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It’s been quite a month around here – which has meant, among other things, less reading than usual. But the books are still helping keep me sane, so here’s the latest roundup:

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and Jack Tiffany
I am a longtime, avid Harry Potter fan, and I had mixed feelings about this new story/script, before and after reading it. Fun to spend more time in Rowling’s world, and the characters are (mostly) still beautifully themselves. But it lacked the depth and power of the original seven books. I’m still glad I read it.

Precious and Grace, Alexander McCall Smith
I enjoy McCall Smith’s gentle mystery series about Precious Ramotswe, who runs the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana. I am less fond of her assistant, Grace Makutsi, but the dynamic between the two women is always interesting. This one wasn’t really a mystery, more a gentle reflection on life and forgiveness, but it was charming. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is placed under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel and sets about building a life for himself within the hotel’s walls. A witty, philosophical, engaging story – Rostov is charming and so is his supporting cast. I especially loved the hotel’s chef, Émile, and maitre d’, Andrey. (I also relished Towles’ debut, Rules of Civility.)

To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin
Widowed and penniless, Caitriona Wallace takes a job as a companion to two young people heading to Paris in 1887. There, all three of them become entangled with Émile Nouguier, an engineer working with Gustave Eiffel to build his tower. Beautiful descriptions, though I found every single character (except Eiffel himself) frustratingly passive. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 29).

The Shattered Tree, Charles Todd
This eighth entry in Todd’s Bess Crawford series finds Bess (battlefield nurse and amateur sleuth) tracking down a mysterious soldier in October 1918. These books are somber but well written, and I like Bess (though she does insist on thinking she’s invincible). A solid historical mystery.

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

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A Star for Mrs. Blake, April Smith
In the early 1930s, the U.S. government sent thousands of Gold Star Mothers, women whose sons were killed in World War I, to France to visit their sons’ graves. Smith’s novel follows five Gold Star Mothers to Paris and Verdun, on what is supposed to be an important journey for them all. I was frustrated by the slow start and a few odd plot points, and I wasn’t sure the trip changed anything for some of the women. But the setting was fascinating – a forgotten piece of history. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 14).

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
The Triwizard Tournament is on at Hogwarts, and Harry might just be champion – if he survives the competition. Lots of wonderful magic here, and several new, important characters (Mad-Eye Moody, Fleur Delacour, Viktor Krum). The ending is both terrifying and sad, with shadows of what’s to come. But the book isn’t all darkness. It includes one of my favorite funny lines in the whole series: “Just then, Neville caused a slight diversion by turning into a large canary.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling
The ending of this book breaks my heart right in half every time. But I love it – I love Dumbledore’s Army, the ongoing development of Harry’s story, the students’ (and teachers’) subversive campaign against that foul Professor Umbridge. We meet Tonks, whom I love, and we see more of Sirius, Lupin and the Weasleys, whom I adore. And the drumbeat starts at the end: Harry is now finally, fully aware of who he is and what he has to do.

Lost Lake, Sarah Addison Allen
I enjoyed Allen’s The Peach Keeper and loved her debut, Garden Spells. Her new novel takes us to a run-down but magical lake resort in Georgia, where Kate spent a wonderful summer when she was 12. Now Kate’s great-aunt Eby is planning to sell the resort, right as Kate (newly widowed) and her daughter, Devin, arrive for a visit. A story of love, loss and new beginnings, with a bit of magical realism (Allen’s signature). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 21).

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
The copious “snogging” in this book makes me laugh, but the story grows steadily darker, as Harry learns more about the boy who became Voldemort and the cruel measures he took to protect himself from death. This is also, though he doesn’t know it, Harry’s last year at Hogwarts – just one of the reasons the ending makes me cry. So, so good.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
After a desperate escape from Privet Drive and a brief respite at The Burrow, Harry, Ron and Hermione are on the run, hunting Horcruxes and trying to avoid capture by Death Eaters. This last book is fast-paced, heartbreaking and powerful, and the last few chapters answer so many questions (and make me weep for all kinds of reasons). A fantastic end to one of my very favorite series.

A Question of Honor, Charles Todd
World War I nurse Bess Crawford investigates another mystery, this one related to a murder case from her childhood in India. The mystery plot was compelling, but Bess’ constant back-and-forth movements from England to France didn’t seem to relate to the story. And she’s unbelievably dense regarding the man who loves her. Not my favorite in the series, but still interesting.

