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Another month, another reading roundup. Somehow it’s May already (!). Here’s the latest batch of good reads:

Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor
A friend gave me this collection of Brown Taylor’s sermons last summer. That sounds dry as dust – but as I already knew, she’s anything but. I love her luminous memoirs, and these sermons are brief, thoughtful reflections on scripture and life. They’re pegged to the church year, and I think they’ll be worth coming back to. (Part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject.)

Literally, Lucy Keating
Annabelle Burns has her senior year all planned out – color-coded, even. But when an author named Lucy Keating visits her English class, Annabelle learns she’s actually a character in Keating’s new novel. Does she have any control over her choices – even regarding the new boy who’s literally perfect for her? A fun, very meta YA novel, though the ending fell a bit flat.

Tell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say, Kelly Corrigan
I love Corrigan’s wise, witty memoirs, and this one cracked me up and made me cry. She builds it around 12 essential phrases: “I was wrong,” “I love you,” “No,” “Yes” and others, with funny, honest vignettes from her life. My favorite line is in the first chapter: “Hearts don’t idle; they swell and constrict and break and forgive and behold because it’s like this, having a heart.”

Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older
Sierra Santiago expected to spend her Brooklyn summer painting murals and hanging with her friends. Never did she dream of getting caught up in an epic battle between spirits involving members of her own family. But Sierra is a shadowshaper, heir to a kind of magic channeled through art, and she must figure out how to stop the spirits before they destroy everyone she loves. A fantastic beginning to a YA series with great characters. I’ll be reading the sequel, Shadowhouse Fall.

Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude, Stephanie Rosenbloom
I love a solo trip, so I expected to enjoy Rosenbloom’s memoir of traveling alone. She visits Paris, Istanbul, Florence and her hometown of New York, reveling in the pleasures of solitude in each city. This was pleasant and charming; I wanted a bit more from some of her experiences, but really enjoyed it. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 5).

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
This novel is less well known than Montgomery’s beloved Anne series, but I love it, and I’ve returned to it every spring for several years now. Jane is a wonderful character – wise, practical and kind. Watching her discover Prince Edward Island, her estranged father and herself all at once is an utter delight.

Shopgirls, Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley
I picked this one up in Oxford last fall (for £2!). It’s a fascinating nonfiction history of women working in shops and department stores in Britain. There’s a lot here: unionization, national politics, sexism, drastic changes in business practices and social norms, the impact of two world wars. Really fun and well-researched. Also part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject.

The Lost Vintage, Ann Mah
As she’s cramming (again) for the arduous Master of Wine exam, Kate Elliott returns to her family’s vineyard in Burgundy. Helping her cousin clear out the basement, Kate discovers a secret room filled with Resistance literature and valuable wine. Mah weaves a layered, lush, gripping story of family secrets, wartime and terroir. I loved Mah’s memoir, Mastering the Art of French Eating, and savored every sip of this delicious novel. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 19).

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

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Hello, friends. I know March isn’t quite over, but I’ve been out of town and back again, so I have a slew of books to share with you. And so many of them are excellent. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love, Hate & Other Filters, Samira Ahmed
Maya Aziz loves filmmaking: capturing the perfect shot, whether at an Indian wedding (under protest) or an ordinary Tuesday. But Maya’s film-school dreams, and her daily life in small-town Illinois, are shattered when a hate crime  makes her a target. A powerful exploration of what it means to be a brown Muslim teen in the U.S., and also a sweet, wry, witty coming-of-age story with some romance thrown in.

Encore Provence, Peter Mayle
A friend gave me her extra copy of this book a while back. Mayle’s gentle, witty, thoughtful essays on Provence – olive oil, truffles, gardens, the joys of meandering – were the perfect snow-day (and commute) escapism. Lovely.

Waiting for the Light, Alicia Suskin Ostriker
I picked up this poetry collection at Porter Square Books recently; Ostriker’s poem on crocuses sold me. Many of the others were more opaque, but it’s always worth exploring (and supporting!) a new poet.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, Karina Yan Glaser
I’d been hearing about this charming middle-grade novel everywhere. When the five Vanderbeeker kids learn that their crotchety, mysterious landlord (the Beiderman) isn’t renewing their lease, they embark on a hilarious campaign to convince him that they should stay. A wonderful, warmhearted family story – a bit like the Melendys, in 21st-century Harlem.

Beauty in the Broken Places, Allison Pataki
Novelist Pataki and her medical-student husband, Dave, were on a plane headed for Hawaii when Dave had a massive stroke. Pataki chronicles their love story and Dave’s incredible recovery in this heartfelt memoir. The narrative dragged a bit in the middle, but it’s still an inspiring true story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

The Secrets Between Us, Thrity Umrigar
After abruptly leaving her longtime job as a maid, Bhima struggles to support herself and her granddaughter, Maya, while living in the slums of Mumbai. She sets up a vegetable stand with Parvati, another down-on-her-luck woman who’s hiding secrets of her own. A compelling, evocative and often heartbreaking portrait of two women living on the knife edge of poverty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 26).

