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We’ve had April showers, April snow, April bright sunshine…I don’t know anymore, y’all. But I know the books are saving my life, as always. Here’s the latest batch:

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
I dove back into L’Engle’s classic after seeing the visually stunning new film. (I have thoughts about the film, but that’s another post.) I was surprised at how many details I’d forgotten, many of which director Ava DuVernay included. I love Meg Murry, and this time, her realization that no one else will save her rang especially true to me.

A Howl of Wolves, Judith Flanders
London editor Sam Clair is a reluctant (at best) theatregoer, but she drags her cop boyfriend, Jake, to a West End production starring her neighbor and friend. When the show’s director ends up hanged onstage, Sam and Jake are drawn into the resulting investigation. Well plotted; I like Sam and her dry wit. A solid fourth entry in this series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 15).

The Wild Woman’s Guide to Traveling the World, Kristin Rockaway
Sophie Bruno is a meticulous planner in her professional and personal life. But when her best friend ditches her during a Hong Kong vacation, Sophie meets a dreamy artist guy and ends up making some drastic changes. I liked the premise, but found Sophie irritating – though I cheered at her eventual career move. Found at the Book Catapult in San Diego (pictured above).

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, ed. Manjula Martin
I picked up this essay collection at McNally Jackson last year, and dove into it as part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject. It’s uneven but fascinating: varied takes on the perils, rewards and frustrations of earning a living as a writer. Standouts: essays by Nina MacLaughlin, Meaghan O’Connell, Daniel José Older and Martin herself.

The Case for Jamie, Brittany Cavallaro
Jamie Watson hasn’t seen Charlotte Holmes for a year, since a confrontation on a Sussex lawn that left someone dead. Back at his Connecticut boarding school, Jamie suspects the Moriartys are up to their old tricks. Cavallaro writes especially well about what happens in a relationship after a rupture. A fast-paced, heartbreaking, stellar third book in this series.

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
I’d been meaning to read this slim novel (my first Strout) for a while, and snagged it on remainder at the Harvard Book Store. It’s spare and luminous, with beautiful sentences and insights on grief, mother-daughter relationships and class divides. I didn’t love it as many others did, but it was worth reading.

Mary B, Katherine J. Chen
Mary Bennet, as everyone knows, is the plain sister: not beautiful, witty or talented. But she has a story, and Chen’s debut gives her the chance to tell it. The first few chapters dragged (does the world really need another Pride and Prejudice rehash?), but things pick up after that. Warning: this remake does not treat the other Bennets kindly. I had mixed feelings about this one, but it was certainly interesting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 24).

The Splendour Falls, Susanna Kearsley
I fell in love with Kearsley’s historical novels this winter, and this one – set in Chinon, France – was wonderfully atmospheric. It’s much earlier than the others I’ve read, so the writing and plot are not nearly as accomplished. But I still found it engaging.

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

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It’s no secret I love a good spy story – especially if it features a badass female protagonist. This column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Spies are paradoxically famous for flying under the radar. Both their livelihood and their success depend on remaining undetected. For women, their gender often provides an additional layer of disguise: many men overlook women or doubt them to be capable of a spy’s cunning and deceit. (They’re wrong.)

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network brings to life the work of female spies in occupied France during World War I. The titular network revolves around whip-smart Alice Dubois (an alias, of course), who smuggles information up the Allied ranks via hairpins, skirt seams and her web of crackerjack female agents. Though Quinn’s protagonist Eve Gardiner is fictional, “Alice” and her compatriots really existed, and the novel is a fitting homage to their courage.

Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga finds herself swept up and then abandoned by a charming man in Maria Duenas’s powerful novel The Time in Between. Stranded in Morocco, Sira hones her sewing skills and becomes a successful couturier whose designs eventually catch the eye of Nazi diplomats’ wives. As war swirls on the Continent, first in Spain and then everywhere, Sira passes coded information through her elegant gowns, stitching herself into the complex worlds of high fashion and espionage.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is used to being underestimated: as a retired widow, she’s also downright bored. Presenting herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., she argues her way into a position as an undercover agent, launching an unorthodox career that has her crisscrossing continents throughout the Cold War (though her neighbors never know it). Dorothy Gilman’s series, which spans 14 novels, lives up to the name of its first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, in delightful fashion.

