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2015 favorite books

I read a lot, as y’all know – I’m almost at 100 books for the year. And we are (somehow) halfway through the year already, so here are the books I have loved the most over the last six months:

Frothiest, Sauciest, Most Fun Chick Lit: The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan. Oxford, true love, tightly knit sibling bonds and a gaggle of quirky, loyal friends – what more could I ask for?

Most Insightful Memoir on Work & Life: Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin. A thoughtful, sensitive exploration of writing, carpentry and building a good life.

Best New Installment in a Beloved Series: A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear. Classic Maisie Dobbs in a fresh new setting, with new challenges. I will follow Maisie to the ends of the earth.

Smart, Witty, Utterly Delightful Sherlockiana: The Great Detective by Zach Dundas. A fantastic exploration of the Holmes phenomenon (past and present).

Best Book on Yoga & Life: Do Your Om Thing by Rebecca Pacheco.

Cheeriest British Fictional Companion: Mrs. Tim, aka Hester Christie. I enjoyed every page of the four books about her.

Most Evocative Travel Memoir: Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. So many beautiful sentences.

Best Retelling of a Legend I Thought I Knew: Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen, which made me fall in love with Robin Hood all over again. (I still have a crush on the handsome fox from the Disney movie.)

Most Delicious Memoir of Food & Marriage: Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard, which I reviewed at Great New Books.

Snarkiest, Most Entertaining YA Novel: Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond.

Spunkiest Cozy Mystery Series: the adventures of Daisy Dalrymple.

Loveliest Story of a Quiet Life Well Lived: Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan (out in September).

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

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picnic in provence book scone tea

“Paris is always a good idea,” Julia Ormond famously noted in the 1995 film version of Sabrina. Like many Americans enamored with la belle France, I tend to agree, as does American journalist and author Elizabeth Bard.

More than 10 years ago, Bard had a lunch date with a handsome Frenchman in Paris and never went home. That story is chronicled in her first memoir, Lunch in Paris, which I read several years ago and loved. So I was delighted to hear that Bard was releasing a second memoir, Picnic in Provence. As its title suggests, this book follows Bard, her French husband Gwendal and their infant son Alexandre as they leave Paris behind for a quieter life in the Provençal village of Céreste.

I love a good memoir—especially one featuring food, travel, or both. So I’ve read my fair share of true-life tales set in France. I’ve come to expect some of their common elements: rhapsodies about the food, the difficulty of putting down roots in a new community. (Anyone who has read Peter Mayle will expect the home-renovation subplot that crops up at one point.) But Bard’s memoir, while full of gentle humor (and luscious food descriptions), goes deeper.

I’m sharing my (glowing) review of Picnic in Provence at Great New Books today. Please join me over there to read the full review – and share your favorite French and/or foodie memoirs!

I write quarterly reviews for Great New Books. You can read all my recs over on the GNB site.

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bay bopks coronado ca

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.

What are you reading?

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april books red orange

Apparently I’m following a color scheme with my books lately. (Even the tulips match.)

I know April isn’t quite over, but here’s what I have been reading:

Things You Won’t Say, Sarah Pekkanen
Jamie Anderson knows the risks of being a cop’s wife: her husband Mike faces danger on the job, every day. But when Mike is involved in two shootings just months apart, their family’s whole life changes. A gutsy, timely book, but not my favorite of Pekkanen’s novels. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 26).

Do Your Om Thing: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life, Rebecca Pacheco
I bought this book after reading Lindsey’s enthusiastic review. Pacheco demystifies yoga philosophy (chakras, koshas, deities) and gives practical suggestions for integrating yoga into your life on and off the mat. Warmhearted, wise and down-to-earth. Loved it.

Murder at the Breakers, Alyssa Maxwell
Society reporter Emma Cross may be “just” a poor cousin of the wealthy Vanderbilts, but that doesn’t stop her from investigating when their financial secretary is murdered – and her brother is the prime suspect. A so-so mystery plot, but the setting (Gilded Age Newport, RI) is really fun.

The Precious One, Marisa de los Santos
Taisy Cleary hasn’t seen her autocratic father, Wilson, in 17 years. But when he calls asking her to come home, she says yes – and forms a surprising bond with her teenage stepsister, Willow. I love de los Santos’ lyrical writing and her sensitive explorations of family, and this one is just lovely.

