Posts Tagged ‘Miss Read’

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“What do you like to read?”

I get this question a lot: when I tell someone about my book-reviewing gig for Shelf Awareness, or when someone sees the long book lists I keep here on the blog and at Goodreads. I also get it when a friend comes to my apartment for the first time and sees my bulging bookshelves. (Though in that case, it’s usually drowned out by, “Wow, that’s a lot of books.”)

Broadly, I love both fiction and nonfiction: novels, memoirs and biography, travel writing, mystery, poetry, middle-grade and young adult lit. But I’ve been thinking lately about a few sub-genres I adore.

These aren’t official classifications in most bookstores, but they share definite characteristics, and they are my literary catnip.

For starters, I love clever British mysteries – preferably with an engaging detective or two and not a lot of gore. Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie remain my favorites, but I also love Jacqueline Winspear, Rhys Bowen, Carola Dunn, Charles Todd and Charles Finch. (All of these authors have created protagonists – some professional detectives, some amateur sleuths – whom I adore.) I am a longtime Anglophile, and there’s something about watching a mystery unfold in my beloved England – especially with plenty of tea and biscuits on hand.

Related: I enjoy the occasional dive into Sherlockiana. I haven’t read all the original Conan Doyle stories, but I have relished a few books and series that feature the great detective. My favorite Sherlock riff is Laurie R. King’s fantastic series about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, but I also enjoyed A Study in Charlotte (a 21st-century YA take on Holmes and Watson), Nancy Springer’s middle-grade series featuring Sherlock’s younger sister Enola, and The Great Detective, Zach Dundas’ fantastic nonfiction history of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. (Also, it’s not a book, but I can’t forget the BBC Sherlock.)

Continuing with the British theme: I love gentle interwar British fiction. Miss Read’s tales about the village of Fairacre fit this bill, as do D.E. Stevenson’s warmhearted novels of life in England and Scotland. These books are not dramatic or world-changing and that is precisely why I love them: they are stories of ordinary people living quiet, beautiful lives.

There isn’t an official name for this genre, but I love dual-narrative fiction that shifts back and forth in time, twining two different storylines together until they meet in the end. Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams both do this very well, but I’ve read other books that employ this technique to great effect. (Most recently: Maggie Leffler’s The Secrets of Flight; June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore; Natasha Solomons’ The Song of Hartgrove Hall.)

Like a lot of inveterate readers, I adore books on books. These include novels set in bookstores (Parnassus on Wheels, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore); books about the reading life (Ex Libris, Voracious, Howards End is on the Landing), and novels that feature books as a key plot point (The Word Exchange, The Bookman’s Tale). Jasper Fforde’s literary fantasy series featuring Thursday Next, book detective, is its own wildly quirky variation on this theme.

What are your favorite sub-genres? (And does anyone have a more elegant name for this phenomenon?)


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It’s no secret that I am a serious bookworm. I have a dedicated table for my to-be-read pile, a library holds list as long as my arm, and at least one stack of review copies waiting to be perused at all times. (Currently it’s two stacks.)

I read widely, and I like to think I read broadly. I love many different kinds of books, including (but not limited to) memoirs, mysteries, young adult and middle-grade novels, adult fiction (both general and literary), poetry, and popular nonfiction. My shelves on Goodreads are almost as full as my real-life bookshelves (which are bulging). I am always reading several books at once.

I have two English lit degrees, a constantly shifting calendar of review deadlines and a pretty good sense (I like to think) of what constitutes “quality” literature. So sometimes I think I “should” be reading only the high-quality stuff: shiny new literary fiction, classics that have stood the test of time, nonfiction books dealing with Important Ideas. And I do read all those things. But in the past couple of years – even before I chose it as my word for 2015 – I’ve noticed that I’ve always got at least one “gentle” book in progress.

What do I mean by “gentle” in this case? Sometimes “gentle reading” means a quiet, bucolic story, like Miss Read’s tales of village life, or the Mitford series by Jan Karon. Sometimes it’s a beloved book from childhood (I reach for The Long Winter every February). Sometimes it’s the next book in a favorite series, comforting because it deals with known characters or familiar territory. And sometimes it’s a totally silly “fluff” book – chick lit or a cozy mystery – that I choose not for its great writing, but for its fun and predictable plot. (I also can’t read anything too creepy before I go to bed – or I won’t be able to fall asleep!)

I still occasionally beat myself up about this tendency. Those reading hours are precious, and I do dedicate many of them to high-quality, often more demanding books. But sometimes I simply need to curl up with a good story whose main value lies in escape and entertainment. This week, for example, you can find me digging into Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series (light mysteries set in 1920s England), and savoring Elizabeth Bard’s gorgeous second memoir, Picnic in Provence. (That one is gentle, but it’s so well written that it’s hardly a guilty pleasure.)

