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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

the long run book snow menzies-pike

I know we’re more than halfway through the year, but I still thought it would be worthwhile (and fun!) to share the best books I’ve read so far this year. Technically I’d read 102 books by the end of June, so here are the real standouts from the first half of 2018:

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.

Candid, Witty Essays on Marriage: Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun. Honest and funny and so real – perfect for reading after a decade of marriage.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s brilliant series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. I cannot shut up about these books: the mystery plots are solid, but the characters and their complex relationships are on another level.

Best Twisty Tale of Badass Female Spies: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Just so good.

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.)

Best Reread: A Wrinkle in Time, which I picked up after seeing the new film. I liked the movie, but L’Engle’s classic has more depth and heart and grit – and oh, I love Meg Murry.

Best Travel Memoir That’s About So Much More: Lands of Lost Borders, Kate Harris’ luminous, gritty memoir of spending nearly a year cycling along the Silk Road.

Most Perfect Gothic Novel to Read in Spain: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Twisty, atmospheric, witty, packed with great characters and surprise moments.

Your turn: what are the best books you’ve read so far this year?

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dinner list book stripes bench shoes

June means diving into the first stacks of summer reading, amid work and life craziness. Here’s the latest roundup:

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country in the World, Sarah Smarsh
The American class divide is in the news a lot these days. But Smarsh, a fifth-generation Kansas farm girl who comes from a long line of teenage moms, has lived it. A searing portrait of one family in the rural heartland, a timely meditation on economic and social chasms, and a fiercely loving story of one girl’s struggle to embrace and escape her roots. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 18).

A Storied Life, Leigh Kramer
Olivia Frasier has fought hard to build a life apart from her banking family, opening her own art gallery. But when Liv’s grandmother announces she’s terminally ill and appoints Liv her chief decision-maker, Olivia is forced to confront both her family dynamics and her own issues. An engaging, thoughtful novel about grief, love and living life on your own terms. I’m so proud of Leigh, a longtime Internet pal of mine. She sent me an advance copy.

The Dinner List, Rebecca Serle
It’s a common question: who are the five people, living or dead, you’d love to have dinner with? When Sabrina shows up to her birthday dinner, she finds not only her best friend, but a beloved professor, her estranged father, her fiancé, and Audrey Hepburn. Serle’s novel unfolds over the course of the evening, spinning out a narrative of romance, regrets and the complicated ways we love. Funny, sweet and unexpectedly moving. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 11).

The Masterpiece, Fiona Davis
Today, Grand Central Terminal is a New York City landmark. (The ceiling alone is stunning.) But in the 1970s, it stood in danger of being torn down. Davis’ novel tells the intertwined stories of Virginia Clay, a recent divorcée who takes a job at the station, and Clara Darden, an illustrator who taught at the terminal’s art school in the 1920s. Richly detailed and compelling. I especially liked watching Virginia take charge of her life. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 7).

Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution, Julia Alekseyeva
I picked up this graphic memoir off a table at the library, and read it in one sitting. Alekseyeva narrates her great-grandmother Lola’s life story: growing up Jewish in Kiev, surviving several wars and the Holocaust, working for the government and the Red Army. Interwoven are scenes from Alekseyeva’s own childhood in the U.S. (which are frankly far less compelling). Lola was a fascinating protagonist.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, Kathleen Rooney
Lillian Boxfish, longtime New Yorker, former darling of the advertising world, decides to take a long, rambling walk through Manhattan on New Year’s Eve 1984. Since I love walking, NYC, and whip-smart female narrators, I expected to love this book, and I did. It dragged a bit in the middle, but I adored Lillian. I’d walk with her any time.

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

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libros viajes casa del libro sevilla

Hello, friends. I’m back from a glorious 10-day vacation in Spain, which included (among other things) lots of librerías.

I’m not fluent in Spanish, so I couldn’t read most of the books, but I loved seeing foreign editions of books I know and new-to-me libros in Spanish. This shot is from Casa del Libro in Sevilla.

I brought along a pile of English-language books to read, and here they are:

My Oxford Year, Julia Whelan
Roxanne sent me a link to this book and of course I had to pick it up: a young American woman who’s always dreamed of Oxford goes there as a Rhodes scholar, and falls in love with the city (and more). A little frothy, but with surprising depth, an engaging cast of characters and so many wonderful details about my favorite city.

