Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

shoes book harvard yard

As we head into another school year, I’m thinking back over my favorite reads of the summer. I love to read all year round (which you knew), but there’s something about summer reading – diving into a fast-paced series or sprawling out on the beach or sofa with a juicy novel.

Here are the highlights from my book list this summer:

Most Exquisite Coming-of-Age Stories: Mambo in Chinatown and Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. Both books feature Chinese-American protagonists trying to make their own way in New York City. Heartbreaking, gorgeously written and hopeful.

Darkest/Most Fascinating YA Series: The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. Epic battles, unusual magical powers and a truly fantastic love story, set in a fictional realm (Ravka) inspired by imperial Russia.

Juiciest Smart Beach Read: A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams. Love, scandal and natural disaster among the New England aristocracy, which I read (fittingly) on the beach in PEI.

Best Combination of Zen and Whimsy: Bunny Buddhism by Krista Lester. Because we could all use a bit of advice about how to hop mindfully.

Wackiest Blend of Greek Mythology, Teenage Love & a Great Story: the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (a reread).

Best Ultramodern Jane Austen Adaptation: The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick. (I loved the web series too.)

Loveliest Travel Memoir: The House on an Irish Hillside by Felicity Hayes-McCoy, which is not only about Ireland but about how to live.

Most Beautiful Language: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.

Best Refresher on Writing and Life: The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron, an old favorite. I’ve been going through it sloooowly, letting its words sink into my soul.

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

What are the best books you read this summer?

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hibernation books

Ruin and Rising, Leigh Bardugo
This conclusion to Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy finds her main characters on the run, searching for a secret weapon to use against the Darkling and his forces. Several plot twists I didn’t see coming; lots of heartbreak; some sweet romantic moments. Really enjoyable, like the others in the series.

Falling in Honey: How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart, Jennifer Barclay
Barclay has loved Greece since her backpacking student days, but after a bad breakup, she spends a month on the tiny island of Tilos. The friendly people, delicious food and gorgeous views sustain her through more romantic ups and downs. I got tired of the dating play-by-play, but the descriptions of Tilos made me want to hop a plane immediately.

The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, Susan Elia MacNeal
In November 1941, SOE agent Maggie Hope is hiding out in western Scotland, training new recruits and healing from a disastrous mission to Berlin. When her dear friend falls ill under suspicious circumstances, Maggie takes up the case. Meanwhile, U.S. and British relations with Japan grow increasingly strained. Fast-paced and fascinating – a solid entry in the series.

In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey, Samuel Fromartz
Fromartz, a longtime home baker, delves into the science and technique of bread baking, traveling to France, Germany and all over the U.S. to learn about baguettes, rye, sourdough and many varieties of flour. I liked the baking anecdotes better than the discussions of fermentation, but Fromartz blends them together engagingly. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 4).

The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, Bernie Su & Kate Rorick
Based on the popular YouTube series, this retelling of Pride & Prejudice is ultra-modern (set in California; Bing Lee is a Harvard-educated zillionaire) and seriously fun. Lizzie’s voice is sharp, clever and hilariously snarky. I’m now watching (and loving) the web series.

Lizzy & Jane, Katherine Reay
Elizabeth Hughes has achieved modest fame as a New York chef, rarely visiting her family in Seattle. When a cooking slump coincides with her sister’s chemo treatment, Lizzy reluctantly heads home. An interesting take on Austen (Lizzy and Jane are quite different from the Bennet sisters); a lovely novel of food, family and new beginnings. (I also loved Reay’s debut, Dear Mr. Knightley.) Anne generously sent me her advance copy. To review for Shelf Awareness (pub date Oct. 28).

Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion Killer, Dorothy Gilman
Mrs. Pollifax heads to a fictional African country with a few characters from her previous adventure, and finds a rash of deaths caused by a mysterious killer. Not the best in the series, but I love Mrs. P.

Bunny Buddhism: Hopping Along the Path to Enlightenment, Krista Lester
This was an impulse buy at the Booksmith. It’s a compilation of tweets by Lester on bunniness, Buddhism and living (and hopping) on purpose. Utterly charming and so much fun, especially if you love bunnies (I do).

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

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vacation reading books

(Pictured above: my vacation reading.)

