Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

maisie paris planner red books

Winter is the perfect time to hunker down with lots of books. As the snow swirls outside, here’s what I have been reading:

Journey to Munich, Jacqueline Winspear
After a stint working as a nurse in a remote Spanish village, investigator Maisie Dobbs returns to England. But the Secret Service taps her for a sensitive mission: retrieving an engineer imprisoned by the Nazis. I adore Maisie and her supporting cast, and found the setting (Germany in 1938) fascinating. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 29).

The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett
Pratchett’s final novel follows Tiffany Aching as she continues to serve as the witch for her home district, amid multiple challenges. I like Tiffany and her fellow witches, though the plot (and the magic) wandered a bit.

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Rebecca Traister
There are more single women in the U.S. than ever before; they are gaining in power, but they still face numerous challenges. Traister explores the history of single womanhood, how single women have agitated for social change, and how far we still have to go. Keenly observed, well-researched and whip-smart. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 1).

Move Your Blooming Corpse, D.E. Ireland
Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins are off to Ascot – where they find themselves in the thick of another mystery. I liked watching them try to solve multiple murders, though I guessed the killer before they did. Fun, but not as good as its predecessor.

Walk on Earth a Stranger, Rae Carson
Leah “Lee” Westfall has a secret: she can sense the presence of gold. When her parents are murdered, Lee runs away from her greedy uncle, disguising herself as a boy and joining a wagon train headed for California. A sweeping historical YA novel full of vividly drawn characters (with a hint of magical realism). I loved Lee, her best friend Jefferson and many of their compatriots on the trail. This is the first in a trilogy and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans
I’m a longtime reader of Rachel’s blog and I liked her first two books, Faith Unraveled and A Year of Biblical Womanhood. But this book is far and away her best yet. An account of Rachel’s complicated relationship with church, told through the lens of seven sacraments, it is sensitively and beautifully written (though the last sections felt rushed). I found myself nodding my head often, saying, “Me too.”

The Trouble with Destiny, Lauren Morrill
Drum major Liza Sanders knows her band has to win a performing arts competition on their spring break cruise or they’ll get the ax due to budget cuts. But once they board the Destiny, everything goes wrong: power outages, flaring tempers, misunderstandings galore. I found the romantic storyline predictable, but Morrill hits all the right notes of the band nerd experience. Fun.

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War, various
The Armistice came on Nov. 11, 1918 – but it didn’t end the war for everyone. Nine authors explore the hope and grief of the war and its end through an anthology of short stories. A bit uneven, but a compelling (and heartbreaking) mosaic of the experiences shared by soldiers, nurses and those who loved them. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 1).

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
This quiet novel follows Eilis Lacey, who emigrates from her small Irish town to Brooklyn in the 1950s. She works in a department store, takes bookkeeping classes and even falls in love. But when she is unexpectedly called home, she must choose between her old and new lives. Lovely and well drawn.

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

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library book stack tulips

Several extra-long commutes recently mean I’m getting through a lot of (short!) books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, Sarah Bessey
Sarah is a wise, thoughtful blog-friend, and her first memoir is a clarion call for the equal participation of women in the work of God’s kingdom. There is a lot of blog content here, and not much “meaty” theology, but sound ideas and lovely metaphors. (I’m curious to read her new book, Out of Sorts.)

A Mind of Winter: Poems for a Snowy Season, ed. Robert Atwan
Winter is a tough season for me, but it has inspired some wonderful poetry. This collection contains gems from Frost, Dickinson, Whittier, Marge Piercy, Mary Oliver and more. Gorgeous and quiet. Found at The Bookstore in Lenox, MA.

Prudence, Gail Carriger
Lady Prudence Akeldama (“Rue” to her friends) embarks on a secret mission to India in her new dirigible, The Spotted Custard. Tea, espionage, werewolves and other supernatural creatures abound in this steampunk fantasy novel. Not my usual thing at all – which might be why I found it confusing at times – but witty, snarky and fun.

The Beautiful Possible, Amy Gottlieb
Sol Kerem is a serious rabbinical student, engaged to the beautiful, whip-smart Rosalie, when he meets Walter, a German Jewish refugee and agnostic. Their three lives become braided together in complicated ways. Sol and Rosalie raise their children and lead a suburban synagogue, while Walter explores art and mysticism. Luminous and thought-provoking, though the characters sometimes feel distant. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 16).