In fiction as in real life, female spies are often underrated–but their stories are reliably fascinating.

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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Hello, friends. I know March isn’t quite over, but I’ve been out of town and back again, so I have a slew of books to share with you. And so many of them are excellent. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love, Hate & Other Filters, Samira Ahmed
Maya Aziz loves filmmaking: capturing the perfect shot, whether at an Indian wedding (under protest) or an ordinary Tuesday. But Maya’s film-school dreams, and her daily life in small-town Illinois, are shattered when a hate crime  makes her a target. A powerful exploration of what it means to be a brown Muslim teen in the U.S., and also a sweet, wry, witty coming-of-age story with some romance thrown in.

Encore Provence, Peter Mayle
A friend gave me her extra copy of this book a while back. Mayle’s gentle, witty, thoughtful essays on Provence – olive oil, truffles, gardens, the joys of meandering – were the perfect snow-day (and commute) escapism. Lovely.

Waiting for the Light, Alicia Suskin Ostriker
I picked up this poetry collection at Porter Square Books recently; Ostriker’s poem on crocuses sold me. Many of the others were more opaque, but it’s always worth exploring (and supporting!) a new poet.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, Karina Yan Glaser
I’d been hearing about this charming middle-grade novel everywhere. When the five Vanderbeeker kids learn that their crotchety, mysterious landlord (the Beiderman) isn’t renewing their lease, they embark on a hilarious campaign to convince him that they should stay. A wonderful, warmhearted family story – a bit like the Melendys, in 21st-century Harlem.

Beauty in the Broken Places, Allison Pataki
Novelist Pataki and her medical-student husband, Dave, were on a plane headed for Hawaii when Dave had a massive stroke. Pataki chronicles their love story and Dave’s incredible recovery in this heartfelt memoir. The narrative dragged a bit in the middle, but it’s still an inspiring true story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

The Secrets Between Us, Thrity Umrigar
After abruptly leaving her longtime job as a maid, Bhima struggles to support herself and her granddaughter, Maya, while living in the slums of Mumbai. She sets up a vegetable stand with Parvati, another down-on-her-luck woman who’s hiding secrets of her own. A compelling, evocative and often heartbreaking portrait of two women living on the knife edge of poverty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 26).

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
I’d heard about this slim novel for months, and finally picked it up for my book club. It follows young lovers Nadia and Saeed, who escape their city as life there becomes increasingly untenable. A lovely but harrowing novel of refugees, with a bit of magical realism. (Like Jaclyn, I trust President Obama’s reading taste.)

Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
As a young woman, Aganetha Smart made history running for Canada in the 1928 Olympics. As a wheelchair-bound centenarian, she’s left with only her memories, until two young people show up at her nursing home. A tough, lyrically written novel of hardship, family and running. Recommended by Liberty.

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, Alan Bradley
I bought this latest Flavia de Luce novel in Boise and saved it to read on my recent vacation. Flavia and her sisters are on holiday when they find a corpse floating in the river. Flavia dives into investigating his death, alongside the family’s faithful retainer, Dogger. This series is so much fun; Flavia’s narrative voice is witty and wry, though my heart breaks for her sometimes. A well-plotted mystery.

The Map of Salt and Stars, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
After her father’s death, 12-year-old Nour has returned to Syria (from NYC) with her mother and sisters. But when their home is bombed, they become refugees, on the move throughout the Middle East with millions of others. Joukhadar weaves Nour’s story together with the legend of a female mapmaker’s apprentice from medieval times. A stunning dual narrative about crossing borders and finding home. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker
In the French town of St. Denis, crime is rare and murder is unheard of – until an elderly north African man is brutally killed. The town’s lone titular policeman investigates, discovering links leading back to World War II. A (mostly) gentle setup to a series; Bruno is a likable character and St. Denis is charming, though the ending left me unsettled. Recommended by Leigh.