Do you read several books at once, too? Is there a “gentle” (or “fluffy,” or “guilty pleasure”) category in your rotation?

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books miss read fairacre chet bernie maggie hope

The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
Satrapi’s graphic memoir tells the story of her childhood in Iran, her adolescence during the Islamic Revolution, her teenage years in Vienna and her return home (a decidedly mixed experience). She conveys a whole world through her bold black-and-white drawings: cultural norms, relationships, irony, grief, the repressive Islamic government. Thought-provoking, often heartbreaking and a great lesson (even for us non-graphic writers) in using telling details.

A Fistful of Collars, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie, PI team, take on an unusual gig: security for a high-profile movie star shooting a western in the Valley. Of course, there’s more to the situation than first meets the eye, and our heroes are soon on the trail of a complex situation involving drugs, blackmail and several murders. Bernie’s also dealing with a long-distance relationship, and narrator Chet (as always) has his own canine needs and perspective. A great addition to this fun series.

Mrs. Pringle of Fairacre, Miss Read
I love the cast of village characters in Miss Read’s Fairacre tales, and enjoyed this book focused on Mrs. Pringle, the dour school cleaner, and Miss Read’s relationship with her (sparring, but grudgingly affectionate) over the years. Mrs. Pringle will never be warm and fuzzy, but she’s a good soul and a hard worker, and Miss Read’s portrait of her is witty and amusing.

Changes at Fairacre, Miss Read
During a couple of sick days last week, Fairacre was the only place I wanted to go. Amid worries of her school’s closing (again) and the last illness of a dear friend, Miss Read contemplates her own future, eventually moving to a new house in the next village. This book had some melancholy spots, but was still full of the good cheer and kindness of life in Fairacre. I’ve grown particularly fond of Bob Willet, gardener and general handyman, and Miss Read’s bossy, good-hearted friend Amy.

Judging a Book by Its Lover, Lauren Leto
A snarky, erudite, mostly funny guide to today’s book culture, including advice on “Stereotyping People by Favorite Author” and “How to Write Like Any Author.” These wisecracks are amusing, but I prefer Leto’s more sincere moments of book love. She’s a true bookworm (though she argues convincingly for changing the book lover’s mascot to a “bookcat”). I confess I skimmed the “How to Fake It” section, which runs 80 pages (nearly a third of the book). Fun for book geeks. (I received a copy from the publisher, but was not compensated for this review.)

Farewell to Fairacre, Miss Read
Though not quite ready to retire, Miss Read finds herself plagued by health problems, prompting her to consider ending her long teaching career. She savors her final year of teaching, relishing the small details (as always) and enjoying the antics of her pupils. I always feel refreshed after a few hours in Fairacre, in Miss Read’s witty company. This book provided yet another installment of her friend Amy’s matchmaking efforts and Miss Read’s insistence on remaining a satisfied spinster. So fun.

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal
Feisty Maggie Hope, English-born and American-raised, goes undercover at Windsor Castle tutoring the Princess Elizabeth in maths (she’s really an MI-5 agent investigating a murder). A kidnapping plot, a Christmas pantomime, a new romance and several suspicious characters figure in this fun, fast-paced mystery (the sequel to Mr. Churchill’s Secretary). The writing, plot and characters were all much stronger in this book than its predecessor, and I’m looking forward to the third book, His Majesty’s Hope (out next spring).

All-of-a-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor
I read this book as a child, but picked up a copy at the Tenement Museum in New York recently, and reread it in one sitting. A series of charming vignettes about a Jewish family with five daughters, living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century. They visit the library, go to Coney Island, observe the Sabbath and the major Jewish holidays, and celebrate the Fourth of July. Such a fun, sweet, innocent story, and the first in a series. (Jessica recently reread this one too.)

What are you reading lately?

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The White Robin, Miss Read
Another sweet Fairacre story (one of the shorter ones), involving a rare white robin who quickly becomes the darling of the village. I love Miss Read’s attention to the details of country life, and her incisive observations on human nature. It’s always comforting to spend a few hours in Fairacre.

Nemesis, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple receives an odd summons from a recently deceased friend: he wants her to solve a crime, but gives her almost no details. She is intrigued, and of course manages to solve the case with her usual insight and aplomb. One of my favorite Miss Marple stories, because it focused much more on her as a central character than some of the others do. Fascinating and fun.

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, Bob Spitz
A magnificent, detailed biography of Julia, from her childhood in California through her wanderings in Europe, up to her years in Cambridge. I’ve read My Life in France, her memoir, and also her correspondence with Avis DeVoto, but this book gave me an even more extensive look at the woman who changed the face of food in America. Julia was no saint, but she was warmhearted, generous, passionate and fascinating. Spitz confesses to having a crush on his subject, and by the end, I did too. Fabulous.