A Lady of Good Family, Jeanne Mackin
Beatrix Jones Farrand made a name for herself as a pioneering female landscape designer in the Gilded Age. But as a young woman, she also experienced heartbreak. Mackin takes us on a lushly described tour of Europe with Beatrix and her mother. I liked the premise, but it dragged a bit. Found at The Bookstore in Lenox.

Sapphire Blue, Kerstin Gier
As Gwyneth Shepherd adjusts to her new status as a time-traveler, things get even more confusing: whom can she trust? What is the “ultimate secret” that will be revealed? And does her handsome time-traveling partner, Gideon, really like her – or not? Gwyneth is funny and appealing, and I like watching her gain a bit of confidence in this book.

Window Left Open, Jennifer Grotz
I’d never heard of Grotz’s poetry, but am glad this collection came across my desk. Some lovely, vivid lines. I particularly liked “They Come the Way Flowers Do,” “Apricots,” “Poppies” and “Self-Portrait on the Street of an Unnamed Foreign City.” (Out Feb. 2.)

Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George
Orphaned and unhappily married, Eskimo teenager Miyax (“Julie” to her pen pal) flees into the Alaskan tundra. She befriends a wolf pack and learns to survive on her own, but must decide whether to return to civilization. I read this as a child but had forgotten a lot of the details. An enthralling survival story. (For the Reading Together Family Exploration Book Club.)

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

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get your jingle on sign christmas

December means vacation reading – hooray! Here’s what I’ve been reading over the last couple of weeks:

Along the Infinite Sea, Beatriz Williams
I love Williams’ smart, elegant novels about the Schuyler family, especially Tiny Little Thing. This book follows Pepper, the “wild child” sister, who’s hiding out from the (rich, powerful) father of her unborn baby. She meets Annabelle, a German baroness with a fascinating past, and the book weaves together the two women’s stories. I loved both Annabelle and Pepper – smart, strong, confident yet utterly human. (Hallie recommended this one at Great New Books.)

One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty
In lovely, lucid prose, Welty details her childhood in Mississippi, her family history, and the roots of her deep love of stories and writing. The three sections are called “Listening,” “Learning to See” and “Finding a Voice” – all such vital parts of becoming a writer. Wonderful. Found at the newly relocated (and gorgeous) Raven Used Books.

Ink and Bone: The Great Library, Rachel Caine
In Jess Brightwell’s world, the Great Library controls all knowledge, and private ownership of books is forbidden. The son of a smuggling family, Jess knows a thing or two about contraband knowledge. But when he goes to Alexandria to train as a Scholar, he and his comrades discover the Library’s sinister side. A fast-paced, intriguing beginning to a new fantasy series.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher goes off to visit her stepdaughter at boarding school, and her husband Alec is assigned a triple murder case. You wouldn’t think the two could possibly be connected – but, of course, they are. A really fun entry in this entertaining series.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, Susan Elia MacNeal
It’s December 1941 and Maggie Hope is headed back to the U.S., as part of Winston Churchill’s entourage. When one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s aides turns up dead, Maggie is asked to investigate. Meanwhile, other matters personal and professional provide plenty of intrigue. This book tried to juggle too many balls at times, but I like Maggie and I loved seeing her back stateside.

The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson
In the summer of 1914, Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye, East Sussex, to begin teaching Latin at the local grammar school. She struggles for acceptance and financial independence, but makes a few friends – and then the outbreak of war changes everything. Keenly observed, beautifully written, with wonderful, compelling characters. I loved it. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 22).

Gone West, Carola Dunn
An old school friend calls on Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher to investigate a strange situation at the isolated country house where she lives. Soon after Daisy’s arrival, a man turns up dead, and (of course) Alec arrives on the scene to investigate. A fun, twisty plot, though I found the eventual solution a little thin.