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin
After spending her twenties staring at a computer screen, MacLaughlin longed for more tangible work – so she dove headfirst into the world of carpentry. A stunningly written, wise memoir about work and identity and building a meaningful life. Recommended by Kerry.

Murder at Marble House, Alyssa Maxwell
Emma Cross’s second adventure finds her investigating the death of a fortune teller and her cousin Consuelo Vanderbilt’s sudden disappearance – which may or may not be connected. Fun to see these characters again (and the mystery was better this time).

The World on a Plate: 40 Cuisines, 100 Recipes and the Stories Behind Them, Mina Holland
Holland gives readers a quick tour of 40 regional cuisines, mixing culinary history with recipes and a little memoir. Fun; best suited for flipping through. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 26).

Fatal Reservations, Lucy Burdette
Hayley Snow, Key West food critic and amateur sleuth, investigates the death of a local juggler (hoping to exonerate a friend of hers who’s implicated). I like this series, but this entry felt disjointed. Out July 7 (I received a copy from the publisher).

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

What are you reading?

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april books

The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, Martin Edwards
A fascinating, highly readable group biography of the men and women who transformed Golden Age (inter-war) detective fiction in the UK and beyond. Full of details about two of my favorites, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 28).

Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett
Trainee witch Tiffany Aching steps into a dance with the titular spirit of winter, and disaster ensues till she (and the Nac Mac Feegles) can figure out how to fix things. Funny and clever, but a little hard to follow.

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
I love the story of Mary, Colin, Dickon and their hidden garden – and there’s no better book to reread while I’m watching for spring. Old-fashioned and beautiful.

Lowcountry Bombshell, Susan M. Boyer
Private eye Liz Talbot takes a case involving a Marilyn Monroe lookalike and her crazy cast of hangers-on. Meanwhile, Liz’s personal life is getting complicated. Not as good as Boyer’s first mystery, but still fun.

The Truth According to Us, Annie Barrows
Layla Beck, pampered senator’s daughter, is sent to Macedonia, West Virginia, as a WPA writer in 1938. Boarding with the Romeyn family, she uncovers more than a few secrets – and learns a thing or two about truth and history. A big-hearted Southern novel; warm and charming. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 9).

Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, Heather Lende
After a near-fatal bike accident, Lende muses on faith, grief and small-town Alaska life while recovering slowly (and continuing her work as an obituary writer). The title comes from her own mother’s final instructions. Wise and moving.

Lady Thief, A.C. Gaughen
The sequel to Scarlet finds Robin Hood’s band dealing with court intrigue, a dangerous archery tournament and the slippery Prince John. Gripping and well told, though I found Scarlet (the heroine) frustrating at times.

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
Jane Stuart never knew she had a father – until he asks her to come spend the summer with him on Prince Edward Island. One of my favorite spring books – I love smart, practical, capable Jane. And I love the descriptions of PEI.

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

What are you reading?

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parnassus books nashville

Lowcountry Boil, Susan M. Boyer
Southern private eye Liz Talbot heads back to her hometown off the coast of South Carolina to solve her grandmother’s murder, and runs into a tangle of family drama and small-town politics. A well-written debut mystery full of colorful characters.

The Summer Invitation, Charlotte Silver
A light, sweet tale of two teenage sisters who spend a magical summer in NYC. The characters are paper-thin and so is the plot, but there are some lovely New York scenes. Recommended for starry-eyed young girls (anyone else will probably find it lacking).

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska, Heather Lende
I loved Lende’s new memoir Find the Good (out 4/28). This book, her first, chronicles her family life and work (which includes writing both social columns and obituaries) in Haines, Alaska. Warmhearted and wise.

Scarlet, A.C. Gaughen
Will Scarlet is the best thief in Robin Hood’s band – but only a few people know he’s really a runaway girl. A fabulous twist on the Robin Hood story, full of high drama and romance. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi
I somehow missed this adventure story as a teen, but enjoyed the tale of Charlotte’s treacherous journey on the high seas with a mutinous crew. She’s a little naive (but what 13-year-old girl isn’t?). Really fun.