The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple is called in by a friend to help solve the title crime (whose body? What was she doing there? Who killed her?). In the process, she discovers a nest of family secrets and various other tidbits. Not as much fun as Nemesis (see above), but still entertaining.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes, ostensibly retired (and tending bees), takes on an unlikely apprentice: headstrong, orphaned teenager Mary Russell. They drive each other crazy sometimes but work astonishingly well together, and have solved a few cases when they realize someone is out to murder both of them. The witty banter, the rich descriptions, the twisty plot and the cast of fascinating characters all thrilled me – I loved it. This is the first in a series and I’ll be checking out the others for sure.

The Convivial Codfish, Charlotte MacLeod
This fifth book in the Sarah Kelling series focused mostly on her art detective husband, Max, who is called in to track down a killer after Sarah’s uncle is injured and a few of his friends are poisoned. Amusing at times, though the plot dragged. Not the best in the series, but still fun.

A Novel Bookstore, Laurence Cosse
A beautiful heiress and a penniless book lover join forces to create a Paris bookshop called The Good Novel, whose stock is chosen by themselves and a secret committee of authors. Despite accusations of literary snobbery, sales are strong and all seems well until several committee members are attacked and nearly killed. I loved the idea of this book – a paean to great literature and its power to alter our lives, and it’s fun to think about which novels I’d choose for such a bookstore. But the plot was confusing, the mystery unsatisfying and the ending rather abrupt. Lovely concept, so-so execution.

What are you reading lately?

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june reads books part 2A Dublin Student Doctor, Patrick Taylor
I’ve been loving the Irish Country Doctor series and enjoyed this extended flashback to Dr. O’Reilly’s youth and his medical student years in 1930s Dublin. His compassion for his patients is well drawn (I love his emphasis on learning their names, in a time when that was not standard hospital practice). The writing is mostly good and occasionally stunning, and I look forward to the next book featuring these characters.

Introverts in the Church, Adam S. McHugh
Leigh wrote a fabulous post (which turned into a series) about this book, written to introverts who want to serve and participate in church, but find it difficult (and/or have been told they need to be more extroverted to be effective). McHugh presents thoughtful strategies for introverts as they seek to serve in churches and still be themselves.

However, I found the stereotypes of introverts and extroverts troubling, especially since extroverts’ gifts were not often acknowledged. I’m a social introvert who has been fortunate to be part of church communities where my gifts were appreciated, and McHugh is writing for people who’ve been hurt more deeply than I have. Still worth reading. (For more on the gifts of introverts: Susan Cain’s excellent book, Quiet.)

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., Nichole Bernier
Kate inherits her friend Elizabeth’s journals after Elizabeth dies in a plane crash, in July 2001. She spends the summer of 2002 reading them, trying to fit these new glimpses of her friend’s life into her image of the person she thought she knew. Bernier’s prose is stunningly precise and lyrical, and she evokes that frantic, paranoid time – the time of anthrax and shoe bombs and undulating uncertainty – perfectly. Kate is a young mom struggling to grieve her friend and care for her small children as her husband travels often, and also weighing the question of whether to resume her pastry-chef career. More than a book about 9/11, this is a book about friendship, about secrets, and about the selves we show one another and the selves we hide away. Highly recommended.

Heron’s Cove, Carla Neggers
I read this on a weekend getaway to Maine – fitting since it’s set on the Maine coastline. Two FBI agents (one an ex-nun whose family runs a business recovering stolen art) work on a case involving a rare collection of Russian jewelry. The agents are in love, but must decide whether the pressures of their jobs will allow their relationship to continue. This is the second in a series and I felt I was missing some pieces since I hadn’t read the first book, though the author did give some background. However, the plot was entertaining and I liked the characters, especially the whiskey-distilling Irish priest. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 28).

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
I’ve heard about this book for years and finally bought it at Glen East. And I did a LOT of underlining. McEntyre makes the case that language is being polluted, misused and depleted in our current public discourse, and discusses 12 ways we can restore words – good, true, rich, valuable words – to their rightful place. She exhorts readers to savor words, to “love the long sentence,” to practice the arts of conversation and poetry, and finally to allow space for silence, which is necessary to allow words to grow and resonate. Brilliant and vital; I’ll be returning to this book again and again.

