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Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

almost sisters book christmas tree

We’re two weeks into a new year, which has included (so far) a foot of snow, a record-breaking cold snap and – thank goodness – a batch of fantastic books.

Here’s my first reading roundup for 2018:

The Almost Sisters, Joshilyn Jackson
Leia Birch Briggs, a successful graphic artist, finds out she’s pregnant with a biracial baby after a one-night stand. Then she’s summoned to Alabama to check on her grandmother, Birchie, who’s been hiding her health problems and other damaging secrets. I loved this novel – it’s funny, wise, warmhearted and thought-provoking. Leia is a great narrator and her relationship with her stepsister, Rachel, felt so real – as did her experience as a well-meaning but often clueless white woman. Recommended by Leigh and Anne.

One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together, Amy Bass
Soccer, like other sports, has historically taken a backseat to hockey in Lewiston, Maine. But an influx of Somali immigrants to this white, working-class town began to change that. And Lewiston High School’s coach, Mike McGraw, saw his chance to build a championship team. Insightful, vividly told, deeply researched nonfiction about a group of boys who became the emblem of a changing town. I’m not even much of a soccer fan, but I loved it. Reminded me of The Newcomers. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 27).

Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper
After loving The Dark is Rising, I went back and read this first book in the series, in which three children find a mysterious treasure map while on holiday in Cornwall. With the help of their great-uncle (whom I recognized from TDIR), they embark on a quest while dodging some sinister folks. Fun and enjoyable, though not nearly as compelling as TDIR.

In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a bitterly cold Advent season in upstate New York, someone leaves a newborn baby on the Episcopal church steps. The Reverend Clare Fergusson, new to town, investigates the baby’s parentage plus a few murders alongside longtime police chief Russ Van Alstyne. I’d heard about this mystery series from Lauren Winner and loved this first book: Russ, Clare and the other characters felt satisfyingly real.

Wade in the Water: Poems, Tracy K. Smith
I’d heard of Smith but really started paying attention to her when she was named poet laureate last summer. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, is on my to-read stack. This new collection of her poems was the first I’d read. It includes several “erasure poems” based on text from correspondence of former slave owners, the Declaration of Independence and other documents. But my favorites were the others, like “Ash” and “4 1/2” and “Unrest in Baton Rouge.” To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 3).

Other People’s Houses, Abbi Waxman
Carpool mom Frances Bloom is used to taking care of everyone, including her neighbors’ kids. But when she catches her neighbor, Anne, in flagrante delicto with a younger man, the neighborhood is thrown for a loop and so is Frances. This was sharper and sadder than Waxman’s debut, The Garden of Small Beginnings (which I loved). Some great lines and realistic characters, but I thought it ended too abruptly. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 3).

The Library at the Edge of the World, Felicity Hayes-McCoy
I read Hayes-McCoy’s memoir, The House on an Irish Hillside, a few years ago and loved it. This novel was fluffier than that, but still enjoyable: librarian Hanna Casey, who has returned to her rural Irish hometown after a divorce, suddenly finds herself an unlikely community organizer. Lovely descriptions of western Ireland and several appealing characters.

The Woman in the Water, Charles Finch
I love Finch’s mystery series featuring Victorian gentleman detective Charles Lenox. This prequel explores Lenox’s start as a detective, as the recent Oxford graduate investigates the deaths of two unknown women. A satisfying mystery plot, and I also enjoyed the appearances by Lenox’s invaluable valet, Graham, and other familiar characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 20).

Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, Laura Thompson
Known today as the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie led a long and interesting life. Thompson explores Christie’s childhood, her two marriages, her prodigious creative output and her 11-day disappearance in 1926. I found this biography engaging, though it dragged at times, and the section on Agatha’s disappearance was decidedly odd. I’m a Christie fan (but 485 pages is a serious commitment!). To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 6).

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

What are you reading this winter?

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“I was going to ask if you believe praying can really help at a time like this.”

Clare folded her hands together and pressed them to her lips. She paused. […]

“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending His spirit, giving us strength, and peace, and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”

Harlene frowned. “In other words, sometimes, the answer is no?”

