bypass tradition for what he thought was right.

Three of the four main characters are people of deep faith, but their faiths are quite different from one another. How did you approach writing about their varied struggles with belief and doubt?

I have every one of the struggles with belief and doubt that these characters have. I parcelled out my own, varied experiences with faith between them. Writing about four different religious lives was freeing for me–I often feel like I have to make up my mind about faith and religion, but while writing this book I was allowed to embrace my indecision. I had the chance to think deeply about the ways our faiths of origin affect the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. Some people follow their childhood faith without thinking, some tweak it, some completely disavow it. Whatever we do, it remains embedded in us.

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It was a pleasure to talk to Cara, and if you’re looking for an insightful novel about real people grappling with faith and love and calling, I highly recommend The Dearly Beloved. 

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