The Wednesday Wars, Gary D. Schmidt
It’s 1967 and war is raging in Vietnam, while civil rights activists agitate for change at home. But Holling Hoodhood’s biggest concern is the Wednesday afternoons he has to spend alone with his seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, while everyone else goes to catechism class or Hebrew school. As Mrs. Baker takes Holling on a tour of Shakespeare’s plays, he learns about love, bravery and trust (as well as picking up a few excellent curses). I loved the subtle first-love subplot and the totally believable friction (and deep affection) between Holling and his sister. Excellent. (Recommended by Kristin and Kari.)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
This book, as the main character (Oskar) would say, gave me heavy boots. So much tragedy – not only Oskar’s dad dying on 9/11, but his grandparents’ experience during World War II and after. So many lonely people (no wonder “Eleanor Rigby” runs throughout the book). And yet, some truly funny moments (Oskar has a wry, hilarious voice), and some moving scenes of connection and healing. Reading it made me think back to those days after 9/11, when we all, even we teenagers in far-flung West Texas, walked around in a haze, and all we wanted was to hold close the people we loved, and to protect them from anything like that happening again, ever.

Farther Afield, Miss Read
Fairacre’s favorite schoolteacher breaks her arm at the beginning of the summer holidays – horror! Fortunately, her friend Amy comes to the rescue by offering to care for her as she recovers, and then whisking her away to Crete for a holiday. They lounge in the sunshine and enjoy themselves, and Miss Read muses on her own single state and Amy’s marital troubles. Wise and thoughtful and sweet, like all the Fairacre books.

What are you reading these days?

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I’m getting through a lot of books lately, and the stacks are (as always) growing. Here, what I’ve been reading:

book journal tea writing breakfast

A little reading with my tea

These Ruins are Inhabited, Muriel Beadle
I found this one at the Montague Bookmill (shelved in the fiction section!). It’s a delightful memoir by a journalist whose husband was a visiting professor at Oxford in the 1960s. Like me, they spent a year in Oxford as wide-eyed Americans who soaked up all the joys (and some of the frustrations) of English life. Some of the details are quaintly outdated, but much of Oxford’s character endures (as always). Beadle’s stories of rambling round the city and meeting all kinds of English folks (and fellow expats) are charmingly familiar. So much fun.

Emily Davis, Miss Read
This is the life story of Miss Clare’s dear friend Emily Davis, longtime village schoolteacher. Best enjoyed if you’re already familiar with Fairacre and its mores and citizens. The more time I spend there, the more I admire these quiet, hardworking, kind country people. (Link is to a 2-in-1 edition including this book and Miss Clare Remembers.)

Bloomability, Sharon Creech
Domenica “Dinnie” Doone, who has spent her childhood moving around the U.S., spends a year in Switzerland attending the boarding school where her uncle works. She misses her family, but meets fellow students from all over the world, learns to ski and starts to believe that anything is “bloomable” (her Japanese friend’s word for “possible”). Sweet and fun. (Recommended by friend and reader Allison.)

What I Wore, Jessica Quirk
Quirk runs a popular fashion blog (which I found via Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy). Her book is a practical, colorfully illustrated collection of tips on building a wardrobe of mixable basics, layering and accessorizing for each season, and putting your own spin on classic styles. Lots of her advice is basic, even obvious, but it helped me take a fresh look at my closet (always a good idea during the change of seasons, especially after recently reading Overdressed).

Boy Meets Girl, Meg Cabot
I so enjoyed The Boy Next Door that I checked out its sort-of sequel (same setting, mostly different characters). Told in emails, scribbled notes, to-do lists and instant messages, this is a lighthearted story of love, office politics and navigating the single-girl life in New York. Predictable, but fun – perfect for a holiday weekend.

Glory Be, Augusta Scattergood
An unusual take on the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, from the perspective of 11-year-old Glory Hemphill, who lives in Hanging Moss, Mississippi. She writes a letter to the editor when the (segregated) town pool closes, befriends a new girl from the North, and (I love this) stands up to her best friend when he expresses some bigoted opinions. Scattergood evokes the Deep South perfectly; I could almost feel the humidity and see the lightning bugs. The ending is hopeful, but I appreciated that it wasn’t all neat and tidy. (For more, see Beth Fish Reads’ review.)

Oxford, Jan Morris
This is a classic account of the city I adore: a great introduction for Oxford newbies, but with plenty of interesting tidbits for those of us who already know and love it. Morris loves Oxford as much as I do, and she examines many aspects of the city: its religious heritage, its often chaotic college system, the rise of industry and the Cowley motor works, its vegetation, its architecture, and on and on. Her narrative rambles at times, but is mostly fascinating and always thorough. Recommended if you really love Oxford.

