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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Saturday evening girls club book Christmas tree

I started the new year in a serious reading slump – nothing on my stacks looked or sounded good. Fortunately, these books helped pull me out of it. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Saturday Evening Girls Club, Jane Healey
I grabbed this one at the library and flew through it in a day. An enjoyable, well-told story of four young women who belong to the titular club in early 20th-century Boston. I loved the North End setting, the details about culture and traditions in Russian Jewish and Italian families, and the fierce friendship of the four main characters.

The Age of Light, Whitney Scharer
I’m sort of sick of these woman-behind-the-famous-man stories. But Scharer tells this one well: it’s the story of Lee Miller, Vogue model and muse to Man Ray who became a writer and photographer in her own right. Starting in the 1960s, Scharer flashes back to Miller’s time in Paris with Man, and her later work as a war photographer. I wanted more of the latter, but this is still an evocative novel. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 5).

The Book of Delights, Ross Gay
Delight, Gay insists, is worth celebrating, and he does – to the tune of several dozen small essays, written over the course of a year. So many quirky, everyday moments and blessings, which also draw in race, family, work, memories, gardening and all of life. Aptly, the book is itself a delight. Wonderful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 12).

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton
This twisty mystery is exactly as billed: Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day, with a dash of Twin Peaks. Aiden Bishop wakes up every morning in the body of a different host at Blackheath, a crumbling, spooky English estate. He has eight days (and hosts) to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, which keeps happening every night. Meanwhile, he’s trying to help a mysterious woman named Anna and not lose his mind completely. Jaclyn and I agree: this one is BONKERS, but a lot of fun.

On Turpentine Lane, Elinor Lipman
I like Lipman’s sharp, funny romantic comedies, and this one was highly entertaining. Faith Frankel buys a house whose previous owner may or may not have killed her husbands (!) in it. Meanwhile, her fiancé is walking across America (why?), her father is having a midlife artistic and personal crisis, and her handsome coworker needs a place to crash. Witty and amusing.

The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins
I’ve loved Collins’ work since I was a student, and (belatedly) picked up his latest collection at Trident. Whimsical, sometimes wistful, often funny. He has a gift for observing the ordinary. Not my favorite of his, but it has some wonderful lines.

Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos
This novel is one of my very favorites, and I savored it over a series of cold nights. I love everything about it: Cornelia’s warm, rambling narrative voice; her insight and empathy; and her deep mutual bond with Clare, 11 years old and in desperate need of love. Nourishing and lyrical and so well done.

The Tiny Journalist: Poems, Naomi Shihab Nye
Shihab Nye writes powerful, sharp-eyed poems about our common humanity. The titular poem, and several more, refer to Janna Jihad, a young Palestinian girl who films her daily life under Israeli occupation. Shihab Nye (a Palestinian-American) explores the connections between Janna’s work, her late father (a journalist), her own creative work, and the ways in which all people deserve to live safe, healthy lives. I find poetry tough to write about, but Shihab Nye is always worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

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

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strand bookstore cookbook shelves

I read 191 books in 2018. So many of them were good ones – not least because I got to review a few dozen gems (and interview a few authors) for Shelf Awareness, my longtime freelance gig.

I shared some favorites halfway through the year, but looking back over all of 2018, these are the ones I couldn’t stop talking about. (A few from my half-year roundup are reposted below.)

Best Feminist Reimagining of Mythology: Circe by Madeline Miller. A fantastic, well-written story of a “minor” sorceress who steps into her own power.

Best Antidote to the Current Political Madness: The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes’ memoir of the near-decade he spent working on communications and foreign policy for President Obama. So insightful and interesting.

Most Essential Reading on Race: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which weaves together marriage and mass incarceration; and Black is the Body by Emily Bernard, an incisive essay collection about family, race and womanhood.

Best Conversation Starter: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle. Who would you have at your ideal dinner party? This one was fun and surprisingly moving.

Best Reread: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which grabbed my heart just as it did when I was protagonist Francie’s age.

Most Blazing, Gorgeous Novel of Love and Heartbreak: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. I did not think I could read another Hemingway novel, but Martha Gellhorn’s narrative voice grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Most Vivid and Heartrending Refugee Story: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. (I liked Exit West too, but this dual narrative with its two scrappy female protagonists stole my heart.)

Most Eloquent, Relatable Memoir of Running and Grit: The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. I think of lines from this witty, beautiful book regularly while I’m running.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne.

What were your favorite books of 2018?