It Happened Like This: A Life in Alaska, Adrienne Lindholm
Lindholm has always had a taste for wildness and open space – so she moved to Alaska in her twenties, chasing both. She chronicles her journey in an honest, luminous memoir of her years working for the National Park Service and building a life in the backcountry. Thoughtful and compelling and lovely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 21).

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Barcelona, 1945: Daniel Sempere visits the Cemetery of Forgotten Books with his father and discovers a novel by an obscure author called Julián Carax. As Daniel digs into Carax’s life story, he gets caught up in a twisting narrative of love, revenge and family secrets. An absolutely fantastic, dark, witty, absorbing novel – reading it on bus rides between Spanish cities was just perfect.

Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, Mario Giordano
When she turns sixty, Auntie Poldi retires to Sicily, intending to drink herself peacefully to death. To her surprise, she finds herself enjoying her new hometown. And when her young handyman is murdered, she tries her hand at a bit of amateur sleuthing. A witty, vividly described, slightly madcap mystery romp full of colorful characters. First in a new series. Recommended by Anne (it’s in her Summer Reading Guide).

Jolly Foul Play, Robin Stevens
When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong return to their boarding school, an unpopular fellow student is murdered right under their noses. But who killed her, and why? Who is spreading rumors and secrets around the school? And can Daisy swallow her pride and let a few other friends help with the detecting? Stevens’ fourth mystery had both an excellent plot and some keen insight from Hazel about how people treat one another.

The Secret Ways of Perfume, Cristina Caboti
Elena Rossini comes from a long line of female perfumiers, but she’s fought against making perfume her career and life. At a crossroads, though, she moves to Paris and begins to embrace perfume. This novel started strong (and the scent descriptions are wonderful) but fell a bit flat toward the end. Still fun. Found at Librería Reguera in Sevilla.

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

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shortest way home book anemones flowers

Back in early March, I spent most of a happy weekend in Sonoma County – though it was bitterly cold outside here in Boston. I did that not by hopping a plane (though I did fly to SoCal a few weeks later), but by savoring Miriam Parker’s charming debut novel, The Shortest Way Home.

Here’s a bit of the review I wrote for Shelf Awareness:

Hannah Greene has her life all planned out–or thinks she does. She’s landed a dream job right out of business school, and is envisioning a high-powered New York City future with her boyfriend, Ethan. But a weekend trip to Sonoma County right before graduation changes everything.

When Hannah falls in love with Bellosguardo, a small local winery, she talks her way into a marketing job there, giving up her hard-won position at Goldman Sachs and the plans she and Ethan have laid. Despite the winery’s appeal, Hannah’s 180-degree turn isn’t without its stomach-flipping bumps and surprising curves.

Miriam Parker’s debut novel, The Shortest Way Home, follows Hannah’s journey as she struggles to navigate her new path despite the weight of everyone else’s expectations (and her own).

Parker tells her story in Hannah’s voice, sharing both her protagonist’s delight at the beauty of Sonoma County (and her picture-perfect cottage on the vineyard’s grounds), and her anxiety over having made a rash decision that could upend her life. While she doesn’t regret giving up the Goldman job, and is increasingly convinced that Ethan wasn’t the right guy for her, Hannah second-guesses her new career path at every turn. Can she make a success of the winery? Will this new place, far from everything she knows, eventually become home?

Packed with good books, California sunshine and glass after glass of local wine, Parker’s debut is a sweet, funny, charming novel of a woman daring to upend expectations (her own and everyone else’s) to make her own way. Readers will toast Hannah’s roundabout journey and perhaps be inspired to take a detour or two of their own.

In addition to reviewing the book, I got to chat with Miriam about its creation. We had a delightful phone conversation, and I’m sharing a few excerpts from it below:

KG: Tell us about the inspiration for The Shortest Way Home.

MP: In a lot of ways, this book is a dream for me. I love reading, I love wine, I love travel. This was a book I wrote in the mornings, on vacation and on the weekends away from my job. I decided I was going to take all the things I loved and write a book about them.

You’d been to Sonoma before, but did you go back once you started writing the book?

Yes! I took my dog, Leopold Bloom, and stayed in northern Sonoma County. In the mornings I would write, and in the afternoons I would drive around with the dog and interview people at wineries. I highly recommend going on vacation with your dog!

I loved talking to people at the wineries. You learn the most amazing little details! For example: I learned that wineries plant roses at the end of their rows, because they’re much more sensitive than vines. If there’s any disease or blight around, the roses will show it before the vines, which gives the vineyard owner a heads up.