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harry potter series books british editions

Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling, David Crystal
Crystal, a linguist and scholar, explores the evolution of English spelling and its wacky rules (and multiple exceptions). I enjoyed his book The Story of English in 100 Words and this one was fascinating too. He covers Old English, loanwords, Dr. Johnson, the influence of the Internet, and more. Good fun for word geeks (and former spelling bee champs) like me.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
I love this series SO much. This book is a wonderful introduction to Harry’s world and its denizens. I love Rowling’s wry asides and her hints of what’s to come. The characters are all so wonderfully themselves already, though they will grow and change in later books. I own the British editions, shown above (hence the title change), but the link is to the U.S. edition.

Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc., Delia Ephron
I love the movies Delia co-wrote with her sister Nora, and also loved this collection of essays on everything from bakeries to finding love to her grief at Nora’s death to #TheHairReport. Delia’s voice is witty and wise and sometimes snarky – but the essays about Nora, and their mother, are quite poignant. A fast read, with some profound (and profoundly funny) moments.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling
Flying cars, Parseltongue, a mysterious diary and rumors of a terrifying monster…this second Harry Potter book is lots of fun. I love watching Harry keep discovering new things as Rowling builds her world. Lots of fun foreshadowing here. (And I wish I’d had some Pepperup Potion for the cold I had last week.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
One of my favorites in the series, because of how the plot breaks wide open in the last section – that scene in the Shrieking Shack, and Hermione’s Time-Turner, bring about big and powerful changes. The series suddenly grows bigger and darker and deeper, though the fun stuff (Quidditch, the Marauders’ Map) is still present. Love.

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atozsurvey-1017x1024-297x300I saw this survey on my pen pal Jaclyn’s blog (it was originally created by Jamie), and thought it looked so fun. I love books and I love surveys – put ’em together and it’s perfection.

Author you’ve read the most books from: L.M. Montgomery. Anne Shirley, Emily Byrd Starr, Sara Stanley, Jane Stuart, Pat Gardiner – I love all her heroines. And Madeleine L’Engle – lots of her memoirs, books on writing and faith, and young adult novels.

Best Sequel Ever: Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery – even better than the original. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which breaks the series wide open. Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos is a fabulous companion to the original, Love Walked In.

Currently Reading: I’m revisiting Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and his love, Harriet Vane. It’s been nine years since I first read them and I love them even more this time around.

Drink of Choice While Reading: Tea – either black flavored with spices and citrus, plain black tea with milk and sugar, or decaf/herbal (at night).

E-reader or Physical Book? Physical books. Always, always, always.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School: Someone kind and slightly nerdy. Remus Lupin? Atticus Finch? The usual handsome, confident heroes in books would have been too intimidating to shy teenage me.

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance: I was a Harry Potter skeptic for a long time. Once Val convinced me to try them, the books became some of my favorites. And Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand was utterly, unexpectedly spectacular.

Hidden Gem Book: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice – a sweet, wise and witty story of two friends in 1950s London. No Children, No Pets – a fun summer tale, one of my favorite childhood books. Cynthia Voigt’s books about the Tillerman family (Homecoming, Dicey’s Song, etc.). Anne Fadiman’s brilliant little collection of bookish essays, Ex Libris. And Susan Hill’s wonderful bookish memoir, Howards End is on the Landing.

Important Moment in your Reading Life: I took a World Literature seminar during my senior year of college that exposed me to a dozen books I’d never have read otherwise – most of them powerful and heartbreaking. That class shifted my perspective in all kinds of important ways. And Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water was my “back door” introduction to her work. I later wrote my master’s thesis on her memoirs, and I have learned so much from her.

Just Finished: Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers; The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg; The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read: I’m not really a sci-fi or western fan. Also: no erotica or trashy romance novels.

Longest Book You’ve Read: Les Misérables, which I finally tackled this year (after many years of adoring the musical) and loved.

Major book hangover because of: Hmmm…I don’t know. My shelves and to-read stacks offer enough options that I can get past a book hangover pretty quickly.

Number of Bookcases You Own: Six. Three in the dining room, two in the bedroom, one in the guest bedroom. (Plus one built-in, and piles of books all over the place.)