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watch for the light book bed Christmas tree

December reading is always a crazy mix of airplane reading, the last few review books of the year, and a couple of Advent/Christmas staples. (Above: the book of readings that has shaped my experience of Advent since 2001.) Here’s the last roundup of 2018:

Harry’s Trees, Jon Cohen
I grabbed this novel at the library after Anne raved about it. A slow start for me, but I fell in love with Harry Crane, a Forest Service employee who escapes to the woods after his wife dies. I loved the people he meets – Oriana, a young girl who’s lost her father; Amanda, her relentlessly practical mother; and Olive, the elderly pipe-smoking librarian who gives Oriana a book that changes everything. Magical and moving.

Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram
Leigh and Kari both loved this book, and I really enjoyed it. Darius is an Iranian-American teen (and tea lover) who travels to Iran for the first time. His relationships with his dad and little sister were so well drawn and real, and I loved watching him make a real friend and bond with his grandparents.

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, Mohsin Hamid
Hamid is better known for his novels – like Exit West, which I loved – but this collection of his essays is wise and thought-provoking. I learned a lot about Pakistan from the “Politics” section, but found more to enjoy in “Art” and “Life.” Found (on sale) at the charming Papercuts JP last month.

Running Home, Katie Arnold
Arnold became a runner as a kid, almost by accident – at the urging of her photographer dad. She chronicles her journey with running (and later ultrarunning), interwoven with her dad’s illness, his death, and their complicated but deeply loving relationship. So many great lines about writing, life, family, and how we shape the stories we tell ourselves. I loved it as a runner and a writer, but I think even if you’re neither, it’s well worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 12).

Star Crossed, Minnie Darke
Justine is a whip-smart Sagittarius with journalistic ambitions and little regard for astrology. Her childhood friend Nick is an aspiring Aquarian actor who trusts the stars for major life decisions. They reconnect – and Justine starts dabbling in astrology – in this fun Australian novel. I loved all the intertwined stories and Darke’s sharp observations about various star signs. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 21).

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, Barbara Brown Taylor
Teaching Religion 101 to undergraduates in Georgia for nearly two decades, Taylor (a former Episcopal priest) found much to admire and even envy in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. She explores her experiences alongside her students’, and muses on what “holy envy” may have to offer those who are still deeply committed to their own faith. Thoughtful, insightful and so well done, like all Taylor’s books. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 12).

Summer at the Garden Café, Felicity Hayes-McCoy
I loved Hayes-McCoy’s memoir about Ireland and enjoyed her first novel set there. This, the sequel, is charming and fun. It follows the lives of several people in a small village in western Ireland: librarian Hanna, her daughter Jazz, their colleagues and friends.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I received this book as a gift over a decade ago, and I still revisit it almost every December. It’s a story of five loosely connected people who end up in the north of Scotland one Christmas, and the ways they bring hope to each other. So good.

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

What are you reading as we head into 2019?

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strand bookstore cookbook shelves

Early December always leaves me breathless. But – thank goodness – there are the books. (Photo from my recent trip to the Strand.)

Here’s the latest roundup:

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, Abbi Waxman
I loved Waxman’s debut, The Garden of Small Beginnings. (I was ambivalent about her second novel, Other People’s Houses.) And I liked this, her third novel following introvert, bookseller and trivia whiz Nina Hill as she deals with various unexpected pieces of news. Really witty, though a lot of the characters felt two-dimensional. I liked seeing Lili and her daughters (from Small Beginnings) again. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9, 2019).

How to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, Samantha Ellis
In her thirties, Ellis began to wonder: did the literary heroines she’d loved as a child still have something to teach her? The answer, of course, is yes. I loved Ellis’ memoir of finding her way as a person and a writer, and revisiting characters like Sara Crewe, Scarlett O’Hara and others. Some are my heroines too (Anne Shirley!) and some are newer to me, like Lucy Honeychurch and Scheherazade. So much fun.

Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and his memoir traces his journey to public service and his experience in the mayor’s office. He’s a Harvard grad, a Navy reserve veteran, a data-driven geek and a warm, thoughtful writer. City government may not sound exciting, but I found his narrative so compelling and hopeful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 26).

The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory
Freelance writer Nikole Patterson is blindsided when her actor boyfriend proposes via the JumboTron at a Dodgers game – and he spells her name wrong! When Carlos and his sister rescue Nik from a camera crew, Carlos and Nik become friends and then something more. But what, exactly? A really fun romance with lots of tacos, cupcakes and women’s empowerment messages. The latter felt a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed the story – especially since I knew (and liked) Carlos from Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date.

A Borrowing of Bones, Paula Munier
After a tour in Afghanistan where she lost her fiancé, Martinez, Mercy Carr has retreated to rural Vermont along with Martinez’s working dog, Elvis. When they find an adult skeleton and a baby girl (very much alive) in the woods, Mercy teams up with game warden Troy Warner to find the baby’s mother and the identity of the victim. A well-plotted, thoughtful mystery; first in a new series. Reminded me a bit of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries, which I adore.