The Sword of Summer, Rick Riordan
Since his mom died, Magnus Chase has been living rough on the streets of Boston, avoiding his eccentric uncle. But on his 16th birthday, an utterly bizarre series of events plunges him into the world of Norse mythology and raises all sorts of questions about his identity and destiny. Fun, fast-paced and snarky, with lots of great Boston details – though I didn’t love it quite as much as the Percy Jackson series.

Love Notes for Freddie, Eva Rice
Rice’s third novel traces the stories of three people – a math-whiz schoolgirl, a young electrician who yearns to dance and a frustrated dancer turned maths teacher – and how they intersect in the summer of 1969. Gorgeously written and engaging, but it felt somehow unfinished. Deeply bittersweet.

Goodreads does a super cool Year in Books infographic – here’s mine if you’re interested.

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

What are you reading? (Happy New Year!)

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strand books nyc exterior


I’ve read more than 200 (!) books this year, and it’s always a tough task to winnow down my favorites. But in the midst of the avalanche of year-end lists, I thought I’d share a handful. These are the gems that have sparkled most brightly in my reading year.

Not all these books were published in 2015 (though many of them were), but I read all of them (except Best Reread) for the first time this year.

Wisest Memoir: Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin. This lyrical, plainspoken memoir by a writer-turned-carpenter resonated deeply with me. I loved MacLaughlin’s descriptions of tools and construction materials (both as physical objects and as an extended metaphor for living), and her thoughtful account of building (and rebuilding) a worthwhile life.

Loveliest Novel on Life, Love and Aging: Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Two elderly people begin spending their nights together, just talking. In spare, melancholy, evocative prose, Haruf eloquently explores the terrain of this new relationship. A wise, bittersweet and beautiful book.

Best YA Novel about Love, Grief and Poetry: Kissing in America by Margo Rabb. A refreshing twist on the typical boy-meets-girl YA plotline. This is a book about all kinds of love: friendship, love altered by grief, and the tight, complex bond between mothers and daughters. Funny, poignant, a little messy and deeply honest – like the best love stories.

Loveliest Travel Memoir: Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. An evocative memoir of a season containing both chaos and light – with so many beautiful lines.

Favorite Reread: Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace. Emily is wise and kind, and I love watching her muster her wits.

Most Fabulously Geeky Word-Nerd Memoir: Between You & Me by Mary Norris. Grammatical advice, stylistic quirks and entertaining stories from a long career at The New Yorker.

Most Charming Middle-Grade Novel: Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick. Who can resist a literary mystery, a big quirky family and a bookstore dog named Miss Marple?

Most Comforting British Author: D.E. Stevenson. I have so loved spending time with her characters: Mrs. Tim, Miss Buncle, and the four Grace sisters.

Wittiest British Sleuth: Amory Ames, who stars in Ashley Weaver’s series that (so far) includes Murder at the Brightwell and Death Wears a Mask.

Catnip for Mystery Lovers: The Great Detective by Zach Dundas, a fantastic history of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. Also The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, an account of the Detection Club, which included such luminaries as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Frothy Chick Lit with a Soul: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. I loved this Will-and-Kate inspired romp (set in Oxford!). So fun and romantic, with surprising depth.

Favorite Bookish Podcasts: Books on the Nightstand and All the Books. I love hearing these literary, enthusiastic voices in my head each week. (To quote Liberty, who co-hosts All the Books, “It’s so good! It’s SO GOOD!”)

Last week, the team at Great New Books (of which I am a part) shared our Best Books of 2015. Hop over there to see our favorites – it’s a fantastic list.

What were your favorite books of 2015?

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advent book stack

We’ve come around to the season of Advent again – that quiet, twinkly time of anticipation before the glorious joy of Christmas. As usual, I’m marking the season by humming “O Come O Come Emmanuel” over and over again, and by reading.

Fittingly, I discovered Advent because of a book: Watch for the Light, a collection of readings for Advent and Christmas, which I picked up at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., many years ago. The contributors are a diverse, thoughtful group of scholars, poets, philosophers and theologians, and their words help me live more deeply into this season every year. From essays by Kathleen Norris and Brennan Manning to poems by T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath (yes, really), this collection always wakes me up, reminds me to pay attention – which is what Advent is all about.