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

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In like a lion, as they say. Early March has included three (!) nor’easters: snow, wind, rain and flooding. Plus the first crocuses. And good books, as always.

Here’s the latest roundup:

Through the Evil Days, Julia Spencer-Fleming
I read this eighth mystery featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne with my heart in my throat. A whopping ice storm, a missing girl, a meth-cooking operation – Spencer-Fleming amps up the tension on every level. The case gets solved, but an unrelated cliffhanger left me even more impatient for the next installment.

The Shortest Way Home, Miriam Parker
Hannah Greene has landed her dream job right out of business school, and she and her boyfriend have their lives all planned. But on a weekend in Sonoma County, Hannah falls in love with a local winery and jettisons her NYC plans. A charming novel about upending expectations (your own and everyone else’s) to make your way. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 31). I got to chat with the author, too, and she’s a darling.

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years, David Litt
Former speechwriter Litt reminisces about his years on the Obama campaign trail and the White House in this wry memoir. He’s witty, self-deprecating and sometimes insightful about the boondoggle that is American politics, and the mix of hope, frustration and ennui that can plague workplaces like his. Plus fun insider stories, in the vein of Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?. Recommended by Rebecca on All the Books!.

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species, Carlos Magdalena
Magdalena is a man on a mission: to care for and propagate the world’s disappearing plants, and to spread the gospel of conservation. A Spaniard who now works at London’s Kew Gardens, he’s crisscrossed the world on botanical adventures. This memoir got a little science-geeky at times, but it’s full of good stories and enthusiasm. (The man loves him some water lilies.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 10).

American Panda, Gloria Chao
Mei Lu, 17-year-old MIT freshman, wishes her Taiwanese parents would stop being so overprotective – especially since she wants to change her major and date a (gasp!) Japanese-American boy. A sweet, funny YA novel about family, independence and cultural clash. (And some pretty epic pranks.)

Mink River, Brian Doyle
I picked up this novel (Doyle’s first) at McNally Jackson last year, and have been lingering in it for weeks. Through brief vignettes and small everyday moments, he evokes the texture of life in Neawanaka, a tiny town in Oregon. I loved the characters; the plot rambles till it finally revs up near the end, but the charm of Doyle’s work is following his meandering joyous dizzying insightful sentences. Wise and hilarious and I’m reminded of what a treasure he was.

The Forever House, Veronica Henry
Estate agent Belinda Baxter matches people up with their perfect homes, while longing for a permanent home of her own. When she lands the commission for Hunter’s Moon, a local house with lots of history, her day job and her personal life intersect in surprising ways. I love Henry’s sweet British novels; a girlfriend brought me this one from the UK. I savored the past-present storyline and the likable characters. Very satisfying.

Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Guide to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home), Morra Aarons-Mele
I heard Aarons-Mele on a podcast with Karen Walrond recently. This, her nonfiction book on work and networking for introverts (and/or hermits), is practical, insightful and honest. She shares tips for making helpful connections, setting your own schedule, and faking it when you have to.

Amina’s Voice, Hena Khan
Amina Khokar is struggling to adjust to middle school: suddenly, friendships and expectations are shifting. And she wants to sing a solo in the school concert, but she’s too shy. A sweet middle-grade novel of a Pakistani-American girl finding her voice in more ways than one. Recommended by Jaclyn.

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

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A cop and a priest walk into a crime scene.

It’s a feature of several mystery series I love: Grantchester, the excellent ITV drama based on James Runcie’s novels about Sidney Chambers and Inspector Geordie Keating. Inspector Lewis, the BBC series in which Lewis and his sergeant, Hathaway (who trained for the priesthood) solve mysteries in my beloved Oxford.

And, most recently for me, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries set in Millers Kill, New York, starring police chief Russ Van Alstyne and the Reverend Clare Fergusson.

I picked up the first book at my library right after New Year’s and was captivated by Russ and Clare’s initial adventure, in which they rescue an abandoned baby and solve a murder case. As you can see from my reading roundups, I’ve blazed through the entire series over the past two months.