I also loved learning about terroir. Grapes take on the flavor of what’s planted in the ground around them, so if there’s rosemary, for example, they might have a hint of that. But they also take on the flavor of what was planted in the ground before they were: vegetables or other herbs. I thought it was fascinating that grapes take on both the history and the current flavor of the land.

The Shortest Way Home is mainly Hannah’s story, but several other characters are on their own journeys to figuring out what they really want.

Telling a story of people who are at different stages in their lives, trying to figure out what they want, felt really important to me. I spent a lot of my 20s being disappointed that life wasn’t lining up like it was “supposed to.” I was making mistakes, trying things, and everything didn’t feel like the story I’d seen in the movies or been taught to expect. And then I got into my 30s and realized that things don’t always line up: you have to give them space to happen. I think if I could have told my 21-year-old or even my 30-year-old self that, I would have appreciated it.

The most important question: What kind of wine pairs well with The Shortest Way Home?

I think it pairs perfectly with a glass of sparkling rosé on the back patio! Ideally with a nice herbed goat cheese and rosemary crackers.

You can read my full review and Q&A on the Shelf Awareness site. And if your interest is piqued, watch out for The Shortest Way Home when it comes out in July. Cheers!

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lands of lost borders book red flats

We’ve made it through May, which is always a whirlwind. But it did include a batch of good books:

Caroline: Little House Revisited, Sarah Miller
I read and reread the Little House on the Prairie books as a kid, and have rediscovered The Long Winter as an adult. I loved this novel that retold the Ingalls’ journey to Kansas from Ma’s – Caroline’s – perspective. Compelling, bittersweet and beautifully written. Found at the wonderful Bay Books on our San Diego trip.

The Corpse at the Crystal Palace, Carola Dunn
When Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher takes her children and their cousins on an outing to the Crystal Palace, she’s shocked when their nanny goes temporarily missing. After she turns up, the nanny can’t remember why she disappeared – nor why there’s a corpse in the ladies’ room, dressed in a nanny’s uniform. Naturally, Daisy can’t resist a bit of sleuthing. A really fun entry in this highly enjoyable series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 3).

Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road, Kate Harris
Kate Harris has always wanted to be an explorer: to test the boundaries of the known world, to go where few others have gone before. This, her debut memoir, is a lyrical, brilliant, sharply observed paean to wanderlust and an account of the year she spent cycling as much of the ancient Silk Road as possible. (Bonus: she’s spent time at Oxford and MIT, so two of my cities make appearances.) So many gorgeous lines about borders, boundaries, the hunger to explore, the ways we create our world. Made me want to hop on a bike immediately. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 21).

Live and Let Chai, Bree Baker
Everly Swan has just opened her dream iced-tea shop and cafe in her charming seaside hometown. But when a cranky local councilman is found dead next to one of Everly’s signature tea jars, she must fight against a wave of suspicion, plus an anonymous vandal who begins targeting her shop. A sweet Southern cozy mystery and an engaging setup for a new series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 3).

The Late Bloomers’ Club, Louise Miller
Nora Huckleberry (what a name!) has been running the Miss Guthrie Diner in her tiny Vermont town for years. But when she and her freewheeling sister Kit receive an unexpected inheritance, along with some debt, Nora faces difficult decisions on several levels. Full of warmhearted characters – I especially loved Kit’s boyfriend, Max. I also loved Miller’s debut, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 17).

Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon
Le Guin needs no introduction from me: she was justly famous for her novels, poetry and incisive nonfiction. These interviews with Naimon cover each genre and more besides. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. To review for Shelf Awareness (it came out April 3).

The Penderwicks at Last, Jeanne Birdsall
Birdsall returns to her charming children’s series about the Penderwick family for one last adventure at Arundel, the estate where it all began. A wedding, a huge dog, a sheep, six siblings and various friends join together in a swirl of magic, chaos and fun. Delightful – the setting is contemporary but it feels old-fashioned, and it’s a treat to see the older Penderwick girls as grown-ups.

From Twinkle, with Love, Sandhya Menon
Twinkle Mehra is used to going unnoticed, but she dreams of changing the world through her films. As she prepares to make her first full-length movie, she writes letters to well-known female filmmakers, chronicling her work, her hopes and the everyday dramas of relating to family, friends and boys. I loved Menon’s debut, When Dimple Met Rishi. This one was a slower start for me, but I did enjoy it (and I loved Sahil, Twinkle’s producer/love interest).

Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte
I like Whyte’s poetry and was delighted when a colleague passed on this nonfiction book. He muses on work as fundamental to our human experience, and shares part of his journey toward making creative work his full-time job. I thought this wandered a bit, but then, we all do on this journey. Lyrical, honest and thoughtful. I particularly liked the sections on being a creative “outlaw.” Part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject.

Pashmina, Nidhi Chanani
This sweet graphic novel follows Priyanka Das, an Indian-American girl, as she discovers a pashmina hidden in her mom’s closet that may unlock some family secrets. Whimsical and warm and lovely, and the illustrations are wonderful. Found at the fascinating Million Year Picnic.

Piecing Me Together, Renée Watson
Jade is a black teenager (and talented collage artist) in Portland who takes every opportunity she’s offered. But sometimes she gets tired of being the person people want to “fix.” A fascinating, thoughtful, honest novel about a girl learning to own her voice and navigate a complicated world. Recommended by Anne.

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

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map of salt and stars book

I’ve always loved maps. Since I was a child sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, tracing our summer road-trip routes on the pages of my dad’s United States atlas, I’ve been fascinated by those collections of lines and space. They help us navigate the physical world, but they tell us so much more than where we’ve been and where we’re going.

For Nour, the twelve-year-old narrator of Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s novel The Map of Salt and Stars, maps are her mother’s livelihood and her family’s lingua franca. But one map in particular may guide her to a brand-new home.

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I read The Map of Salt and Stars back in March; it came out in early May. I loved every page of Nour’s story, which is interwoven with the legend of Rawiya, a young woman who apprentices herself to a famed medieval mapmaker.

I’m sharing my full review over at Bookclique, a site run by my friend Jessica Flaxman. Please head on over there to read the rest of my thoughts.

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stars book blue mug

I can’t believe we’re halfway through May already. Travel and illness have made the month fly for me, so far. Here’s what I’ve been reading, through flights and sniffles:

How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times, ed. Annie Chagnot and Emi Ikkanda
I found this anthology at the Harvard Coop this winter, and have been savoring it. It draws together heartening words from classic and contemporary poets, in light of our current turbulent moment. Some favorites: Jamaal May’s “Detroit,” Yehuda Amichai’s “The Place Where We Are Right,” and Elizabeth Alexander’s stirring foreword.

The Myth of Perpetual Summer, Susan Crandall
In the wake of family tragedy, Tallulah James left her Mississippi hometown at 17 and never looked back. But when her beloved younger brother is accused of murder, Tallulah is drawn back home to see if she can help him – and to face her own ghosts. A compelling, heartbreaking Southern family saga and a sensitive portrait of how mental illness can affect a family. I really enjoyed Crandall’s The Flying Circus, too. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 19).

Shadowhouse Fall, Daniel José Older
This sequel to Shadowshaper picks up several months later: Sierra Santiago and her friends are learning to use their powers, but trouble is afoot. Racial tensions are threatening to boil over in their Brooklyn neighborhood. A mysterious deck of cards, and the people connected to it, are a further sign of sinister forces at work. Fast-paced, vivid, brutally honest and so good. I can’t wait for book 3.

Cocoa Beach, Beatriz Williams
As a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I, Virginia Fortescue fell in love with a British surgeon. Now, long estranged from him and suddenly widowed, Virginia arrives in Prohibition-era Florida with her young daughter to inspect her husband’s estate. But almost nothing is as it seems. I like Williams’ lush historical novels, though this one didn’t hang together as well as most.

To Die But Once, Jacqueline Winspear
As the “phony war” drags on in 1940, investigator Maisie Dobbs looks into the disappearance of a young man doing top-secret government work. She finds more than she bargained for, while also caring for a young evacuee and supporting two friends whose nearly-grown sons are anxious to do their bit. I adore Maisie and this latest installment was rich and wonderful.

What We See in the Stars, Kelsey Oseid
Humans have read messages in the skies for millennia: constellations, comets, galaxies and more phenomena we can’t even name. Oseid’s gorgeously illustrated book (see above) takes us on a tour of the skies. Informative, accessible and stunning.

A Maze Me: Poems for Girls, Naomi Shihab Nye
I love Nye’s work and picked up this slim collection after re-listening to her episode of On Being. These brief, whimsical poems are aimed at young girls, but many of them resonated for me. Lovely and nourishing.

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

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