The Wicked and the Just, J. Anderson Coats
A fascinating glimpse into medieval Caernarvon, Wales, told alternately from the perspective of Cecily (an English transplant) and Gwenhwyfar (a Welsh girl forced to become Cecily’s servant). Both characters are prickly and not immediately likable, but I kept turning the pages because I wanted to know what happened. (Also intriguing: Gwen never refers to herself as “I” until at least two-thirds of the way into the book.) The plot is based on a historical revolt by the Welsh in 1294, against the English burgesses who were taxing them unfairly. More info at the book’s site.

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
A perfectly plotted, truly creepy tale from the Queen of Mystery. I couldn’t go to sleep without finishing it (and then I had to dip into a Miss Read book to calm me down). A cast of distinctly unlikable characters find themselves marooned on an island off the Devon coast, and an unknown murderer starts picking them off one by one. An ingenious (if unsettling) piece of work.

Tyler’s Row, Miss Read
Well-meaning village folk (including all the usual suspects), ambitious renovation projects, cantankerous neighbors, lively schoolchildren, Miss Read’s matchmaking friend Amy, and wry musings by my favorite English schoolteacher. Another winner in the Fairacre series.

Three Bags Full, Leonie Swann
A smart, funny, highly unusual detective story – the detectives are a flock of Irish sheep trying to find out who killed their shepherd! They are unusually intelligent sheep, of course – though they don’t always understand humans. (Neither do I, for that matter.) Such fun and really inventive – a great mystery spiced with philosophical discussions.

What are you reading these days?

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may reads books part 1The Bird Sisters, Rebecca Rasmussen
A bittersweet but lovely story, set in Wisconsin and following the lives of titular “bird sisters” Milly and Twiss. Rasmussen’s writing is gorgeous and her characters well drawn – though a mantle of quiet despair hangs over many of them. I wished for happier endings for everyone, amid betrayal and grand plans gone wrong. But the book still concludes with a whisper of hope.

The Fairacre Festival, Miss Read
Fairacre’s citizens plan a huge village festival to raise money to repair the damaged roof and spire of their church building, and everyone, including Miss Read and her students, takes part. More good clean fun in a lovely little village.

How to Eat a Cupcake, Meg Donohue
A fun, lighthearted story of two estranged childhood friends, who open a cupcakery together in San Francisco and slowly repair both their relationship and their respective lives. Full of yummy descriptions, and a few plot twists that kept it from feeling too predictable. (I won this book in a giveaway on Becca’s blog.)

The Late Hour, Mark Strand
I love Strand’s poem “The Coming of Light,” so I picked up the collection from which it came. Most of the poems only struck me as so-so, though there were a few gems: “Snowfall,” “The Garden,” “Lines for Winter.” My favorites contain striking images, rather than simply stream-of-consciousness musings. (Link goes to a 3-in-1 edition that includes these poems.)

The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown
I read this last year and loved it, so I happily picked it up again for book club. The titular sisters – Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia, daughters of a Shakespeare professor – all return to their small Midwestern college town, grappling with major life decisions as they face their thirties. The first-person plural voice (“we did this, we thought that”) reminds me so much of how I talk about myself and my sister. Brown’s writing is lovely, and her characters are flawed, smart and endearing.

The Story of English in 100 Words, David Crystal
Crystal traces the evolution of English in 100 important words, from “roe” (the first recorded English word) to “Twittersphere,” with plenty of fascinating stops along the way. He’s a linguist and scholar, so his explorations of words such as “taffeta,” “dude,” “what,” “unfriend” and many more are both erudite and entertaining. Good fun for word nerds like me.

Reel Life Starring Us, Lisa Greenwald
Artsy new girl Dina and queen bee Chelsea get assigned to make a video together for a middle school project, and learn some surprising truths about each other along the way. Most of the characters were pretty shallow (which was, perhaps, the point), though I liked Dina and came to sympathize with Chelsea. Not Greenwald’s best (that honor goes to My Life in Pink & Green), but still fun.

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., Sam Wasson
Wasson chronicles the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, from Truman Capote’s inspiration for the novel to the issues surrounding the film (it clashed with the prevailing morality of Hollywood at the time). My favorite part was the story of how Henry Mancini wrote “Moon River” and the rest of the film’s score (I love that song, and I also love his Pink Panther music). I’m not a big fan of the film (though I do believe in the iconic power of a little black dress), but the tale of how it came to be was interesting.

Princess for Hire, Lindsey Leavitt
Desi Bascomb, too-tall, quirky daughter of a beauty-queen mom, finds a magical want ad and signs on to be a paid substitute (read: impersonator) for princesses who go on vacation. Of course, disaster strikes when she takes matters into her own hands – standing up to a bullying older sister, performing a tribal Amazon dance and even kissing a prince. Leavitt has a light touch and no shortage of creative ideas, and this was such a fun story. I’ll be reading the sequel.