Kathleen Norris’ lovely memoir The Cloister Walk is loosely organized around the liturgical year, and I turned back to the Advent chapters last weekend, rereading them by the light of our glowing Christmas tree. She speaks of reading the words of the prophet Isaiah on the first Sunday of Advent at a Benedictine monastery, and being grateful that such poetry exists in the Bible, and that “it tastes so good in [my] mouth.”

Madeleine L’Engle, another one of my guides, wrote an odd, striking memoir-cum-meditation, The Irrational Season, that is also somewhat tied to the liturgical year. Some of it is a little esoteric for me, but the Advent chapter, “The Night is Far Spent,” is quietly moving. Madeleine writes of being wakeful in the night, standing at the window of her New York City apartment with a mug of bouillon in her hands, musing on time, creation and the mystery of Advent. It’s an image I return to every year.

I fell completely in love with Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice when my friend Julie handed it to me, several Christmases ago. It’s a quiet, lovely story of five rather vaguely connected people who all end up at an old house in northern Scotland at Christmastime. All of them are struggling with different griefs, and all of them find unexpected joy and redemption during their time together. The ending makes me cry.

Someone has said that poetry gets us closest to the mystery of this season, and for that I like Luci Shaw’s collection Accompanied by Angels, which takes us through the life of Jesus. Many of the poems are short, with striking images. Taken together, they form a mosaic that highlights a few new facets of this Jesus who is so well known and yet so mysterious.

I’ve long loved Father Tim Kavanagh and his adventures in Mitford, North Carolina. Shepherds Abiding, the eighth Mitford novel, is a sweet story of one Advent/Christmas season in which Father Tim restores a derelict Nativity scene as a gift for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, other denizens of Mitford are going about their own Christmas business. Like all the Mitford novels, it’s funny, down-to-earth and quietly hopeful.

I reach for this stack of books every Advent, and their words – especially those in Watch for the Light – have become for me part of the fabric of the season, a way to observe these few liminal weeks between Ordinary Time and Christmas. As the days grow suddenly dark and short, I am watching for the light in both literal and metaphorical ways. These words help light the way for me, every year.

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

What are you reading during this Advent season?

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bookstore lenox ma interior

We recently (re)visited The Bookstore in Lenox, MA. A bookish wonderland.

We are heading straight for Thanksgiving and, as always, I’m thankful for good books. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Finding Serendipity, Angelica Banks
Right before finishing her latest book, the novelist Serendipity Smith disappears. Her daughter, Tuesday McGillycuddy, must travel to the land of Story to find her mother (with her faithful dog, Baxterr) – but the adventure doesn’t go quite as planned. Sweet, whimsical and so fun. Found at Book Culture in NYC.

The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton
Why do we travel? What do we gain from exploring new places? How can we become more thoughtful travelers? Alain de Botton explores these and other questions in this series of travel essays, with “guides” such as Vincent van Gogh and John Ruskin. He’s an observant, lyrical and occasionally cranky narrator. Thought-provoking and highly enjoyable. Recommended by Laura.

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly
It’s springtime in the Texas Hill Country, and Calpurnia Tate has all she can do to keep her brother, Travis, and his ever-expanding collection of stray animals out of trouble. Meanwhile, Callie keeps learning about astronomy and biology from her grandfather and starts assisting the local vet. A fun historical novel with a wonderful, spunky heroine. (I also loved Callie’s first adventure, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.)

A Place We Knew Well, Susan Carol McCarthy
For 13 days in October 1962, the U.S. held its breath as tensions in Cuba ratcheted up and up. McCarthy explores the Cuban Missile Crisis through the lens of a tightly knit family in a small Florida town. Tense and well-crafted. I loved protagonist Wes Avery: such a deeply compassionate man.

Between Gods, Alison Pick
Raised in a Christian household, Alison Pick was shocked to discover that her father’s Czech relatives were Jewish – some even died in the Holocaust. In her thirties, preparing for marriage, she undertakes the difficult journey of conversion to Judaism. Pick seems more interested in religious participation than a personal connection with (either) God, but this is still a luminous, moving, achingly honest memoir. Found at The Bookstore in Lenox.