Hope Never Dies, Andrew Shaffer
After the 2016 election, former VP Joe Biden is bored and restless. But when his favorite Amtrak conductor dies under suspicious circumstances, Biden and his old friend Barack Obama team up (with Obama’s requisite Secret Service escort) to solve the mystery. A fun, often witty bromance and a pretty good mystery. (I love the premise almost more than the execution.)

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
Conversations about race are often fraught, and Oluo, a black activist and writer, pulls no punches in this primer about how to talk and listen. It’s meant (mostly) for well-meaning white folks like me. Powerful and thought-provoking.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith. If you’re shopping for holiday gifts, please consider supporting indie bookstores – either in your community or by ordering from them online. 

What are you reading?

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glass ocean book tea cafe

We’re headed for December already – and between the feasting, the commuting, the running and the rest of life, this month included some fantastic books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard
“Brown is the body I was born into. Black is the body of the stories I tell.” Bernard, an author and professor, explores race and family history in these powerful essays. Incisive and moving and so compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 29).

The Matchmaker’s List, Sonya Lalli
Still single at 29, Raina Anand reluctantly agrees to let her Indian grandmother play matchmaker. Secretly, she’s still in love with her ex, who reappears while Raina is helping plan her best friend’s wedding. A fun story of clashing cultural expectations (Canadian and Indian), with a likable (if frustrating) protagonist. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 22).

Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist, Meredith Goldstein
Goldstein writes the Love Letters column for the Boston Globe. This memoir is about that work, her mother’s illness, her own struggle to find love, and the surprising community she’s found through Love Letters. Funny, warm and surprisingly insightful.

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, Kate Christensen
Christensen has a complex relationship with food: finding comfort in it, avoiding it, exploring it in new contexts. She recounts her peripatetic childhood, her lost teenage years, her fierce love for her sisters and mother and her romantic travails, with accompanying food experiences and occasional recipes. Some delicious moments (and a lot of ill-advised decisions). Found last month at the wonderful Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine.

The Huntress, Kate Quinn
In the aftermath of the Nuremberg trials, most people want to move on from war stories. But British journalist Ian Graham has made hunting down war criminals his life’s work. His estranged Russian wife, former pilot Nina Markova, joins Ian and his partner in a quest to track down the titular huntress. Their story becomes intertwined with that of Jordan McBride, a young aspiring photographer in Boston, and her family. A gripping narrative of war, revenge and love – even bigger, darker and deeper than Quinn’s excellent The Alice Network. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 26).

Not For the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence, Wendy Sherman
Sherman is a distinguished diplomat and a faculty member at my former workplace, the Harvard Kennedy School. Her memoir chronicles her deep involvement in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, as well as her background in social work and the lessons she’s learned as a woman in high-stress workplaces and unexpected situations. A solid, thoughtful political memoir.

The Glass Ocean, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
I enjoyed The Forgotten Room by these three authors (and I’ll read pretty much anything Williams writes). I also enjoyed this compelling novel of three women: two aboard the RMS Lusitania and one historian trying to piece together their story a century later. Tess, the young con woman trying to go straight, was my favorite.

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

What are you reading?

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papercuts jp bookstore twinkle lights

And just like that, it’s nearly Thanksgiving. Here are the books that have gotten me through the first half of November – including some real gems. (Photo from the lovely Papercuts JP, which I just visited for the first time.)

The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship, Katherine Towler
For years, Robert Dunn was a fixture on the streets of Portsmouth, N.H.: a solitary, self-contained wandering poet who nonetheless seemed to know everyone. Towler’s memoir traces her friendship with Dunn, his literary career and later illness, and his effect on her. Moving and poignant and clear; the writing is so good. (Liberty recommended this and I found it for $2 at the Harvard Book Store.)

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot, Mark Vanhoenacker
Humans have long dreamed of flight, and Vanhoenacker’s career as a pilot moves him to reflect on its many aspects. A lovely, well-written, accessible blend of memoir, history, aviation tech, and reflections on globalization, interconnectedness and journeys. So many beautiful lines and interesting facts. Found at the wonderful Bookstore in Lenox this summer.

Circe, Madeline Miller
The least favored child of the sun god Helios, Circe is ignored and eventually exiled to a remote island. But there, she discovers her powers of witchcraft, and builds a life for herself. I grabbed this at the library and I could not put it down: Miller’s writing is gorgeous and compelling, and I loved Circe as a character. She interacts with many of the mortal men (sailors) who visit her island, but I especially loved watching her discover her strength in solitude.