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, Trenton Lee Stewart
I love the Mysterious Benedict Society series, so I thoroughly enjoyed this prequel about the childhood of its founder, Nicholas Benedict. He’s an orphan who also happens to be a genius – and he makes the best of life at Rothschild’s End, devising clever ways to get around the rules, making a few friends, outwitting bullies and solving a few mysteries along the way. Such fun.

An Irish Country Christmas, Patrick Taylor
This was my third visit to Ballybucklebo in Northern Ireland, and what fun it was. The cast of characters, helmed by Drs. Barry Laverty and Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, is still colorful, quirky, cranky and warmhearted. I love the Ulster-Scots dialect and the anecdotes of small-town life and the way the villagers pull together to help a struggling single mother. Lighthearted and well written, with plenty of warmth, good cheer and wry humor.

The Arrivals, Meg Mitchell Moore
I met Meg recently at Porter Square Books and so enjoyed her debut novel, about a pair of empty nesters whose three grown children suddenly descend on their house one summer, all running away from their grown-up issues. Moore gets the nuances of family life – the frustrations and the empathy and the small, telling details – just right, and her characters felt so real. I’m looking forward to her next book (out soon), So Far Away.

Salt to Summit, Daniel Arnold
A memoir of hiking from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, with historical asides about the Native Americans, gold prospectors and mountaineers who have peopled this region. The premise was interesting, but the writing dragged sometimes; it didn’t have the “personal journey” angle I look for in a memoir. Best suited for hikers and mountain climbers. (I received an ARC; this book comes out June 12.)

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porter square books bookstore interior

The bulging shelves at Porter Square Books

Over the Gate, Miss Read
Villages like Fairacre have their own rich lore, and Miss Read tells a dozen tales here, most of them told to her by other villagers. (Who knew Fairacre had its own ghost?) Lighthearted, often funny, sometimes mysterious, these stories provide another way to spend a few hours in Fairacre. (I am now collecting these books for my own shelf, keeping an eye out for them every time I visit a used bookstore.)

The House at Tyneford, Natasha Solomons
Elise Landau, daughter of bourgeois Viennese Jews, comes to England in 1938 as a housemaid at Tyneford, an isolated great house on the Dorset coast. She expects to hate England – and at first she does, missing her family and her cosseted Vienna life. Slowly, though, she makes friends and comes to love the wild, windswept landscape, even as war encroaches. Solomons’ writing is wonderfully atmospheric; her characters are sometimes stereotypical, but the best ones (like Elise) break the molds of their social classes. And there’s a dazzling love story at the heart of it all. Fabulous. (Recommended by Jaclyn, who loved it too.)

The Joys of Love, Madeleine L’Engle
I stumbled upon this at the Brattle – I had no idea it existed, let alone that it was only published a few years ago. (I loved the introduction by L’Engle’s granddaughter, Lena Roy, also a writer.) Both the plot (life in a summer stock theatre in the 1940s) and the protagonist – tall, gawky, naive, erudite Elizabeth – mirror L’Engle’s own experience. The supporting characters (especially kindhearted Jane and sweet Ben) are a lot of fun, and there are some bittersweet moments of wisdom and truth and lots of quoting from Shakespeare and Chekhov. Typical L’Engle, in other words – probably best appreciated by those of us who love her already.

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor
I liked Taylor’s first memoir (see yesterday’s post), but I loved this one. She writes about various “practices” – physical labor, Sabbath, prayer, simply looking another person in the eye – that can help ground us in the world we live in, and thereby give us a glimpse of the eternal in daily life. I might be writing a whole separate post about this book. So many gorgeous sentences, nuggets of wisdom, honest admissions, practical advice. I got this from the library, but I’ll be buying a copy. Love.

An Unmarked Grave, Charles Todd
Bess Crawford is at it again: taking on a mystery she didn’t ask for, but that just won’t let her rest. Her investigation is complicated by the Spanish flu, lots of travel back and forth between England and France, a Yankee soldier who keeps turning up like a bad penny (at least he’s endearing), and a vicious killer who’s on her tail. I like Bess and her family more and more, though this plot contained some pretty wild coincidences. To review for the Shelf (out June 5).

Three Times Lucky, Sheila Turnage
I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway and loved the story of Mo LoBeau, who washed up – literally – in Tupelo Landing, NC, as a baby. There’s a hilarious cast of small-town characters, a mystery that goes deeper than you’d think, and some truly wonderful writing. I kept cracking up and reading bits aloud to my husband. Mo is a sassy, smart, sharp-eyed narrator and she takes readers for such a fun ride. (Out May 10.)