“No. Sometimes the answer is ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.’ ”

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter

I don’t usually expect to find theology in mystery novels. Though perhaps I should have seen it coming in this book, the first in a series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson (flawed but faithful, like all the best human beings I know). I enjoyed the book – a solid mystery set in upstate New York, in which new-to-town Clare solves a murder case alongside longtime chief of police Russ Van Alstyne. But I found this exchange, between Clare and police dispatcher Harlene, particularly moving and deeply human.

I don’t pretend to know what prayer does, or exactly how it works. The older I get, the less sure I am of what God is up to in this world, or how the presence of the divine intersects with our lives. But Clare’s final statement to Harlene rings true to me: when we are faced with life in all its variety, all we can do is try to make our way through it with grace. In spite of the darkness, I still believe this too: we are not alone, but deeply, wholly loved.

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Somewhat to my own surprise, I chose magic for my one little word for 2017.

I’ve been choosing one little word each year since 2010, when brave sneaked into my life, took up residence and never left. It is still and always a guiding word for me, but over the years other words have found their place: comfort, shift, attention, light, gentle, gumption.

After all the changes and challenges of 2016, I knew 2017 would need some serious magic. And it’s been quite a journey: both in paying attention to magic where it already exists, and doing my best to make some of my own.

2017 held so much magic of the everyday kind: flowers, sunshine, my daily trips to Darwin’s, yoga classes, long walks, the kindness of friends and acquaintances and strangers. Like light, it often seems to grow stronger when I look for it and celebrate it.

There were some truly extraordinary magic moments this year, too: walking the beaches of PEI’s north shore with my husband. Hiking the misty Maine woods with dear friends. Climbing the tower of St. Mary’s in Oxford, and drinking in the view of the city at my feet. Closer to home, I ran my first 5K (in the snow!), spoke at Morning Prayers, walked miles around Cambridge and NYC soaking in their respective beauty, and interviewed several truly delightful authors for Shelf Awareness.

Magic, as Elise Blaha Cripe and Ali Edwards have noted, is often something you make. But I’ve also read enough stories of fantasy and magical realism to know this: it’s not entirely in our control.

By its very nature, magic is quicksilver, sneaky, surprising. It can show up where you least expect it and enchant or transform an entire day. But it is not a neutral force: it has a dark, slippery side. It is powerful, but – like love or ambition or so many other forces – it can be dangerous. And as every witch or wizard knows, it can be sought or celebrated or coaxed into greater life, but it can never entirely be tamed.

When I interviewed Alice Hoffman about her wonderful book The Rules of Magic, we talked not only about magic, but about courage, and love. Both in the book and in our lives, these three things are deeply intertwined.

“The book is really all about courage,” Hoffman told me. She spoke of “the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human.” The Owens siblings have certain powers, and they learn skills and spells and alchemy to hone those powers. But their most potent magic is much deeper and hard-won: it comes from choosing courage, choosing love, even when the outcome isn’t what they hoped for.

Many of the books I read this year involved magic: not only The Rules of Magic but The Dark is Rising, The Luster of Lost Things, the latest installments in Rae Carson’s Gold Seeker trilogy and Rachel Caine’s Great Library series. Several others invoked magic by another name: Leigh Bardugo’s take on Wonder Woman, Claudia Gray’s novels about Princess Leia, Jodi Taylor’s riotous time-traveling historians.

In a year that often seemed like the stuff of nightmares, I kept reaching for stories of heroines, hoping (often unconsciously) for someone to swoop in and save us. But in the end, every one of these heroines – Franny Owens, Leah Westfall, Diana Prince, Leia Organa, Madeleine Maxwell – reminded me of what I already knew: the only true magic is the everyday kind.

heart sneakers trail

All the stories I know about magic eventually come to this: the deepest magic, the truest source of hope, is the very human, often humble work of showing up, taking care, doing what needs to be done. Those lines from The Last Days of Café Leila, which I read back in February, have echoed in my head like a spell or a mantra all year: “The only thing to do was to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything she was capable of giving.”