I love a good mystery series, though I’m not much for serious gore. Give me an engaging, thoughtful protagonist (or two) with a strong sense of justice, an interesting setting (and preferably a standout supporting cast), twisty and compelling mystery plots, and I’m satisfied.

In this series, all those elements are intertwined with Russ and Clare’s complicated relationship. They make a good team and they quickly become friends, bonding over the cases they solve together and their respective experiences in the U.S. military. Before long, they find themselves wrestling with a deeper attraction. The problem: Russ is married, and Clare’s chosen vocation gives her extra incentive to deal honestly with her feelings and take responsibility for her actions.

Spencer-Fleming writes a solid mystery plot: I’ve been amazed at the way she weaves in local Adirondack history, the tangled web of relationships present in any small town, and questions of justice. Clare’s clear-cut sense of right and wrong is often troubled by the cases she investigates, while Russ’ long experience as a policeman has left him more world-weary but no less dedicated.

I’ve also been repeatedly astonished by the rendering of Russ and Clare’s relationship. These are two people trying to do the right thing, while acknowledging that their feelings for one another could wreak havoc on their lives and their town. It feels blazingly honest and compassionate.

Millers Kill, as the characters frequently note, is a small town, and I’ve grown to love many of the supporting characters: deputy police chief Lyle and veteran dispatcher Harlene; the junior officers, especially Kevin Flynn and Hadley Knox; the members of Clare’s vestry board and her church; and others who walk in and out of the pages regularly. They all strike me as utterly human, and most of them are people I’d like to know in real life.

Writing honestly and well about faith is hard to do. I speak from my experience on this blog and elsewhere, but I’ve never tried my hand at it in fiction. Spencer-Fleming gives us glimpses of Clare’s hard-won, gritty faith, which informs every case she works on and often goes against the grain of church politics and the vestry’s expectations. I wrote about an early scene involving prayer and a subsequent one on forgiveness, but there’s at least one similar nugget in every book: a few clear-eyed lines about the struggle to be a faithful person in this mixed-up, often heartbreaking world.

During a crisis moment in I Shall Not Want, the sixth book, Russ remembers asking Clare, “So, how do you pray?” He recalls her thoughtful expression, and her answer: Say what you believe. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love. 

I’ve finished the series for now (though I hope there are more books to come), and I can say with certainty: I love these characters, and I’m thankful for them. And for writers like Spencer-Fleming who bring us stories like these.

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ordinary light book journal

This February was up and down: weather-wise, work-wise, sleep-wise (the Olympics messed with that last one). But it included some fantastic books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love and Ruin, Paula McLain
I loved McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, about Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, but frankly wasn’t sure I was up for another novel about the man. But the narrative voice of Martha Gellhorn, a fiery journalist who became his third wife, captivated me. McLain charts their passionate, stormy relationship and Martha’s fierce battle to build her career while living in Ernest’s shadow. Great writing, lots of drama (world and personal) and a searing portrait of complicated love. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
This short novel garnered a lot of hype a few years ago, and I finally read it for my book club. It’s a string of vignettes and musings by a highly anxious woman in NYC whose marriage hits a rough patch. The viewpoint flips about halfway through from first to third person. I can see why others found this one compelling, but it didn’t work for me.

Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith
Smith, the U.S. poet laureate, turns to prose in this memoir, which chronicles her childhood in California and her mother’s powerful influence on her life. It started slowly for me, but I took my time and enjoyed it, especially the later sections. A few beautiful passages (one set in Lamont Library) and a thoughtful exploration of loss, belief and growing into ourselves. I also read Smith’s striking new collection, Wade in the Water (out in April), for review.

