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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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oxford book stack red daisies flowers table

The second half of October, like the first, was a whirlwind of golden leaves and email and travel. I’d barely recovered from my Oxford trip (and the subsequent head cold) before we headed to NYC for a long weekend with my parents. Here’s what I have been reading, in between all that activity:

The Reporter’s Kitchen, Jane Kramer
For food writer Kramer, writing and cooking are inextricably linked—though she sometimes uses one to avoid the other. This collection of her pieces from The New Yorker includes chef profiles, food history and a few personal essays (my favorites). She’s warm, witty and practical. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 21).

First Class Murder, Robin Stevens
The third book in Stevens’ Wells & Wong middle-grade mystery series finds Daisy and Hazel aboard the famous Orient Express. Naturally, a murder occurs and they have to investigate. An homage to Christie’s classic, but also a fun, well-plotted story. Found at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford.

The Music Shop, Rachel Joyce
In a down-at-heel street in a nondescript British city, Frank’s record shop doesn’t just sell vinyl (and only vinyl), but it gives people the music they don’t know they need. When Ilse Brauchmann, a mysterious woman in a green coat, visits the shop, Frank finds himself both drawn to Ilse and utterly baffled by her. A wonderful novel about music, loss, healing and love, with vivid characters and so many brilliant sentences. (I also adored Joyce’s debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 2).

Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, Melissa Harrison
Like many English people, Harrison is an avid walker, even—nay, especially—in the rain. She chronicles four rainy walks in different seasons and locations, musing on how rain has shaped the climate and psyche of the British Isles, and recording details of habitat and weather with a keen, lyrical eye. So lovely. Found at the amazing Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford.

The Disappearances, Emily Bain Murphy
When Aila Quinn’s mother, Juliet, dies unexpectedly, Aila and her brother are sent to Juliet’s hometown to stay with friends. But they are greeted with suspicion: the town lies under a curse, and some people blame Juliet. Aila digs into her mother’s history (and a mysteriously annotated volume of Shakespeare) to clear Juliet’s name. An enchanting, thought-provoking YA novel; I especially loved Aila and her friend Beas. The dialogue felt almost too modern (it’s set in the 1940s), but the central conceit is wonderful. Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Luster of Lost Things, Sophie Chen Keller
Walter Lavender Jr. doesn’t talk much, but he’s got a keen observer’s eye and a knack for finding lost things. When the mysterious Book that is the lifeblood of his mother’s West Village bakery disappears, Walter and his golden retriever, Milton, embark on a search that takes them up and down Manhattan. An utterly magical novel full of heartbreak and love; the writing sings and the city itself is a character. Found (fittingly) at Shakespeare & Co. in NYC. Recommended by my colleague Kat at Shelf Awareness.

Poems to Live By in Troubling Times, ed. Joan Murray
I’ve needed poetry lately, and have lingered in this slim, often heartrending anthology of poems on war, terror, grief, healing and peace. Uneven, like many anthologies, but I did find a few gems. Bought at the Brattle on a walkabout day this summer.

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

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roots sky book sunflowers table

July has been full, so far – of sunshine, heat, dinners with friends, yoga classes, and (thank heaven) good books. I’ve been flipping back through Christie’s lovely memoir, as you can see. Here’s what else I’ve been reading:

The Pearl Thief, Elizabeth Wein
This prequel to Code Name Verity (which I loved) centers on Julia Beaufort-Stuart’s last summer at her family’s ancestral home in Scotland. It’s a richly described history/mystery involving an unknown attacker, an archaeologist who disappears, and some valuable river pearls. Full of cracking characters, including two Traveller teenagers who befriend Julie; the town librarian, Mary; and Julie’s family, who are both shrewd and kind. A slow start, but so good.

Molly on the Range: Recipes and Stories from an Unlikely Life on a Farm, Molly Yeh
I picked up this breezy, yummy cookbook off the library’s New Books shelf, and so enjoyed it. I’d heard of Yeh’s blog, but wasn’t that familiar with her. This was a fun, cozy look at her journey from Juilliard to a North Dakota farm, with lots of recipes. We’ve tried the Cauliflower Shawarma Tacos (twice) and the shakshuka. Delicious.

Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane
Macfarlane is a word-lover and a wanderer: fortunately for us, he writes about both well. This book explores the particular landscapes of the British Isles and collects hundreds of expressive, little-known place- and weather-words. He also highlights the work of other nature writers. I loved Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways and absolutely adored this one: it is clear, thoughtful, generous, descriptive and full of wonderful images. Found at Three Lives, last fall.

Lies, Damned Lies, and History, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell, disgraced time-traveling historian, is back for a seventh adventure – trying to pick up the pieces from her latest fiasco. I love this series, though this book about broke my heart in half (several times). Dryly witty, full of wonderful characters and absolutely soaked with tea.

In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, Pádraig Ó Tuama
I discovered Ó Tuama when I listened to his wise, lovely On Being conversation with Krista Tippett. His memoir explores the wisdom and challenges of saying “hello to here”: looking steadily at the truth of where and who we are, and doing our best to live well in the world. He writes about faith, coming to terms with his sexuality and doing the work of reconciliation in Belfast. So many luminous lines that spoke to my soul, and each chapter ends with a poem. Tippett called it “incandescent” and I agree with her.

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

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three lives bookstore interior nook nyc

We are (somehow) halfway through the year already, and I’m doing what I always do: taking stock of the books I’ve read so far, and sharing a handful of my favorites with you.

I’ve read about 75 books thus far in 2017, and here are a few I have particularly loved. (I found a couple of them at the wonderful Three Lives & Co., pictured above.)

Wittiest Love Story: The Romantics by Leah Konen. I read this YA love story – ably narrated by Love herself – on our Florida beach vacation in March, and loved every page. The footnotes are hilarious.

Most Beautiful Memoir: A Country Between by Stephanie Saldaña. An American journalist married to a Frenchman (and former monk) moves with him to Jerusalem, and this luminous, wise, honest book is the story of their navigating so many cultural in-betweens.

Best Novel about Family and Food: The Last Days of Café Leila by Donia Bijan. Mouthwatering descriptions, a really wonderful family saga, and a few lines near the end that kept me going all spring.

Series That Keeps on Getting Better: The Chronicles of St. Mary’s by Jodi Taylor. This series about time-traveling historians with a penchant for disaster – including, but not limited to, copious explosions – is so much fun. Lots of dry British wit and so much tea, but my favorite thing is how fiercely this (truly) motley crew fights for one another, in every era.

Best Story About Friendship: Summerlost by Ally Condie. The story of Leo and Cedar, who become friends while working a summer theatre festival, captured my heart and still won’t let it go.

Poetry That Sings: anything by the wonderful Brian Doyle (whom we lost last month, sadly). I’ve read three collections of his wise, funny, thoughtful, keenly observed “proems” this year: How the Light Gets In, A Shimmer of Something and The Kind of Brave You Wanted to Be. Each of them cracked my heart open in the best way.

Best Book on Writing: Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. I savored this one over many commutes, and it was a treat: incisive, plainspoken, inspiring.

Best Lit Crit I’ve Read in Years: Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees. A whip-smart tour of seven little-known badass feminist British writers = catnip for my brainy English-major side.

The Wise, Luminous, Lovely Book I Didn’t Know I Needed: Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear. I keep coming back to this slim book, with so many lines about loss, building a creative life, loving your people well and paying attention.

What are the best books you’ve read so far this year? I’d love to hear about them.

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tulips table oranges book

It has started snowing over here – not my favorite weather, but it’s good for curling up with books. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg
I’ve enjoyed Klinkenborg’s columns in the New York Times, and loved this wise, thoughtful, wry, thought-provoking book on writing. I savored it over a couple of weeks. Bought at the wonderful Three Lives & Co. in NYC.