Tiffany Aching learns this in Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men series: the work of a village witch is often scrubbing and soothing and elbow grease, doing her best to watch over the people in her care. Isabelle Owens reminds her great-nieces of this in The Rules of Magic: “We carry these things with us, and we have to fight them. The best way to do this is to be who you are, every part of you.” And Albus Dumbledore insists, to Harry Potter and anyone else who will listen, that the deepest magic – the mightiest word – is love.

Magic still has much to teach me, I think, but its lessons – perhaps fittingly – aren’t easy for me to articulate. It has been a year of myriad questions and very few answers; a year of mystery and struggle and often darkness; a year of trying to keep up and take care, while the forces around me seemed hellbent on yanking my life out of control. But it has also been a year of surprising joy.

As I walk forward into 2018, I am grateful for the presence of magic in my life. I can’t control it and I don’t always understand it. But it is there, and I hope it stays around for a while. I’ll be watching for its glimmers amid the everyday.

Did you follow a word in 2017? What did it teach you?

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book stack christmas tree

Happy New Year, friends. I hope your holidays were wonderful. Mine involved our usual Texas tour: lots of family time, Tex-Mex food and twinkliness. (Then a quiet New Year’s weekend to recover.)

Here are the books I read in the second half of December – mostly on our vacation:

Ghosts of Greenglass House, Kate Milford
Milo Pine is looking forward to a quiet Christmas with his parents. But for the second year in a row, that’s not happening: the titular hotel where they live is invaded by a pair of thieves and a mysterious group of carolers (the Waits). I enjoyed this sequel to Greenglass House, though the magic got a little muddled at times.

You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins
Spanning four decades (1970s to present day), this YA novel unfolds the saga of the Das family as they move between India and the U.S., through the voices of five women. A great story of sisterhood and the push and pull between tradition, family and making your own way. I read it in one sitting on a flight.

A Casualty of War, Charles Todd
The Great War is nearly over, but for nurse Bess Crawford, there’s still much to be done for the soldiers in her care. The plight of one such soldier, a Captain Travis, sends Bess and her friend Simon Brandon to Suffolk to investigate his family history. I’ve enjoyed this series, but the previous few books have stalled a bit. This one, however, was excellent.

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, Jenny Colgan
As Christmas approaches, baker Polly Waterford is struggling: she’s exhausted at work, ambivalent about her boyfriend’s marriage proposal and worried about her pregnant best friend. I like Colgan’s cheery chick lit; this one wasn’t my favorite, but I enjoyed seeing these characters again.

The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
I’d never read this fantasy novel, but picked it up when Robert Macfarlane (whose nonfiction I adore) announced a readalong on Twitter. I loved the story: full of beautiful lines, ancient magic and bravery, as 11-year-old Will Stanton discovers he’s part of a mysterious circle that must hold back the Dark. It’s set at midwinter/Christmastime, which felt so apt. Now I want to read the rest of the series.

Leopard at the Door, Jennifer McVeigh
I grabbed this at the (rather uninspiring) DFW airport bookstore, and spent my flight home wholly absorbed in it. Rachel Fullsmith returns home to Kenya after six miserable years in an English boarding school. Her widowed father has taken up with a cold, manipulative woman, and there is increasing unrest among the Kenyan laborers. Vivid images, gorgeous writing and a heart-wrenching story of those caught up in the Mau Mau uprising. (I also enjoyed McVeigh’s debut, The Fever Tree.)

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

What are you reading in this brand-new year?

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The first half of December is always a contradiction in terms: the routine of daily life marches on, laced with twinkly festivity and all the holiday prep. As ever, the reading helps keep me (relatively) sane.

Here’s the latest book roundup:

And the Rest is History, Jodi Taylor
I love Taylor’s series about the wacky, tea-loving time-traveling historians of St. Mary’s Institute in England. This eighth book is full of heartbreak: Max, the narrator/heroine, her husband Leon and their colleagues are in for it, several times. But it’s also witty, fast-paced and entertaining, like the whole series. Smart, fun escapist reading.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler
I savored this collection of essays by 46 writers, riffing on lines or passages that have shaped their creative lives. Thoughtful, honest, nourishing perspectives as varied as their authors. Recommended by Lindsey, who especially loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay (so did I). Other favorites: Claire Messud, Azar Nafisi, Angela Flournoy, Sherman Alexie.