A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon, ed. Laurie R. King & Leslie S. Klinger
I love Sherlock Holmes; I love Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels featuring him; and I love the BBC series Sherlock. So I loved this story collection by various authors, riffing on the character and methods of the great detective. Pure Holmesian enjoyment.

Persuasion, Jane Austen
I read Austen’s last (and quietest) novel some years ago, but had been hankering for a reread. I love Anne Elliot, though I wish she were more assertive (and I want to smack her whiny younger sister), and that letter from Captain Wentworth makes me swoon. Austen’s wit, as always, is biting and astute, and her characters are delightful.

An Old Betrayal, Charles Finch
I love Finch’s Charles Lenox mystery series, and this seventh entry was a treat. Lenox interrupts his Parliament career (again) to investigate a murder, gradually realizing that the Queen of England may be in danger. Some wonderful scenes with historical figures, including Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria herself.

Paris Letters, Janice MacLeod
Frustrated artist leaves the corporate rat race for Paris and falls in love with her (Polish) butcher. To support her new lifestyle, she begins selling “painted letters” – paintings of Paris scenes with accompanying text. The painted letters are lovely, but the memoir fell flat. I’ve read better ones.

Death at La Fenice, Donna Leon
Jessica has raved about this mystery series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, and this first book was excellent. When a famous opera conductor is found dead in his dressing room during intermission, Brunetti must solve the case. Evocative descriptions of Venice, and a well-plotted mystery.

A Mad, Wicked Folly, Sharon Biggs Waller
Victoria Darling longs to be taken seriously as an artist. But as a daughter of aristocrats, she’s only expected to marry well. After scandal erupts at her French finishing school, Vicky returns to London and finds herself caught up in the suffragette movement. Witty and fun, with a sweet romance. Hoping for a sequel!

Paris to Die For, Maxine Kenneth
Before Jacqueline Bouvier married Jack Kennedy, she went on a secret mission for the CIA…in Paris! This romp of a spy novel takes Jackie all over the city, often in the company of a handsome Frenchman. Too fun. (Inspired by an actual letter written by Jackie.) Found at Bay Books in San Diego.

Spy in a Little Black Dress, Maxine Kenneth
This sequel to the above takes Jackie to Havana, where she meets Fidel Castro and his band of rebels. Not as good as the first book; a bit too conscious of its own cleverness, but still fun. Perfect vacation reading.

Thrones, Dominations, Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh
It’s no secret I adore Lord Peter Wimsey and his love, Harriet Vane. Walsh used Sayers’ unfinished notes and chapters to flesh out this novel, and it is well plotted and satisfying. I loved spending time with Harriet and Peter again.

A Fall of Marigolds, Susan Meissner
Two women – a nurse on Ellis Island in 1911 and a survivor of the 9/11 attacks – are connected by a scarf (which features the titular marigolds). Both of them must learn to move on from loss and open themselves to living again. Heartbreaking, sometimes frustrating, ultimately lovely.

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

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shoes book harvard yard

Longbourn, Jo Baker
This novel begins as a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective – the arrival of a handsome new footman makes quite as much news downstairs as Mr. Bingley’s presence does upstairs. But it stretches back before the beginning of P&P, telling the stories of the housekeeper and the maid, Sarah, and continues far beyond Elizabeth’s marriage to Mr. Darcy. A fascinating look at servant life in the Regency era, beautifully told. I loved it.

My Ántonia, Willa Cather
Narrator Jim Burden recalls his childhood on the Nebraska plains, and his friend Ántonia, a spirited Bohemian girl who captivated Jim with her zest for life. They grow up together, but Cather skilfully illuminates the differences between Jim’s situation (and his privileges) and the hardships Ántonia must endure. Gorgeous writing, and a beautifully drawn, unsentimental portrait of a vanished time and place. A true classic.

The Five Red Herrings, Dorothy Sayers
When an artist is found dead near his Scottish village, Lord Peter Wimsey (on holiday in the area) takes up the case. Working with the local police (all of whom have delightfully broad Scots accents), Wimsey pursues the case’s questions (literally) over hill and dale. The railroad timetables grew tedious, but the re-enactment of the case at the end was great fun. (I missed Bunter, though; we hardly saw him.)

Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery
Anne Shirley and several of her friends head to Redmond College for new adventures. I love watching Anne makes a home for herself in Kingsport and at Patty’s Place, with regular trips back to Green Gables. She’s growing up, and that is bittersweet – but she is growing into herself, and that is rich indeed. So many wonderful characters appear here, from Anne’s housemates (Priscilla, Phil and Stella) to Aunt Jamesina, Miss Patty Spofford and others. Warm and comforting and sweet.

Glitter and Glue, Kelly Corrigan
I loved Corrigan’s memoir The Middle Place and was so excited to receive an advance copy of this book (out in Feb. 2014). Corrigan grew up loving and being loved on by her joyous dad, but her relationship with her firm, stoic mother was much more complicated. But when Kelly found herself in Australia, working as a live-in nanny to two children who had just lost their mother to cancer, she kept hearing her own mother’s voice in her head: instructing, calming, offering wry commentary. Corrigan’s voice is warm and engaging, and her words will resonate deeply whether you’re a daughter, a mother, or both.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
I’d only read this book once, back in high school, and after reading Longbourn (above), I decided to pick it up again. I’ve seen two film versions, so the story is quite familiar, but it’s a pleasure to revisit the book. Elizabeth is witty and charming, Mr. Collins is absurd, Mr. Bennet is wryly defeatist, and (per Longbourn) the servants are hardly mentioned at all. Austen’s minor characters are skilfully drawn (Miss Bingley, Lady Catherine, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner), and of course there are many quotable lines. Lovely.

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april reads part 2The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, Anton Disclafani
After a family tragedy, 15-year-old Thea Atwell is sent from her secluded Florida home to a riding camp/boarding school. Away from her parents and twin brother for the first time, she gradually learns to live with the other girls, while reflecting on the scandal that brought her there. Full of dark secrets and beautiful writing; Thea is a complex, compelling narrator. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 4).

Love Over Scotland, Alexander McCall Smith
The third 44 Scotland St. novel finds anthropologist Domenica studying the habits of pirates in the Strait of Malacca, Pat beginning her university course, and Matthew making a few disastrous fashion decisions. Gentle humor and philosophical questions, as always, abound. Good fun.

Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly, Susan Schorn
All her life, Susan Schorn wrestled with fear and anxiety. When she took up karate at a women-only dojo in Austin, she not only found a way to address her fear: she discovered an entirely new framework for life. Her smart, witty memoir traces her journey as a karate student and teacher, with plenty of pithy, often paradoxical life lessons and hilarious anecdotes. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 28).

She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems, ed. Caroline Kennedy
Kennedy has gathered her favorite poems under a dozen or so headings (“Falling in Love,” “Breaking Up,” “Marriage,” “Work,” “Motherhood,” etc.), with essays introducing each section. Some sections felt a bit trite, but I loved others, such as “Growing Up and Growing Old” and especially the last section, “How to Live.” A wide range of poems from different eras, and an interesting array of perspectives on womanhood.

Hattie Ever After, Kirby Larson
After a stint on a homestead claim in Montana (in Hattie Big Sky), orphan and aspiring writer Hattie Brooks heads to San Francisco to pursue her dreams. She starts out as a night janitress at a big newspaper, but quickly progresses to cub reporter – even gaining a few scoops. Hattie is a spunky heroine, but at times she seemed overly and improbably naive. Fun, but not as compelling as the original.

Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, Deborah Yaffe
Although Deborah Yaffe was a longtime Austen fan, she had no idea how huge, diverse and sometimes bizarre the Janeite world could be. But she explores the spectrum of Austenmania in this fascinating blend of memoir and reportage. She interviews Jane fans ranging from pedantic academics to a Texan who orders custom-made Regency gowns every year. She also shares her travails with a Regency ball gown (and corset). Witty, informative and warmhearted. Jane would approve. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 10).

Garlic, Mint, and Sweet Basil: Essays on Marseilles, the Mediterranean, and Noir Fiction, Jean-Claude Izzo
These are more like mini-essays – snippets of Izzo’s thoughts about Marseilles (his beloved, multiethnic home), the cuisine and culture of the Mediterranean region, which bridges Europe and Africa; and one scene featuring the protagonist of his noir novels. Some lovely sentences and images of Marseilles, mostly relating to food (see title), but the substance here felt lacking.