Paper and Fire (The Great Library #2), Rachel Caine
After being trained as foot soldiers for the Great Library of Alexandria, Jess Brightwell and his friends are staging a rebellion – if they survive that long. Caine’s sequel to Ink and Bone is fast-paced, bold and really well done. I can’t wait for book 3.

No Time Like the Past, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell and her gang of time-traveling historians are back for a fifth adventure, which takes them to the Great Fire of London and Thermopylae, among other destinations. This series is so much fun – madcap, smart, hilarious and tea-soaked. This book was especially witty.

The Last Days of Café Leila, Donia Bijan
Since Noor left her homeland of Iran for the U.S. at 18, she’s missed her father and their family’s café – a neighborhood institution. After discovering her husband’s infidelity, Noor heads back to Tehran with her teenage daughter, Lily, in tow. The world they discover is both familiar and unknown to Noor, and totally new to Lily. A gorgeous novel of family, food, love and loss. (I also loved Bijan’s memoir, Maman’s Homesick Pie.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 18).

Lay Down Your Weary Tune, W.B. Belcher
With his love life and career both foundering, musician-cum-writer Jack Wyeth gets the chance to write the biography of his folk-music idol, Eli Page. But when Jack arrives at Eli’s rural farmhouse, he finds an enigmatic, irascible man reluctant to divulge his secrets. This one started slowly, but it’s a thoughtful, lovely novel about music, identity, family and the secrets we all keep. Found (for $6!) at the Center for Fiction in midtown Manhattan.

Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future, Rob Dunn
Scientific food-growing techniques have wrought a series of transformations in our diets: we are increasingly dependent on a small number of crops grown on a massive scale. Dunn recounts the narrowing of our plates and warns of the dangers we face. Thoughtful and well-researched, though occasionally rambling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 14).

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
In a series of lyrical flashbacks, Woodson evokes the experience of “growing up girl” in 1970s Brooklyn. Her narrator, August, navigates the world alongside her brother, her father and her three best friends. Poignant and beautifully written. (Julia recommended this one at Great New Books.)

The Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon
Natasha is an illegal Jamaican immigrant whose family is about to be deported. Daniel is a dreamy Korean-American teenager who wants to write poetry instead of going to Yale and becoming a doctor. They meet one day in Manhattan, and their lives will never be the same. Funny and heartwarming – the epilogue took the whole book up a notch. I also loved Yoon’s debut, Everything, Everything.

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

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three lives bookstore interior

I’ve been (not surprisingly) digging into stacks of books as 2017 begins, and I’ve found some gems this month. Here’s the latest roundup:

Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship, Isabel Vincent
When Isabel Vincent’s friend Valerie asked her to look in on her recently widowed father, Isabel never dreamed she’d make a new friend. But she did – and this lovely memoir recounts many of their dinners á deux. Edward is a great cook, but also gives sound, practical advice, and Vincent writes their story with warmth and charm.

The Lost Book of the Grail, Charlie Lovett
Arthur Prescott is happily ensconced in his life in Barchester: teaching English at the university, spending untold hours in the library and secretly searching for the Holy Grail. But the arrival of an attractive young American who is digitizing the library’s manuscripts upends Arthur’s world. Lovett deftly moves back and forth in time between this present-day story and other historical eras (starting in the 500s). A fascinating, fun literary mystery – the third Lovett book I’ve read and possibly his best yet. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 28).

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling
This series gets bigger, deeper, darker and more heartbreaking with every book. I love this story so much, and I’m still loving my reread-along with a friend, which has prompted multiple discussions on everything from Rowling’s clever wordplays to the big questions of life and destiny at the heart of the series.

A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide, Stephanie Saldaña
After falling in love with a French novice monk in Syria, American writer Saldaña ended up making a home with her new husband on a street in the middle of Jerusalem. A luminous, thoughtful, achingly lovely memoir about home, family, time and searching for the beautiful, even – especially – in broken and hard places. Stunning. I also loved Saldaña’s previous memoir, The Bread of Angels. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7).