Fifty Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World, Saadia Zahidi
Muslim women are going to work in greater numbers than ever, and they are revolutionizing their homes, families and societies. Zahidi delves into the cultural, social and economic patterns that are shifting across the Muslim world. Packed with statistics, but I really enjoyed the stories of women (many, but not all, millennials) who are blazing a path for themselves. (Serendipity: Zahidi is an alumna of my workplace.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 30).

Star Wars: Bloodline, Claudia Gray
I enjoyed Gray’s new novel about the teenage Princess Leia learning to be a badass. I loved this novel, set before The Force Awakens, even more. It features Leia as a senator in the New Republic: she’s a little jaded, but brave and committed as ever, and hungry for a bit of adventure – which she gets in spades. I relished both the new characters and the appearances by familiar faces (Han Solo and C-3PO).

The Red Garden, Alice Hoffman
Hoffman’s stories weave magic seamlessly into the everyday (or simply point out what’s already there). This collection follows the town of Blackwell, Mass., and the intertwined lives of its families over three centuries. It’s a little uneven, but still enchanting.

Party Girls Die in Pearls, Plum Sykes
Ursula Flowerbutton has high hopes for her first week as a student at Oxford – but they don’t include the murder of a posh classmate. However, Ursula (a budding journalist) and her new American friend Nancy are on the case. A smart, fun, frothy, totally ’80s romp through Oxford. Perfect weekend reading.

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
A longtime obsession with birds of prey led Macdonald to acquire a goshawk named Mabel, around the time her father died. She struggles mightily with grief and emptiness while learning to fly her hawk. Luminous, heartbreaking and strange: full of sorrow and magic. I didn’t care much for the exploration of T.H. White’s journey with goshawks, but loved Macdonald’s own story. Bought last year at bookbook in Greenwich Village. Recommended by my friend Jess at Great New Books.

Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, Anne Bogel
Anne is a longtime blogging friend of mine; we finally met in person last fall in NYC. She’s also a whip-smart personality geek, and her first book explores various personality frameworks. The big takeaway: know thyself – and be willing to question your own assumptions. Thoughtful and informative. (Anne sent me an ARC – it came out in September.)

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

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book culture bookstore interior yellow flowers

November was a full month, as they all are lately. I’ve been squeezing in the good books wherever I can. Here’s my latest roundup:

Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies, Brian Doyle
I love Doyle’s work (as I have said before) and enjoyed this collection of slim, bright, often funny, always lyrical, heartfelt essays. He writes about children (his and others), the aftermath of 9/11, faith, grief, birds and a thousand other everyday moments of grace.

The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, Jenn Granneman
As an introvert who sometimes relishes the way I’m wired and sometimes struggles to own it, I enjoyed this straightforward nonfiction look at various facets of introvert life: calling, career, friendships, relationships. Not a lot of brand-new information (Susan Cain’s Quiet is my gold standard for introversion insight), but practical, wise and sometimes funny. Found at the wonderful Three Lives in NYC.

Into the Bright Unknown, Rae Carson
Lee Westfall and her fellow gold prospectors have founded their own town in Gold Rush California. But the shady actions of a San Francisco businessman prompt them to travel there and see if they can take him down. I’ve loved Carson’s trilogy about Lee (who has a magical ability to sense gold). This book wasn’t my favorite, but I wanted to see how her story ended. Bought at Book Culture in NYC (pictured above) last month.

Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery
I often turn back to Windy Poplars in the autumn; it’s one of the most underrated Anne books. I’ve been lingering in Anne’s adventures in Summerside, watching her take walks with little Elizabeth, befriend the widows (really, the entire town) and write letters in her tower room. So lovely and comforting: Anne is always good company.

Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton
Cuban-American writer Marisol Ferrera grew up on her grandmother Elisa’s stories of Havana, where her family enjoyed a privileged life prior to Castro’s takeover. When her grandmother dies, Marisol travels back to Cuba to spread Elisa’s ashes and investigate a few family secrets. A lush dual-narrative story of Cuba then and now; I thought the plot wrapped up too neatly, but I loved both Elisa and Marisol. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 6).

Scones and Scoundrels, Molly MacRae
MacRae’s second Highland Bookshop mystery finds the town of Inversgail (and its bookshop, Yon Bonnie Books) preparing to welcome back Daphne Wood, an eccentric writer and environmentalist who grew up there. Once Daphne arrives, she puts nearly everyone off with her rude and abrupt manner – and then the murders start happening. A solid cozy mystery (with plenty of scones). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 2).

Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Claudia Gray
I’d never read a Star Wars novel before, though I love the original films and I adore Leia Organa. I thoroughly enjoyed this story of the teenaged Leia serving as a senator-in-training, taking a pathfinding class and learning about her parents’ mysterious work against the Empire. Smart, fast-paced and full of heart. Made me even more excited for The Last Jedi.

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

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The second half of October, like the first, was a whirlwind of golden leaves and email and travel. I’d barely recovered from my Oxford trip (and the subsequent head cold) before we headed to NYC for a long weekend with my parents. Here’s what I have been reading, in between all that activity:

The Reporter’s Kitchen, Jane Kramer
For food writer Kramer, writing and cooking are inextricably linked—though she sometimes uses one to avoid the other. This collection of her pieces from The New Yorker includes chef profiles, food history and a few personal essays (my favorites). She’s warm, witty and practical. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 21).

First Class Murder, Robin Stevens
The third book in Stevens’ Wells & Wong middle-grade mystery series finds Daisy and Hazel aboard the famous Orient Express. Naturally, a murder occurs and they have to investigate. An homage to Christie’s classic, but also a fun, well-plotted story. Found at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford.

The Music Shop, Rachel Joyce
In a down-at-heel street in a nondescript British city, Frank’s record shop doesn’t just sell vinyl (and only vinyl), but it gives people the music they don’t know they need. When Ilse Brauchmann, a mysterious woman in a green coat, visits the shop, Frank finds himself both drawn to Ilse and utterly baffled by her. A wonderful novel about music, loss, healing and love, with vivid characters and so many brilliant sentences. (I also adored Joyce’s debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 2).

Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, Melissa Harrison
Like many English people, Harrison is an avid walker, even—nay, especially—in the rain. She chronicles four rainy walks in different seasons and locations, musing on how rain has shaped the climate and psyche of the British Isles, and recording details of habitat and weather with a keen, lyrical eye. So lovely. Found at the amazing Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford.

The Disappearances, Emily Bain Murphy
When Aila Quinn’s mother, Juliet, dies unexpectedly, Aila and her brother are sent to Juliet’s hometown to stay with friends. But they are greeted with suspicion: the town lies under a curse, and some people blame Juliet. Aila digs into her mother’s history (and a mysteriously annotated volume of Shakespeare) to clear Juliet’s name. An enchanting, thought-provoking YA novel; I especially loved Aila and her friend Beas. The dialogue felt almost too modern (it’s set in the 1940s), but the central conceit is wonderful. Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Luster of Lost Things, Sophie Chen Keller
Walter Lavender Jr. doesn’t talk much, but he’s got a keen observer’s eye and a knack for finding lost things. When the mysterious Book that is the lifeblood of his mother’s West Village bakery disappears, Walter and his golden retriever, Milton, embark on a search that takes them up and down Manhattan. An utterly magical novel full of heartbreak and love; the writing sings and the city itself is a character. Found (fittingly) at Shakespeare & Co. in NYC. Recommended by my colleague Kat at Shelf Awareness.

Poems to Live By in Troubling Times, ed. Joan Murray
I’ve needed poetry lately, and have lingered in this slim, often heartrending anthology of poems on war, terror, grief, healing and peace. Uneven, like many anthologies, but I did find a few gems. Bought at the Brattle on a walkabout day this summer.

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

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