The World According to Bertie, Alexander McCall Smith
Our fourth visit to Scotland Street finds Bertie adjusting to the birth of his baby brother, Ulysses, while Angus Lordie fights to clear the name of his dog, Cyril, who has been impounded for biting people. I love these books for their gentle musings on our everyday interactions with one another and the philosophical questions arising from those. McCall’s love for Edinburgh is evident in every page.

The House at the End of Hope Street, Menna van Praag
The titular magical house in Cambridge, England, is visible only to those women who need it and managed by Peggy, a wise, white-haired mother figure with a weakness for cream. Alba, a young, timid student, finds herself there after a serious betrayal. Gradually she (and the house’s other guests) regain the courage to face their fears, helped by the house’s former residents, who dispense advice through their Hogwarts-esque talking portraits. Whimsical and wonderfully bookish.

Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, Stacy Horn
Though she only has a so-so voice and she’s not religious, Stacy Horn has sung with the choir of Grace Church in New York City for more than 30 years. Her memoir explores the joy we derive from group singing, with asides about the history of singing societies in the U.S. and the lives of several composers. As a singer, I enjoyed this book, though I got a bit tired of the author’s protesting-too-much assertions of agnosticism.

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october books mary russell laurie colwin mrs queen

Mrs Queen Takes the Train, William Kuhn
I was utterly charmed by this novel, which asks and answers a fascinating question: what if Queen Elizabeth II went off on an unplanned break? Where would she go, and how? Who would follow her? And how would she get back home before a national scandal broke out? Kuhn brilliantly captures the inner monologue of not only The Queen, but half a dozen people (mostly members of her staff) who follow her to Scotland, forming some unlikely alliances as they do so. Wonderful characters from a cross-section of British society, and a lovely ending involving a performance of Henry V. (I cried.) Funny and enchanting, especially for Anglophiles like me.

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin
Colwin is a self-proclaimed home cook, rather than a foodie: she admits to grand cooking experiments, but she falls back on reliable, simple food when those experiments fail. I loved her tales of dinner parties in a wee New York apartment and serving comfort food to family, friends and strangers, interspersed with recipes. Her writing is warm and appealing, like the recipes themselves.

O Jerusalem, Laurie R. King
This fifth adventure starring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes takes us back to an interlude in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (their first adventure) in which they briefly fled England for Palestine. The trip turns into a rather unusual working vacation, as Holmes and Russell (the latter disguised as a man) travel around Palestine hunting a dangerous criminal. As always, King masterfully blends history, mystery and a cast of fascinating characters, and the setting of Jerusalem is particularly rich.

Justice Hall, Laurie R. King
Holmes and Russell are back in England (and it’s the 1920s again, after the flashback of O Jerusalem). But they are reunited with two friends from their time in Palestine, distant cousins who served as their guides through that land. A large cast of family members and their secrets converge on the palatial Justice Hall, as our two intrepid detectives dig for answers and attempt to protect their friends. Fast-paced and wonderfully atmospheric.

The Journal Keeper, Phyllis Theroux
Sarah recommended this book, drawn from the author’s journals over six years. It is at once luminous and mundane, charming and ordinary – like all journals. Theroux is dealing with her mother’s illness and death, adjusting to an empty nest, worrying over her work and finances, and wondering whether she can find love again. My favorites were the small, crystalline descriptions of her settings – she has an eye for lovely details. Sometimes I grew frustrated with her doubts and questioning – but that is part of what journals are for. I certainly use mine that way.

The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, Syrie James
I enjoyed James’ first novel, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, and liked this one even better. Samantha McDonough, Jane Austen fan and frustrated scholar, finds a letter hinting at an Austen manuscript that went missing at a manor house in Devon. She travels there, managing to convince the house’s (handsome) owner to help her look for the manuscript, and when they find it, they read it aloud together, while debating what to do with it. The framing story is a bit predictable, but fun, and the “manuscript” itself is a fine Austen imitation, well plotted and highly entertaining. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 31).

What are you reading?