News of the World, Paulette Jiles
Captain Jefferson Kidd, an itinerant news reader in post-Civil War Texas, is asked to return a young girl, Johanna, to her family after she has been “recovered” from the Kiowa tribe. Slowly, as Kidd and Johanna make the treacherous journey from north Texas to San Antonio, they form a tight, tenuous bond. A slim story told in spare, powerful prose.

Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon
Madeline Whittier hasn’t left her house in 17 years, due to a rare immune disease. But when a boy named Olly moves in next door, she starts questioning the protected life she’s been living. A sweet, heartbreaking, funny, wonderful YA novel. I read it in one sitting.

A Trail Through Time, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell, time-jumping historian, has been yanked out of her own world by the Muse of History and deposited in a very similar one, where she and the man she loves are trying to outrun the Time Police. (Confused yet?) This fourth installment in Taylor’s Chronicles of St. Mary’s series gave me whiplash, but it was so much fun.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith. Pictured above: the interior of Three Lives & Co. in NYC, where I spent a very happy hour this week.

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book stack july 2016

July has been a tough month so far, as you know if you’ve been watching the news. As always, I am taking refuge in good books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye
Anne and Leigh finally talked me into this whip-smart, witty, engaging homage to Jane Eyre and I’m so glad they did. Jane Steele, an orphan with few resources but a strong sense of justice, loves that other Jane, but her life turns out rather differently. I loved Steele’s take on the Brontë classic, and her supporting cast – especially the enigmatic Sikh butler – is fantastic.

The Apple Tart of Hope, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald
Meg Molony can’t believe her best friend Oscar has taken his own life. But Meg’s been in New Zealand for six months, and during that time, a lot of things have changed. A melancholy but sweet novel about friendship, the complicated gaps between perception and reality, and the world’s best apple tarts.

Cooking for Picasso, Camille Aubray
Céline hops a plane to the French Riviera in pursuit of a long-held family legend: did her grandmother, Ondine, really spend several months as Picasso’s personal chef? Aubray’s novel alternates between Céline’s and Ondine’s perspectives, weaving together art, family and choices. A great premise with mouthwatering food descriptions, though several plot points felt rushed. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 9).

See How They Run, Ally Carter
Grace Blakely was determined to solve her mother’s murder and was devastated by what she found. Grace’s second adventure finds her grappling with new secrets: an ancient underground society, another murder, and her own crippling anxiety. Fast-paced, well plotted and a powerful portrait of PTSD. (Carter writes smart, addictive YA with a little glamour and a lot of intrigue.)

The Altogether Unexpected Disappearance of Atticus Craftsman, Mamen Sánchez
Atticus Craftsman never travels without a supply of Earl Grey. In fact, he’d rather not leave England at all. But when his father sends him to Madrid to close down a failing literary magazine, Atticus finds himself at the mercy of five whip-smart Spanish women who care deeply about one another and their jobs. Highly entertaining. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 9).

Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Chris Cleave
I tore through most of this gorgeous, heartbreaking novel in a day. Cleave tells the story of the Blitz (1939-41 in London) through the lives of several young people: Mary, Tom, Alistair and Mary’s student, Zachary. A stunning evocation of small decisions and their far-reaching effects, and the utter desolation of war. (The third pick for the MMD Summer Reading Club.)

Lady Cop Makes Trouble, Amy Stewart
I loved Stewart’s novel Girl Waits with Gun and was thrilled to read a second book about Constance Kopp, one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the U.S. This book finds Constance serving as jail matron, accidentally letting a slippery fugitive escape and pursuing him all over NYC and New Jersey. Smart, fast-paced and often funny; I love Constance’s narrative voice. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 6).

Geek Girl: Picture Perfect, Holly Smale
Smale’s third novel featuring geeky model Harriet Manners whisks Harriet and her family away to New York. Harriet is amusing, but she never does learn from her mistakes and I found myself losing patience with her. But this was still a fun, quick read. Pure YA fluff.

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

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