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times: I’m an inveterate rereader – I reach for the Anne of Green Gables series, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, the Mitford series, my Advent book, and other favorites regularly.

Preferred Place To Read: Curled up on the sofa in my living room; in bed; on a park bench with a hot drink. I can’t say I adore reading on the subway, but I do a lot of it during my commute each day.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read: There are many, but I wrote this summer about a phrase from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet: “I really and truly believe in God with all kinds of doubts.”

Reading Regret: So many books I’ve yet to read – but this isn’t a regret, it’s a possibility!

Series You Started And Need To Finish (all books are out in series): Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series; the Chronicles of Narnia.

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books: This whole survey is a love letter to my favorites – but I adore L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet, Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Unapologetic Fangirl For: Harry Potter; Betsy-Tacy; Anne of Green Gables; so many other favorite series.

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others: Can’t pick just one. I can’t wait to read Ally Carter’s United We Spy, Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire, the latest Royal Spyness mystery, the latest Bess Crawford mystery, Kerstin Gier’s Emerald Green, and the new Jhumpa Lahiri novel.

Worst Bookish Habit: Piling up the to-be-read stacks until they teeter; specifically, going crazy at the library when I already have a dozen or more books waiting at home. I have no self-discipline in a library.

X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book: The Count of Monte Cristo (on the fiction shelf).

Your latest book purchase: Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers (can’t get enough of Wimsey & Vane).

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late): I stayed up far too late recently rereading Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon and Strong Poison (all Wimsey-Vane mysteries).

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Although I am an Anglophile, a bibliophile and a fan of young adult literature, I spent several years as a Harry Potter skeptic. I first heard about the books when a family friend, a school superintendent, read the early ones and praised them. But I wasn’t sure I’d really like them – wizards? Spells? Some kind of game played on brooms? Sounded a bit too fantastical for me.

During my first semester in Oxford, several friends were thrilled to tour Christ Church because its dining hall serves as the Great Hall in the Harry Potter films. Privately, I scoffed at their excitement. Didn’t they love this elegant, historic building for its own sake? (Yes, I know. I couldn’t stand me, either.)

Finally, Valerie convinced me to give Philosopher’s Stone a chance. “Just try it,” she begged, pushing it across her coffee table on a hot August afternoon. “If you hate it, I swear I’ll leave you alone. But if you love it, come back and you can borrow the rest of the series.”

harry potter series books british editions

Two days later I was back on her doorstep, holding out the book I’d just finished and begging to borrow the next one. I finished Prisoner of Azkaban the following week, sitting at Val’s kitchen table, and as soon as I read the last page, I leaped up and pounded down the hall to her bedroom, to squeal and exclaim and discuss. I had enjoyed the first two books, but the last 80 or so pages of the third one break the plot wide open, forcing readers to reexamine many things they thought they knew. Suddenly, this story was  bigger and deeper – and darker – than I could previously have imagined. (Val, bless her, never so much as said “I told you so.”)

Recently, I spent a couple of weeks immersed in what I think is my sixth reread of the series. And I love it more than ever.

It’s fascinating to reread a series from the beginning after I know the end (though it was fun to wait with bated breath for the sixth and seventh books, with millions of other fans). I can glimpse Rowling’s grand design from the first pages of Philosopher’s Stone, and I know to look for the signs and hints she weaves into the buildup of Harry’s story. I notice the repetition of certain symbols, key phrases, even verbs. These books are full of action, and the verbs “seized,” “bellowed,” “roared,” “dashed,” get quite a workout.

I love tracing the familiar, twisting path from number four, Privet Drive, to Hogwarts and back again, learning about the wizarding world alongside a wide-eyed Harry, taking in the delights of Diagon Alley and meeting the Hogwarts students, staff and ghosts. I love the flashes of humor that pop up regularly (often in the form of Fred and George, whom I adore). From Zonko’s to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes to various clever spells, it’s obvious Rowling had so much fun creating this magical world. And Dumbledore had it right: the heart of the series, the great secret that gives the story its power, is love.

Harry has grown up mostly ignored by the Dursleys, but his mother’s love and protection thrums through his veins in his very blood. Somehow, his years with his relatives haven’t erased his compassion: he is kind, loyal and honorable, although he has a temper and a stubborn independent streak (he is no angel, but rather endearingly human). His parents’ love saved his life, and his love for his friends saves more than one life throughout the series, as the stakes rise higher and higher, and more people are forced to risk their necks for those they care about.