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happier at home book tea

Happier At Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life, Gretchen Rubin
I love Rubin’s first book and her eponymous blog, The Happiness Project, and enjoyed hearing and meeting her recently at the Booksmith. Her second happiness project examines ways to boost her happiness (and her family’s) at home. Since I’ve read a lot of her work (see above), this book was less surprising than her first one. But I still found it charming, and many of her resolutions (“Go shelf by shelf,” “Abandon a project,” “Now is now,” a la Laura Ingalls Wilder) are practical and applicable.

Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter, David Buchanan
Buchanan examines the history and the present state of biodiversity in the U.S., visiting farms, markets and research centers to learn about forgotten varieties of fruits and vegetables. He argues for preserving a wide variety of produce, rather than always focusing on uniformity and predictability (prized by supermarkets and commercial growers). The details of government regulations drag sometimes, but there’s a lot of fascinating information, even if you’re not a grower or gardener. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 25).

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
A classic story of European immigrant farmers in the Midwest, particularly Alexandra Bergson and her deep attachment to the land. The plot moved slowly, though I found it interesting enough to keep reading. Some beautiful descriptive sentences, but the characters seemed a bit shadowy. This was the first Cather novel I’ve read, and I was ambivalent; perhaps I’ll try My Antonia next.

The Mother-Daughter Book Club series, Heather Vogel Frederick
I love this fun teen series set in Concord, MA (close to where I live). I reread them in preparation for the sixth book, Wish You Were Eyre (releasing next month). Look for a separate post about these books soon.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women, Laurie R. King
Mary Russell (of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) and Sherlock Holmes pair up again, to investigate a charitable organization helping women in London, and its mysterious leader. Mary is newly possessed of a sizable fortune, and deep into her studies at Oxford; she is more mature, but no less stubborn and brilliant. I love her spirit, especially as she clashes with Holmes. Their interaction is the best thing about this book, which is also well plotted and historically fascinating. (Several of its sequels are waiting on my shelf.)

You Come Too: Favorite Poems for Readers of All Ages, Robert Frost
Frost is the perfect poet for a New England fall, and I’d been hankering for his words. I wanted them simple and unadorned: no annotations, no numbered lines, no Complete Works. This slim edition contains nearly all my favorites (except “Nothing Gold Can Stay”) and many poems I hadn’t read in years. I particularly loved “Acquainted With the Night” and “The Freedom of the Moon.” “After Apple-Picking” suits the season perfectly, and, as ever, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is sheer loveliness.

Emma, Jane Austen
I’ve seen both the Gwyneth Paltrow film and its 1990s update, Clueless, so I was familiar with the plot of Emma, but I’d never read it. (I bought the gorgeous Penguin Threads edition, with embroidered/embossed cover and flaps.) Austen’s minor characters are a delight – Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse are particularly entertaining. Emma can be exasperating, but I love watching her gradually come to know herself, and as ever, Austen’s wit and insight into the human soul are amusing, incisive and brilliant.

The City of Poetry, Gregory Orr
I heard Orr read this summer, and found this slim chapbook at the tiny Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge. He imagines poetry as a city, inhabited by both joy and deep grief, and peopled by poets both famous and unknown. His poems are brief, lucid and often stunning, and this extended metaphor reminded me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Lovely.

What are you reading lately?

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china cabinet bookcase books

My china-cabinet bookcase

Thereby Hangs a Tail, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie (a canine-human PI pair) handle a missing-persons case with a twist: the real target, also missing, is Princess, a tiny but famous show dog. Tracking down Princess and her owner proves complicated, especially when Bernie’s girlfriend, Suzie, also disappears. Chet makes a few discoveries on his own, but he can’t share them in words, and it takes a few more days (and Bernie’s interviewing skills) to put the pieces together. Just as fun as Dog On It, with lots of sharp observations and canine asides from Chet.

Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland, Paul de Barros
Born in England and trained as a classical pianist, Marian McPartland became one of the top jazz pianists in the U.S. Paul de Barros tells her story, from her childhood to her experiences playing with the USO during World War II (where she met her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland) to the decades she spent in the States, playing, touring and composing. Thorough and fascinating (though the names of jazz pieces and players are dizzying, at times). Recommended for fans of jazz, meaty biographies and American pop music. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 16).