I Shall Not Want, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Russ Van Alstyne is grieving a great loss, and Clare Fergusson is balancing ministry and her assignment in the National Guard. They and the Millers Kill PD, including brand-new officer Hadley Knox, are swept up in a case involving undocumented immigrants, drug smuggling and murder. I can’t get enough of this series; this book was possibly the most powerful and honest yet.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
This novel opens with teenage arson: a shocking act in most places, but especially in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a meticulously planned, rule-following community. Ng explores the interplay of two contrasting families: the stable, self-assured Richardsons, and newcomer Mia Warren (an itinerant artist) and her daughter Pearl. A page-turner with some compelling characters. I loved Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, and this is a solid second novel.

To Be Where You Are, Jan Karon
I’m a longtime repeat visitor to Mitford, Karon’s fictional North Carolina town. In this latest novel (#14), retired priest Father Tim finds himself with a new job, as his son and daughter-in-law struggle with their own challenges. I always love visiting Mitford; it’s small and homey, but the struggles are very real. Funny, comforting and wise.

One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson is struggling to readjust to civilian life after a year in Iraq. She joins a local veterans’ group, and when one of her compatriots ends up dead, she (of course) dives into the investigation. Meanwhile, the other group members are wrestling their own demons, and it’s a small town, so it’s all connected. Powerful and heartbreaking; the seventh in a fantastic series.

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Deena Kastor (with Michelle Hamilton)
I’m a novice enthusiastic runner; Kastor is a pro and an Olympic medalist. I was fascinated by her memoir of running: her early career, the wisdom she gained from coaches and teammates, and her focus on mental toughness. She’s relentlessly positive but not trite, and I loved following her journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 10).

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

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I’m back from a trip out west to see some dear friends, and (no surprise) I did a lot of airplane reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
I found this one at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford, last fall. It took me weeks: it’s a bit dense in places, but fascinating. Bunting explores the Outer Hebrides off the northwestern coast of Scotland and delves into their complicated histories. Less memoir-y than I wanted, though she does muse on the ideas of home, remoteness and living on the (literal) edge.

To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a single November day in Millers Kill, N.Y., events unfold that will change multiple lives. A young woman goes missing, a corporate land deal inches toward completion, a few men see their future plans crumbling (for varied reasons). Spencer-Fleming’s fourth mystery charts the complicated web of people affected by these events, including her protagonists, Rev. Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. So layered and so good.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
This YA novel needs no introduction from me: it’s been all over the bestseller lists, and for good reason. Starr Carter, a young black woman, is the only witness to her childhood best friend’s murder at the hands of a white police officer. Starr is already navigating two worlds as a student at a mostly white prep school, but Khalil’s murder smashes her two worlds together. Stunning, heartbreaking, powerful. I was gripped and saddened by the main plot, but I also loved Thomas’ depiction of Starr’s tight-knit, complicated family.

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
In 1915, a young Englishwoman named Evelyn Gardiner is recruited to spy for the titular network in German-occupied France. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair finds herself pregnant, adrift and searching desperately for news of her French cousin Rose, who disappeared in World War II. Quinn expertly ties Charlie’s and Eve’s stories together, with a propulsive plot, some truly fantastic supporting characters and a ruthless villain. I devoured this on a plane ride (and a passing flight attendant exclaimed, “It’s so good!”). Highly recommended.

All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are still struggling to navigate their relationship. When Russ’ recently estranged wife is found murdered in her kitchen, events spin wildly out of control. This mystery packed in so much pain and surprise – not just for Russ and Clare but for many of the supporting cast, who are fully realized characters in their own right. Broke my heart, but it was the best yet in this series.

A Desperate Fortune, Susanna Kearsley
I picked up this fascinating novel after loving Kearsley’s The Winter Sea. Sara Thomas, an amateur codebreaker, travels to France to decipher a young woman’s diary from the 1730s. Kearsley weaves Sara’s story together with that of the diary’s author, Mary Dundas, who finds herself mixed up with the Jacobites. I loved both narratives, but especially enjoyed watching Mary adapt to her rapidly changing circumstances and step into her own bravery.

Brave Enough, Cheryl Strayed
My mom gave me this little book of Strayed’s quotes for Christmas, and I’ve been dipping into it. I’m a bit ambivalent about her work, but there is some pithy, no-nonsense wisdom here.

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

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