Village Christmas, Miss Read
Two spinster sisters in Fairacre peer anxiously at the new family across the road, not sure whether to accept them, until the mother goes into labor on Christmas Day. A sweet tale of Christmas joy in a village I love. (Link is to a 3-in-1 edition of Miss Read’s Christmas tales that includes this story.)

You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon
Siobhan, a military wife, writes with sensitivity and grace about army wives at Fort Hood, in central Texas, waiting for their husbands to return from deployment. So much heartbreak in these pages, but also so much courage. I do wish the stories had delved deeper, continued past their end points so I could know what happened after – there are always so many questions hanging around the lives of military families.

(Bonus: I heard Siobhan read at Porter Square Books this week, and she was so lovely and gracious and well-spoken. And – she admitted when she found out I was a Texan – my home state captivated her in a way she totally didn’t expect.)

Run With Me, Jennifer Luitwieler
Jen is a Twitter friend of mine, and she sent me the e-version of her book for review. It’s about running, but it’s also about faith, family, a mischievous dog, and coming to grips with the baggage you’ve dragged around for years. Jen is hilarious and so real, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading her story. (And have added her to the long list of online friends I’d love to meet in real life.)

Whew! April was a busy reading month, and I have several stacks awaiting my attention in May. What are you reading now?

(NB: This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.)

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april reads books part 2Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor
Taylor tells her story of coming to faith, deciding to go to seminary, becoming ordained as an Episcopal priest, and, eventually, leaving full-time ministry. She writes with honesty and grace about the difficulty of giving up something you’ve worked hard to attain, and wondering if leaving church means leaving God (it doesn’t always). Her attention to small moments, and her descriptions of the countryside in Georgia, are lovely.

The House in Norham Gardens, Penelope Lively
When I saw the title I thought, “Not Norham Gardens Road – in North Oxford – three blocks from where I used to live?” This odd, charming story about 14-year-old Clare and her elderly aunts is indeed set in my old neighborhood, in a house that backs up to my beloved University Parks. Clare is an appealing character, thoughtful and sensitive, and she cycles and walks around so many streets and places I’ve been. There are some strange dream sequences involving New Guinea, but mostly I loved watching Clare live in my Oxford.

And Both Were Young, Madeleine L’Engle
I found a sweet (if battered and slightly foxed) edition of this book on our trip to Vermont a few weeks ago, and enjoyed the story of Philippa “Flip” Hunter, gradually coming out of her shell at a Swiss boarding school. L’Engle specializes in these gawky, sensitive, intelligent protagonists who discover their deep inner reserves of strength with the help of true friends. from Meg Murry to Vicky Austin to L’Engle herself. And I love them.

The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
I admire Dillard’s work, and I appreciate her no-nonsense, often ironic approach to the craft of writing. But this book, like her others, is sometimes opaque to me. There are some gems, but between them she wanders into long, irrelevant anecdotes (particularly toward the end). Not my favorite book on writing, but worthwhile.

A Bitter Truth, Charles Todd
This third Bess Crawford mystery captivated my attention as utterly as the first two. Bess is again drawn into a web of family secrets and a murder case she wasn’t looking for. But she navigates the situation with her usual combination of nursing skill, intelligence and blunt honesty, with a dose of daring (e.g. driving to Dover in the middle of the night). I like Bess, though I wonder when she’ll come to appreciate that best friend who’s always getting her out of scrapes.

Miss Clare Remembers, Miss Read
This is the life story of Miss Read’s dear friend, Miss Clare (link is to a two-in-one edition that includes this book). She sees so much change during her long life – two world wars, which help bring about many changes in the education system and the landscape of her small village world. She also suffers great loss, but she faces everything with calm and cheer. I love Miss Clare and so enjoyed learning all about her life.

Ruby Red, Kerstin Gier
This is the first in a YA fantasy trilogy, set in London. Gwyneth comes from a time-traveling family but doesn’t believe she has inherited the gene. No one else does either, till she starts inadvertently leaping back and forth in time. She learns a lot about a secret circle of alchemists and time-travelers, codes and symbols, and a handsome, time-traveling boy – but clearly the story has just begun. These novels are written in German, so I have to wait a while for the second one to be published in English! Good fun.

The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R., Carole DeSanti
A whirlwind, lushly detailed story of Napoleon’s Paris – decadence and poverty living side by side. DeSanti’s prose is rich (occasionally purple) and her cast of characters quite colorful (many of them are artists, prostitutes or revolutionaries). The historical details and atmosphere are fascinating, but the plot stumbled toward the end, and the conclusion felt a bit unsatisfying. Still, a vivid portrait of a Paris we don’t often see.

Part 3 to come tomorrow – I’ve been reading even more than usual lately (and many of the books are short). What are you reading these days?

(This post contains IndieBound affiliate links. Graphic by the lovely Sarah.)