To Fetch a Thief, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie’s third case involves a missing circus elephant and her trainer, with an interesting subplot concerning a divorce case. Quinn ratchets up the action in this book, taking our heroes south of the border in pursuit of animal traffickers. Chet’s perspective on the various circus folk is highly entertaining, as are his interactions with Peanut. Even better than the first two books.

The Christmas Plains, Joseph Bottum
Bottum recalls his childhood Christmases in the Midwest, mixing in carols, Charles Dickens, musings on holiday  commercialism and traditions, and stories from other times in his life. He rambles at times, but also hits on a few profound truths about this much-loved, much-maligned holiday. (It felt odd to read this in August, but I was reading for Shelf Awareness; the book is out Oct. 23.)

The Dog Who Knew Too Much, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie return for a fourth case, tracking down a boy missing from a wilderness camp. When someone else from the camp turns up dead and Bernie gets arrested for murder, it’s up to Chet to bring in reinforcements (even if that means a few long nights on the road) and crack the case. Suspenseful, well plotted, funny and satisfying – these books get better and better.

Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, Maureen Corrigan
Corrigan, the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, explores the joys of a reading life, focusing on three genres and how they’ve shaped her own perspective: female extreme adventure stories (a genre she names and explains), detective fiction, and Catholic memoirs/fiction. I love books about books, and I enjoyed her smart musings and vivid anecdotes. (Also: her tales of graduate school convinced me anew that I am not meant to get a Ph.D.) Good fun if you’re a reader.

A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters Went to the Ball, Susannah Fullerton
Fullerton explains dance in Jane Austen’s day, from etiquette to menus to dress, accompanied by lovely period illustrations. She also discusses dancing and balls in each of Austen’s novels, exploring how they move the action forward and what they tell us about the characters. (She draws rather heavily on the unfinished The Watsons, but Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Mansfield Park get plenty of play.) Fun and informative; a good bet for Austen fans. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 16).

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I’m back from my recently mentioned adventure in D.C., with a sunburn, a camera half full of photos, a rather depleted bank account and a handful of new books. J and I had a lovely time tramping around the Mall, perusing American history at the Smithsonian, chasing double agents at the International Spy Museum, and wandering Old Town Alexandria with our hosts, my pen pal Jaclyn and her husband Steve. It was hot – but we took advantage of cold drinks and air-conditioning whenever we could.

During our four days there, we visited four independent bookstores, beginning almost immediately upon arrival (after a delicious lunch at Teaism). The first stop was Kramerbooks, near Dupont Circle:

kramerbooks interior washington dc

kramerbooks afterwords washington d.c.

The space is smallish, but it’s crammed with an extensive stock and a team of highly efficient employees who wove around customers, shelving and reshelving books. (There’s also a cafe, which we didn’t visit since we had just eaten, but it looked delectable. And I love the ampersands everywhere.) I came away with A Novel Bookstore, which I’ve been longing to read, and the lovely Penguin Threads edition of Emma, which I’ve never read.

We headed down the street to Second Story Books, a quiet, well-stocked used bookstore, where I browsed the fiction shelves for a while.

second story books exterior washington dc

Then a familiar spine in the biography section caught my eye: the distinctive blue of As Always, Julia, the letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. Since this book inspired Jaclyn and me to become pen pals, and since I didn’t own a copy, I took it as a sign, and purchased it.

second story books interior washington dc

We also hit Politics & Prose, a two-story bookstore I’d read about in Shelf Awareness. It was slightly overwhelming – so many choices! – but I loved the extensive staff recommendations and the themed tables, including this Olympic Fever display:

politics & prose washington dc olympics

(That’s J in the background, perusing the politics and current events section.)

politics & prose interior washington dc

I came away with Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (the first in her Tommy & Tuppence series). I could have stayed for hours, but it was time for lunch.

We ended our bookstore crawl on Sunday afternoon with a trip to the Book Bank, in Old Town Alexandria:

book bank exterior alexandria va

On the way out (after nosing around the fiction and children’s shelves), I casually glanced into the sci-fi and fantasy section, and nearly squealed with delight. There, for just $2, was a 1965 Ballantine paperback edition of The Hobbit – the perfect match to my Lord of the Rings set. I borrowed these books from my dad as a college student (after reading his copy of The Hobbit in high school), and I have a deep attachment to that particular edition. I’ve unearthed copies of the trilogy in Oxford, Paris and Boston, and it was so fitting and fun to complete my set with a Hobbit from D.C.