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
I’d heard about this slim novel for months, and finally picked it up for my book club. It follows young lovers Nadia and Saeed, who escape their city as life there becomes increasingly untenable. A lovely but harrowing novel of refugees, with a bit of magical realism. (Like Jaclyn, I trust President Obama’s reading taste.)

Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
As a young woman, Aganetha Smart made history running for Canada in the 1928 Olympics. As a wheelchair-bound centenarian, she’s left with only her memories, until two young people show up at her nursing home. A tough, lyrically written novel of hardship, family and running. Recommended by Liberty.

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, Alan Bradley
I bought this latest Flavia de Luce novel in Boise and saved it to read on my recent vacation. Flavia and her sisters are on holiday when they find a corpse floating in the river. Flavia dives into investigating his death, alongside the family’s faithful retainer, Dogger. This series is so much fun; Flavia’s narrative voice is witty and wry, though my heart breaks for her sometimes. A well-plotted mystery.

The Map of Salt and Stars, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
After her father’s death, 12-year-old Nour has returned to Syria (from NYC) with her mother and sisters. But when their home is bombed, they become refugees, on the move throughout the Middle East with millions of others. Joukhadar weaves Nour’s story together with the legend of a female mapmaker’s apprentice from medieval times. A stunning dual narrative about crossing borders and finding home. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker
In the French town of St. Denis, crime is rare and murder is unheard of – until an elderly north African man is brutally killed. The town’s lone titular policeman investigates, discovering links leading back to World War II. A (mostly) gentle setup to a series; Bruno is a likable character and St. Denis is charming, though the ending left me unsettled. Recommended by Leigh.

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

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alice network book chai red

I’m back from a trip out west to see some dear friends, and (no surprise) I did a lot of airplane reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
I found this one at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford, last fall. It took me weeks: it’s a bit dense in places, but fascinating. Bunting explores the Outer Hebrides off the northwestern coast of Scotland and delves into their complicated histories. Less memoir-y than I wanted, though she does muse on the ideas of home, remoteness and living on the (literal) edge.

To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a single November day in Millers Kill, N.Y., events unfold that will change multiple lives. A young woman goes missing, a corporate land deal inches toward completion, a few men see their future plans crumbling (for varied reasons). Spencer-Fleming’s fourth mystery charts the complicated web of people affected by these events, including her protagonists, Rev. Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. So layered and so good.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
This YA novel needs no introduction from me: it’s been all over the bestseller lists, and for good reason. Starr Carter, a young black woman, is the only witness to her childhood best friend’s murder at the hands of a white police officer. Starr is already navigating two worlds as a student at a mostly white prep school, but Khalil’s murder smashes her two worlds together. Stunning, heartbreaking, powerful. I was gripped and saddened by the main plot, but I also loved Thomas’ depiction of Starr’s tight-knit, complicated family.

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
In 1915, a young Englishwoman named Evelyn Gardiner is recruited to spy for the titular network in German-occupied France. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair finds herself pregnant, adrift and searching desperately for news of her French cousin Rose, who disappeared in World War II. Quinn expertly ties Charlie’s and Eve’s stories together, with a propulsive plot, some truly fantastic supporting characters and a ruthless villain. I devoured this on a plane ride (and a passing flight attendant exclaimed, “It’s so good!”). Highly recommended.

All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are still struggling to navigate their relationship. When Russ’ recently estranged wife is found murdered in her kitchen, events spin wildly out of control. This mystery packed in so much pain and surprise – not just for Russ and Clare but for many of the supporting cast, who are fully realized characters in their own right. Broke my heart, but it was the best yet in this series.

A Desperate Fortune, Susanna Kearsley
I picked up this fascinating novel after loving Kearsley’s The Winter Sea. Sara Thomas, an amateur codebreaker, travels to France to decipher a young woman’s diary from the 1730s. Kearsley weaves Sara’s story together with that of the diary’s author, Mary Dundas, who finds herself mixed up with the Jacobites. I loved both narratives, but especially enjoyed watching Mary adapt to her rapidly changing circumstances and step into her own bravery.

Brave Enough, Cheryl Strayed
My mom gave me this little book of Strayed’s quotes for Christmas, and I’ve been dipping into it. I’m a bit ambivalent about her work, but there is some pithy, no-nonsense wisdom here.