Marilla of Green Gables, Sarah McCoy
Before Anne, there was Marilla – whom L.M. Montgomery fans know as Anne’s stern but loving guardian. McCoy gives us a richly imagined account of Marilla’s early life: her teenage years, her budding romance with John Blythe, her deep bond with Matthew and their family farm. Lovely and nourishing. Now I want to go back to Avonlea again.

Greenwitch, Susan Cooper
This third book in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence brings the heroes of the first two books together: the three Drew children, Will Stanton and Merriman Lyon. They gather in Cornwall to retrieve a grail stolen by the Dark. I find the magic in these books confusing, but I like the characters.

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brené Brown
We can’t belong anywhere in the world until we belong to ourselves: this is Brown’s assertion, and she makes a compelling case for it. I have mixed feelings about her work; she articulates some powerful ideas and I admire her commitment to storytelling and nuance. But sometimes, for me, the whole is not quite as great as the sum of its parts. Still worth reading.

A Forgotten Place, Charles Todd
The Great War is (barely) over, but for the wounded, life will never be the same. Bess Crawford, nurse and amateur sleuth, still feels bound to the men she has served. She travels to a bleak, isolated peninsula in Wales to check on a captain she has come to know, but once there, finds herself caught up in a web of local secrets and unable to leave. These are good mysteries, but this book’s real strength is its meditation on adjusting to life after war.

A Study in Honor, Claire O’Dell
This was an impulse grab at the library: a Sherlock Holmes adaptation featuring Holmes and Watson as black queer women in late 21st-century Washington, D.C. Janet Watson has lost an arm in the New Civil War, and meets Sara Holmes through a mutual friend. Together, they work to solve the mystery of several veterans’ deaths, which may be related to big pharma. I love the concept of this one, though the plot and characters didn’t quite work for me.

The Rose Garden, Susanna Kearsley
After her sister’s death, Eva Ward returns to the Cornwall house where she spent many happy childhood summers. There, she finds herself slipping between worlds and falling in love with a man from the past. Engaging historical fiction with a bit of time travel – though that part of this one was a bit odd. Still really fun.

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

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read bbf ya panel Boston public library

November. Already. How did that happen?

The second half of October was a wild ride. Here’s what I’ve been reading on commutes, before bed and whenever else I can squeeze in a few pages:

Nothing Happened, Molly Booth
I heard Booth speak on a YA panel at the Boston Book Festival (she’s second from left, above). Her second novel is a modern-day retelling of Much Ado About Nothing set at a Maine summer camp. Lots of mixed signals, crossed wires, teenage drama and a whole range of gender identities. So much fun.

In Conclusion, Don’t Worry About It, Lauren Graham
Does a commencement speech count as a book? I don’t know, but this one was lighthearted, fun and wise, as you might expect from Lorelai Gilmore. I’m trying to take her titular advice. Short and sweet – recommended for drama nerds and Gilmore Girls fans.

The Law of Finders Keepers, Sheila Turnage
Mo LoBeau and her Desperado Detectives are back, trying to locate both Blackbeard’s treasure and Mo’s long-lost birth mother. A sleazy treasure hunter, unexpected snow and several mysterious objects keep them plenty busy. This middle-grade series has so much heart, and I loved this fourth installment.

Joy Enough, Sarah McColl
Sarah used to write the wonderful blog Pink of Perfection, and I was excited to read her debut memoir. It is slim and tense and poignant: it is about her mother, love, grief and womanhood. Some luminous lines and some sections I really struggled with: beauty and frustration, like life. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 15).

Annelies, David R. Gillham
What if Anne Frank had survived? That is the question Gillham addresses in his new novel, as Anne tries to adjust to life in Amsterdam after the camps. Reunited with her father, but deeply traumatized, Anne struggles to make peace with her wartime experiences and move forward. This was a hard read: well done, but heavy, as you might expect. Anne did seem real to me, and Gillham renders postwar Amsterdam in vivid detail. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 15).

Saving Hamlet, Molly Booth
Emma Allen is looking forward to sophomore year and her school’s production of Hamlet. But everything starts going horribly wrong – and that’s before Emma falls through a (literal) unauthorized trapdoor and lands in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, circa 1600, where everyone thinks she’s a boy. Time travel, Shakespeare, snarky friendships and budding romance – what’s not to love? I liked this even better than Nothing Happened.

Seafire, Natalie C. Parker
Caledonia Styx runs a tight ship: her female-only crew is fast, cohesive and skilled at staying alive. As they navigate the dangerous seas, Caledonia receives word that the brother she’d given up for dead may still be alive out there. A fast-paced beginning to a badass adventure trilogy. Recommended by Liberty.

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

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