The Four Graces, D.E. Stevenson
After finishing the Mrs. Tim series, I was ready for more D.E. Stevenson. This gentle novel follows Liz, Tilly, Sal and Addie – the four Grace girls – and their vicar father through an eventful summer. Charming and funny, though it ended too abruptly (and Addie hardly appears at all). Recommended by Jaclyn.

The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett
Tiffany Aching wants to be a witch when she grows up – but she never expects to be aided by a band of wacky, hard-drinking, six-inch-high pictsies (the titular Wee Free Men). Hilarious and clever – my first Pratchett novel.

A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett
Tiffany Aching’s second adventure finds her working as a witch’s apprentice – but things get sticky when she must battle an ancient, bodiless evil being. Witty and wise and full of heart (and sly humor). So much fun.

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

What are you reading?

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february vacation books

Between plane delays, crazy long commutes and cold, dark evenings, I’ve been reading a lot lately. (But then, when am I not?) Here’s what I’ve read (and loved) recently.

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham
Veronica Mars is back in her hometown of Neptune, CA, and when a couple of coeds go missing over Spring Break, she’s on the case. Fast-paced, snarky and featuring all the characters I love.

All Fall Down, Ally Carter
Grace Blakely is convinced her mother was murdered, but no one believes her. When she returns to Embassy Row to live with her grandfather, the U.S. ambassador, she starts digging for answers and is shocked at what she finds. An engaging setup for Carter’s newest YA series, though I found Grace kind of bratty.

Queen of Hearts, Rhys Bowen
I love Bowen’s Royal Spyness mystery series following the adventures of Lady Georgiana Rannoch. This eighth entry sees Georgie sailing to America with her actress mother, where they get mixed up with wacky Hollywood types – and a murder. So much fun.

One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia
I loved this story of Delphine and her sisters, who go to stay with their activist-poet mother in Oakland in the summer of 1968. They learn a lot about the Black Panthers, their family and each other. Gorgeously written. Recommended by Kari.

The Mapmaker’s Children, Sarah McCoy
I’d never given a thought to abolitionist John Brown’s family – but I loved this novel featuring his artist daughter, Sarah Brown, and her connection to Eden, a modern-day woman struggling with infertility. I liked Sarah’s story better than Eden’s, but both were compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 5).

The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
Bertie Wooster and his friends are in all kinds of trouble (again), romantic and otherwise. Fortunately, Jeeves is always around to save the day. Highly amusing.

Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, D.E. Stevenson
With Tim still in Egypt after WWII has ended, Mrs. Tim takes a job at a Scottish hotel. She deals with difficult guests, her trenchant (but kindhearted) employer and various small problems. Gentle and entertaining.

P.S. Be Eleven, Rita Williams-Garcia
This sequel to One Crazy Summer finds Delphine and her sisters back in Brooklyn and adjusting to all kinds of changes. But Delphine writes to her mother, Cecile, and receives wise (if sometimes cranky) letters back.

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield
I love Garfield’s witty nonfiction about various topics, from letters to maps. This exploration of printing and fonts dragged a little, but was still informative and fun.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, Emma Hooper
83-year-old Etta leaves her home in Saskatchewan, headed for Halifax and the water. Her husband Otto and their lifelong friend, Russell, are left behind, each with their memories. A poignant story of love, war, memory and walking. Reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which I also loved).

The War That Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Ada has lived her life in a one-room flat, hampered by a clubfoot and berated by her mother. But when the children of London are evacuated in 1940, Ada sneaks out to join them and discovers a whole new life. Moving, multilayered and so good. I read it in one night. Recommended by Shelley.

Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer, Heather Lende
As the obituary writer in her small Alaskan town, Heather Lende helps people reflect on their loved ones’ lives. This slim memoir shares anecdotes from Lende’s work and family life, sprinkled with plainspoken wisdom and threaded with a simple truth: find the good. Wise and witty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 28).

First Frost, Sarah Addison Allen
The Waverley women always get a little restless before the first frost – but this year has them asking big questions about love, career and identity. A sweet story with a little bite, laced with Allen’s gentle magical realism.

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

What are you reading?

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