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

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not just jane book darwins

In the wake of my NYC trip and the presidential transition, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
Multiple secret plots, Horcruxes, Quidditch and so much snogging: I love this sixth installment of Harry’s story. It is, in many ways, his last chance to be a teenager. The ending makes me weep every single time, but it’s still so good.

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, David Bellos
I adore Les Mis: I fell head over heels for the musical as a teenager and loved the book when I read it a few years ago. Bellos chronicles the inspiration, writing process and publication of Hugo’s masterpiece, with fascinating asides about language, color, coinage, politics and more. Accessible and interesting for Les Mis fans. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 21).

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, Adam Gidwitz
An engaging, often funny medieval tale of three French children with unusual powers – plus a greyhound who just might be a saint. Fun, clever and moving. (Also: best subtitle ever.) Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Satanic Mechanic, Sally Andrew
Tannie Maria van Harten, who writes the recipe and love advice column for her local newspaper, gets drawn into a police investigation when she sees not one, but two, men murdered before her eyes. An engaging mystery set in South Africa, which is as much about Tannie Maria’s life and relationships as it is about catching the killer. Lots of Afrikaans words and delicious food descriptions. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 28).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
The final, grim, heartbreaking, wonderful installment of a story I adore. It felt astonishingly timely, and as usual, I didn’t want it to end. Lupin’s words on Potterwatch struck me particularly this time: “Everything for which we are fighting: the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting.”

Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature, Shelley DeWees
Everyone knows about Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters – and they are amazing. But before (and concurrently with) Jane and Charlotte, there were other groundbreaking British writers who were female, feminist, wildly talented and generally badass. A fascinating, highly readable account of seven such women. So good. Also recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

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

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get your jingle on sign christmas

The holiday season is in full swing over here, and the reading has slowed waaaay down. But here’s what I have been reading lately, when I’ve had the chance (and the brain space):

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, Doug Mack
What, exactly, is a U.S. territory? What rights and privileges do its residents have? Should the U.S. even have territories if it calls itself a leading democracy? Mack delves deeply into the convoluted history of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa (and travels to all of the above) to find out. Witty, thoughtful and very informative. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 14, 2017).

A Second Chance, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell (“Max”) and her crew of time-jumping historians are at it again – this time headed to Bronze Age Troy. This third book in Taylor’s series skips around wildly in history, often to confusing effect – still fun, though sometimes frustrating.

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith
What is the key to a meaningful life? Smith explores four “pillars” of meaning – belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence – and shares lots of data and case studies to explore how people can seek and find meaning. Thoughtful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 10, 2017).

Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France, Thad Carhart
I adored Carhart’s first memoir, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. This book recounts the three years Carhart spent in Fontainebleau (near Paris) as a young boy in the 1950s, when his dad was a NATO officer. The memories are interspersed with reflections on the history and ongoing restoration of the Château de Fontainebleau. Charming, thoughtful and vividly described. (Bought at the gorgeous Albertine Books in NYC.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
This is – I’ve said it before – the book that breaks this series wide open. It all builds up to the last 70 or so pages, when suddenly everything is darker and bigger and wildly different than you thought it was. (It also introduces two of my favorite characters – Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.) LOVE.

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

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During Commencement season, my reading has slowed down a little. But here are the books I’ve loved lately:

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon, ed. Laurie R. King & Leslie S. Klinger
King (who writes the Mary Russell series I adore) and Klinger asked a few of their fellow authors to write a second volume of stories featuring, parodying, or inspired by Sherlock Holmes. Fun, but a bit uneven; I thought the first volume (A Study in Sherlock) was better.

The Winter Garden Mystery, Carola Dunn
The second cozy mystery featuring Miss Daisy Dalrymple finds her writing about another country estate – and stumbling into another murder. I saw a few plot twists coming a mile away, but I like Daisy and enjoyed spending more time with her.

Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, Anthony Doerr
I loved this gorgeous memoir of the year Doerr spent in Rome with his wife and their infant twin sons, exploring the city and trying to write a novel. Full of beautiful sentences and vivid vignettes of a liminal time for Doerr’s family, in an endlessly fascinating city. (I also loved his novel All the Light We Cannot See.) Found at Adams Avenue Book Store in San Diego.

The Royal We, Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan
American Bex Porter expects to fall in love with Oxford – but not with an English prince – during her study abroad program. I loved this sassy, frothy, full-of-heart novel about Bex, her twin sister Lacey, Prince Nicholas and his rogue brother Freddie, and the complications of either being royal or dating a royal. Funny, heartbreaking and so good. (Also: Oxford! Love.)

Picnic in Provence: A Memoir with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard
I loved Bard’s first memoir, Lunch in Paris, but I may have loved this one even more. A gorgeous, warmhearted account of transition, marriage, new motherhood and opening an ice cream shop in Provence. Found at Bay Books in San Diego (pictured above).