My suitcase was several pounds heavier on the plane ride home, but it was totally worth it.

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It’s one of those reading months – where the books are so numerous that I’ll be bringing you more than two reading installments. So here’s the second half of what I’ve been reading during the first half of the month. Confused? Never mind – let’s get to the reviews:

There’s a Bat in Bunk Five, Paula Danziger
Marcy Lewis (of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, reviewed yesterday) leaves home for the first time, going to an arts camp as a counselor in training. She’s a less whiny, more interesting character in this book, and the setting is more fun (camp always is, right?). She meets an array of fellow counselors and campers who range from adorable to irritating. First romances, practical jokes, and yes, bats pepper the plot of this enjoyable summer story.

The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker, Janet Groth
I wanted to love this book, and I did enjoy the glimpses into literary New York, circa 1960-1975. But I never connected with the narrator – either Janet the young, Midwestern naïf or Janet the older, supposedly wiser professor and writer. She lacked self-awareness, and while some of her thumbnail sketches of famous people (Muriel Spark, for one) were interesting, there was a lot of name-dropping without much depth. For a much wittier, more thoughtful look into life at the New Yorker, I recommend E.B. White’s essays.

All Roads Lead to Austen, Amy Elizabeth Smith
I loved this international twist on Jane Austen and book clubs. Smith, a lit professor, travels to six Latin American countries, organizing Austen-themed book clubs and movie viewings in each one. She meets dozens of fascinating people (who have strong opinions about Austen!), gets an education in Latin American literature and even meets a couple of handsome men. Smith is a frank, thoughtful, wryly self-deprecating narrator with a deep wanderlust – my favorite kind of tour guide. Highly enjoyable.

Flunking Sainthood, Jana Riess
Riess embarks on a yearlong project of trying one new spiritual practice per month: generosity, hospitality, centering prayer, keeping the Jewish Sabbath, etc. While she fails empirically at most of the practices, she learns a great deal about faith, church history and her own exalted ideas of what a spiritual person “should” look like. Her voice is, wry, honest and relatable, and she sprinkles in some of what she learns about history and practice. (Blurbed and personally recommended by Lauren Winner.)

Curse of the Spellmans, Lisa Lutz
Izzy Spellman (of The Spellman Files, reviewed yesterday) is back – and she might be losing it. Her sister, brother and parents are all acting suspiciously (in different ways); someone is vandalizing a neighbor’s holiday decorations exactly the way Izzy did when she was a teenager, and she’s been hired to figure out who. And she’s convinced her neighbor, John Brown (if that is his real name) is up to something. But after four arrests, she might be prevented from finding out what. This Spellman sequel was just as zany and smart as the first one.

Revenge of the Spellmans, Lisa Lutz
The third Spellman book finds Izzy in court-ordered therapy, secretly living in her brother’s basement apartment and working as a bartender while on hiatus from PI work. Our heroine is struggling, but Izzy’s nothing if not resilient. She is, however, increasingly sleep-deprived, and wonders (among other things) why her dad keeps asking her to lunch. Does he have an angle? (This question alone illuminates some of the wacky dynamics of the Spellman family.) Lutz’s characters retain their hilarity, but everyone does a bit of growing in this book, and by the end, Isabel just might be on her way to reclaiming a “normal” (for a Spellman) life.

Thames Doesn’t Rhyme with James, Paula Danziger
In this sequel to Remember Me to Harold Square (which I enjoyed), 15-year-old Kendra and her family travel to London with her boyfriend Frank and his parents. As in the last book, the kids have to do a “scavenger hunt” visiting museums around London. But this book was more about Kendra’s constant (sometimes whiny) frustration with her parents and little brother. Cute, but not as much fun as the first one.

The Spellmans Strike Again, Lisa Lutz
(I’m starting to wonder if these titles are cribbed from the Pink Panther film series.) The fourth Spellman story has all the fun ingredients of the first three, plus Rae has discovered a passion for social justice and Izzy just might be ready for a real relationship. There’s a new character (Maggie) whom I really like, and the family dynamics are hilarious, as always. Good fun.

What are you reading this summer?

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links. Graphic by Sarah.

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