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april reads part 1Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
I read this book in high school, at the behest of a favorite teacher, but hadn’t picked it up in a decade. And I loved the story just as much as before. (I’d forgotten most of the details!) Jane is a wonderful character – kind, indomitable and endearingly stubborn. I applauded her for sticking to her principles over and over again, and rejoiced with her as she made her way in the world. (I’m glad she finds love, but this time I was equally glad to see her find family.)

So Pretty! Crochet, ed. Amy Palanjian
I’m a knitter, not a crocheter, but these patterns – so fresh and colorful and stylish – might just convince me to pick up a hook. I also loved the anecdotes from each designer about what inspires their aesthetic and/or how they learned to crochet. Published by Chronicle Books, which means it’s beautifully designed. To review for the Shelf (out May 2).

Out of Sight, Out of Time, Ally Carter
I’d been waiting eagerly for this fifth Gallagher Girls book, and while I tore through it, I was disappointed at the conclusion. Very little resolution (perhaps that’s coming in the sixth and final book?). All the characters I love – from the teenage girl spies-in-training to the handsome boy spy to the secret-agent teachers – are back, and Carter’s skill for writing cliffhangers kept me turning the pages. Not my favorite of the series, but still good fun.

The Train to Estelline, Jane Roberts Wood
Someone recommended this in a list of spring books on Sarah’s site, and I squealed when I saw it was set in West Texas. (It’s rare to find fiction set there.) Estelline is only a few hours from where I grew up. And I enjoyed the tale of Lucy Richards, 17-year-old schoolteacher from East Texas, tackling new adventures with gusto. She’s a bit naive, but kind and good-hearted, and I loved her commentary on the wide plains, big skies and stunning sunsets of my homeland.

Summer at Fairacre, Miss Read
I love Miss Read’s gentle tales of life in an English village (I found this one at Rivendell Books). The story of an English spring and summer was just what I needed during a gray few days. Miss Read is a witty, observant narrator, and I enjoy seeing the cast of village characters through her eyes.

An Irish Country Village, Patrick Taylor
Switching from England to Ireland, with the continued adventures of Dr. Barry Laverty and his mentor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, physicians to the Ulster village of Ballybucklebo. All the old friends from the first book return, and we meet a few new characters. Taylor’s use of the Ulster dialect is highly entertaining; I can hear the Irish accents in my head. Warm and comforting.

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
I hadn’t reread Jane’s story in years, but oh, I enjoyed watching her fall in love with Prince Edward Island (and learn to stand up to her shrew of a grandmother) again. Jane is practical and capable but still has an imagination, and it’s wonderful to see her spirit open up. Montgomery’s minor characters are always such fun – I loved getting reacquainted with the entire population of Lantern Hill.

Storm in the Village, Miss Read
The good people of Fairacre are horrified by the possibility of a new housing estate next to their beloved village – and they marshal their arguments to the local council. Miss Read observes and narrates, while carrying on her teaching routine and dealing with the thousand little events of village life.

Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us, Rachelle Bergstein
Bergstein presents a sartorial history of the last century – from how Ferragamo got his start to the crazy platform shoes of the ’70s to the obsession with Manolos caused by Carrie Bradshaw. Frothy and fun but well-researched, with lots of cool historical nuggets. The story of shoes since 1900 is in large part the story of femininity in contemporary American culture, and it’s a fascinating one. To review for the Shelf (out May 29).

The Meryl Streep Movie Club, Mia March
A charming Maine inn, a handful of Meryl Streep movies and a group of estranged relatives who need to reconnect? The perfect recipe for a lovely debut novel about family, chasing your dreams and becoming who you’re meant to be instead of remaining stuck in the past. March’s characters felt like friends, and their love of Meryl made me want to go watch all her movies. To review for the Shelf (out June 19).

A Place Called Sweet Shrub, Jane Roberts Wood
This sequel to The Train to Estelline (see above) takes Lucy from her East Texas hometown to eastern Arkansas, where she and her husband confront racial tensions. This one didn’t work for me the way the original did – it was fun to spend time with Lucy again, but I preferred her adventures in West Texas.

Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride, Alyssa Harad
Serious English-major type Alyssa didn’t expect to fall in love with perfume – but the story of how she flirted with it, read obsessively about it and then gave herself up to the obsession is both delicious and fascinating. Full of tidbits about the perfume industry and lusciously described scents, and peopled by elegant, quirky characters (who all smell wonderful), this memoir swept me away. (It reminded me, in a wonderful way, of Molly Birnbaum’s Season to Taste.) To review for the Shelf (out June 28).

(This post contains IndieBound affiliate links. And the graphic was made for me by the lovely Sarah.)

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