Requiem for a Mezzo, Carola Dunn
A mezzo-soprano drops dead in the middle of a concert – and of course Daisy Dalrymple is on the case. Another amusing mystery with an entertaining cast of characters (I love the Chief Inspector’s two assistants).

The Tide Watchers, Lisa Chaplin
As unrest foments on both sides of the English Channel in 1802, a young Englishwoman is caught up in a complicated game of espionage. A fast-paced, well-written story full of adventure, intrigue and romance. (Warning: there are a lot of characters to keep track of.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 30).

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

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cover-somewhere-in-franceBack in November, I read and reviewed Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson’s debut novel, for Shelf Awareness.

As a fan of historical fiction with an interest in World War I stories, I was captivated by the story of Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, who longs to make a difference in the world, but is constrained by her place in British society.

When war breaks out in Europe, Lilly defies her parents and joins the ranks of WAAC drivers, eventually getting posted to France where her sweetheart, a Scottish surgeon, is working at a field hospital. Their love story twists and turns along with the war, and Lilly does a lot of growing up out there on the front lines.

Jennifer graciously agreed to do a Q&A for my readers, and with the return of Downton Abbey here in the States, the timing is perfect.

My questions and Jen’s responses are below. Enjoy!

Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for Somewhere in France?

When I was a teenager, my mother gave me a copy of Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of the Great War. At the beginning of the book, Vera isn’t much older than I was then, yet she was thrust into a world of war, death and paralyzing loss when she was still so young.

I remember thinking that I would love to read the story of other women like Vera. They didn’t fight in the front lines, but they made tremendous sacrifices all the same, and their work was absolutely vital to the war effort.

How did you become interested in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the experience of women ambulance drivers?

It began when I was researching the book. I had decided that I didn’t want Lilly to become a nurse—I couldn’t conceive of a believable way for her to acquire the necessary education and training—so I started looking at the other women’s services, and the WAAC, with its wide range of occupations for members, as well as a predominantly working- and middle-class membership, was ideal.

I did find it quite difficult to unearth information on the corps and its members, however, as most official papers relating to the WAAC were destroyed in the Blitz. If anyone out there is looking for a suitable topic for a doctoral thesis on the history of the Great War, a general history of the WAAC is badly needed!

I was particularly fascinated by the ambulance drivers in the WAAC; their work was difficult, dirty and frequently dangerous, often in terrible conditions, and the suffering of their passengers must have been very distressing to witness. I suppose I could have been kinder to Lilly, and let her work as a clerk well behind the lines, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun to write about!

Do you have a favorite period detail or incident you’ve come across in your research?

I think it was the original forms that applicants to the WAAC filled out when applying to the corps. Those few that survive are preserved at the National Archives in the UK (here’s an example that can be viewed online).

When I looked at those forms, filled out by each applicant in her own handwriting, I felt the hundred years between us slip away: here were young women, most of whom had never been away from home, and they were volunteering to leave everything and everyone they knew in order to do their duty. I was, and continue to be, deeply humbled by their courage.

What do you find most fascinating about the World War I era?

I think it’s the way it straddles a period that feels distant yet also very familiar. The people who fought and lived through the war were Victorian by birth and by outlook, with attitudes and beliefs that can often appear somewhat foreign to modern sensibilities.

Yet until quite recently Great War veterans were alive and among us and able to share their memories. I had the honor of meeting a number of them over the years, and when I spoke to them the war didn’t seem remote at all—it might as well have happened yesterday.

Have you visited any of the places in England and France depicted in your novel?

I’ve visited all of them, with the exception of Cumberland Hall in the Lake District, as it’s entirely a product of my imagination. While I was a guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, which is not far from the area of the Western Front depicted in Somewhere in France, I visited some of the battlefields in northern France and Belgium; most moving of all was Beaumont-Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment was decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

I’ve also visited Paris and London many times over the years and hope to take my children for a visit there soon.

Can you tell us a bit about the follow-up novel you’re working on, about Lilly’s fearless friend Charlotte?

It begins in the spring of 1919, after Charlotte’s return to Liverpool. She resumes her position as an assistant to Eleanor Rathbone, a real-life figure who was a city councillor and one of the best-known suffragists and supporters for the working poor in Britain in that era.

We follow Charlotte as she makes new friends at the boarding house where she lives, works tirelessly to improve the lives of Liverpool’s working poor, and attempts to save an old friend from the demons that are consuming him as a result of his wartime experiences.

Jen has offered to give away a signed copy of Somewhere in France to one of my readers, so leave a comment below for a chance to win! And you can learn more about Jen and Somewhere in France at her website.

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