Girl Waits With Gun, Amy Stewart
After their mother’s death, Constance Kopp and her two sisters are living peacefully on their farm in rural New Jersey. But when a powerful, ruthless silk factory owner hits their buggy with his car and refuses to pay up, things get ugly. A witty, whip-smart, action-packed novel of a woman who became one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the U.S.

Plainsong, Kent Haruf
Two elderly rancher brothers take in a pregnant teenage girl, at the suggestion of a compassionate teacher. Another teacher must raise his two young sons alone after his wife leaves. A luminous, quietly powerful story of ordinary people acting with great generosity and kindness, told in Haruf’s spare, beautiful prose.

Sheer Folly, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple’s 18th adventure finds her at a(nother) country estate, doing research for an article and investigating a(nother) crime. These books are my Cadbury milk chocolate: smooth, sweet and delightfully English.

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

What are you reading?

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library stack roses

(My latest library haul – all 14-day books. No pressure.)

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, Cara Nicoletti
Julia reviewed this delicious food memoir at Great New Books. It’s a series of brief essays on books Nicoletti has read and loved, with recipes inspired by each book. Wonderful glimpses into her childhood and career as a chef and butcher. I loved this line about Boston, where Nicoletti is from and where I live now: “bruised history and mixed-up streets and good, good people.”

The Two Mrs. Abbotts, D.E. Stevenson
Barbara (Buncle) Abbott, her niece and their fellow villagers are facing the changes brought about by World War II: evacuees from London, soldiers all around, German spies (!) in the woods. This book felt a bit disjointed, and I missed Sam, Barbara’s nephew. Still cozy and charming, like all Stevenson’s novels.

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries, ed. Martin Edwards
Christmas is ripe for mysteries and ghost stories, from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to the 16 shorts (all Golden Age and British) collected here. A little uneven, as anthologies tend to be. I particularly liked the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers, but some of the more obscure ones are also fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 3).

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between, Jennifer E. Smith
On the night before they leave for college, Clare and Aidan have to decide whether to stay together or break up. The result is a tour through the past two years of their relationship, including the sticky parts. I like Smith’s sweet YA love stories, but this one fell a little flat. (Though it vividly recalled the agony of breaking up with my high school boyfriend right before college.)

Ornaments of Death, Jane K. Cleland
New Hampshire antiques appraiser Josie Prescott is thrilled to have found a distant relative just in time for the holidays. But when he disappears after attending Josie’s Christmas party, she grows worried and puts her amateur sleuthing skills to work. A so-so cozy mystery; I liked Josie and the setting, but I saw a few twists coming. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 1).

The Odds of Getting Even, Sheila Turnage
Right before the trial of the century in Tupelo Landing, N.C., the defendant – Dale Johnson’s good-for-nothing daddy – breaks out of jail. Miss Moses LoBeau, Dale’s best friend, rounds up the Desperado Detectives to track him down and solve a series of smaller mysteries (break-ins, a fire). I love Mo – sassy and big-hearted – and her wacky supporting cast of small-town characters. So fun.

Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf
Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both elderly and widowed, strike up a friendship – spending nights together at Addie’s house, just talking. Haruf eloquently explores the terrain of this new relationship, in spare, melancholy language. Beautiful, evocative and bittersweet. Recommended by Lindsey.

Come Rain or Come Shine, Jan Karon
It’s the wedding of the decade in Mitford – Dooley Barlowe and Lace Harper are getting married at Meadowgate Farm. Father Tim Kavanagh and various other family members and friends pitch in to make the big day a success. I liked hearing Lace’s and Dooley’s perspectives in this book, but it felt a little slight to me. Still, I always love a visit to Mitford.

Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace
Emily Webster is feeling let down: she’s just graduated high school, but she can’t go to college like her friends. Feeling “stuck” in Deep Valley, Emily learns to “muster her wits” – designing a program of study for herself, making new friends and learning to build a life of her own. This was a reread – I love this book so much.

A School for Brides, Patrice Kindl
The young ladies of the Winthrop Hopkins Academy (well, most of them) are eager to marry well, but they’re stuck in a Yorkshire backwater with hardly any men. A few unexpected visitors and some clever scheming help to change things, however. A really fun YA send-up of Regency drawing-room comedies. I also enjoyed Kindl’s previous novel, Keeping the Castle.

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

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