I love the Order of the Phoenix, how these wizards from varying backgrounds band together to fight against Lord Voldemort, though for all they know, it might be a losing battle. I love how the Weasleys take Harry in as another son, how the members of the DA stand up for him and for each other, how Ron and Hermione stay with him until the very end. I love how the story keeps growing in depth and scope, until it becomes truly epic, a battle for the very future of the world we all hold dear.

Every once in a while, I get a hankering to return to Hogwarts, to spend a week or two in this world filled with magic (of various kinds). The best rereading combines the comfort of familiarity with new moments of insight each time, and Harry’s story provides both, in ample measure.

Do you reread favorite books or series? Have you read the Harry Potter books?

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Wish You Were Eyre, Heather Vogel Frederick
I loved this sixth (and, sadly, final!) installment in the Mother-Daughter Book Club series. These five spunky girls round out their sophomore year with Jane Eyre, competitions in singing and hockey, a visit from their Wyoming pen pals and some exciting Spring Break trips. There’s a bit of boy drama too, and repeat appearances from their families and friends. I cheered when they urged each other to “get your Jane on” – meaning “be brave and stand up for yourself.” Jane is one of my heroines and I’m glad she inspired them too.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Emma Straub
Elsa Emerson, born in Wisconsin, takes off for Los Angeles at age 17 with her new husband and a head full of Hollywood dreams. She quickly becomes a studio star (and a mother), but of course life in Hollywood is never quite what it seems. I found Elsa-turned-Laura interesting, and her story both heartbreaking and hopeful, but I grew annoyed with her sometimes. She seemed so passive, despite her dreams, always dependent on other people for attention and adoration. Still, a fascinating look at the “golden age” of filmmaking and a complex family story.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
Beginning another reread of this beloved series. I love how the reader learns about Hogwarts and the magical world right alongside Harry in this first book. And I love that Harry’s years with the Dursleys haven’t soured him on being kind to other people. He may despise Draco Malfoy, but he is compassionate and loyal. (I own the British edition, hence the slight title change. Link is to the U.S. edition.)

Letters of E.B. White, ed. Dorothy Lobrano Guth, updated by Martha White
I’ve been reading this tome (700 pages!) since mid-September, and I relished White’s witty, precise observations on farm life in Maine, writing for the New Yorker, cross-country road trips, his own career and his long, happy marriage to his wife Katharine. This is a lot of letters, but I so enjoyed having White’s voice in my ear morning and evening. More to come about this book.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling
I love rereading this series for so many reasons: the jokes are just as much fun, the plot points just as enthralling, the fifth or sixth time through. But I can also see the hints of foreshadowing, since I know the end of the story. Lots of those hints here, as life at Hogwarts grows ever more exciting and complicated (and Hermione loosens up enough to break school rules with Harry and Ron). I’d almost forgotten about ridiculous Professor Lockhart, and the teachers’ spells in the Chamber of Secrets are so clever.

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
A Scottish spy (don’t call her English!) and an English pilot, her best friend, go down together on a mission to France, and get separated. The spy narrates Part 1, writing her story for her Nazi interrogators, not knowing whether Maddie (the pilot) is dead or alive. Maddie takes over in Part 2, wondering the same thing about her friend. Brilliantly told (unreliable narrators, plot twists, double agents), and also heartbreaking. I’m reminded again of the tremendous sacrifices made by both government agents and ordinary people in World War II. Stunning, gripping and full of bravery.

What are you reading these days?

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Because endings, too, can be so good.

1. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both. (Charlotte’s Web)
2. We talked of what was to come. And of the lost art of keeping secrets. (The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets)
3. “‘God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world,'” whispered Anne softly. (Anne of Green Gables)
4. And now we’ll all go swimming. (No Children, No Pets)
5. Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you. (I Capture the Castle)
6. “Music I heard with you was more than music, and bread I broke with you was more than bread.” Yes. And always will be. (Two-Part Invention)
7. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy. (A Moveable Feast)
8. “Well, I’m back,” he said. (The Return of the King)
9. She could feel the Big Hill looking down as the Crowd danced at Tib’s wedding in the chocolate-colored house. (Betsy’s Wedding)
10. The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

What are your favorite last lines?

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