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nonfiction tbr book stack

Like so many bookworms, I buy more books than I can read right away.

Part of this is intentional: I like having a stack of books waiting for me. Part of it’s a natural consequence of browsing bookstores at home or on vacation: sometimes I just can’t resist a good-looking book or five. And part of it just seems to happen, especially when I receive books as gifts.

I shared this photo on Instagram back in November: this was, at the time, my nonfiction TBR (to-be-read) stack. Generally speaking, nonfiction takes me longer than fiction, and I have Shelf Awareness review deadlines (and often, library deadlines) to meet each month. So the non-urgent nonfiction tends to pile up.

Six of these books were given to me by friends. The top two came from my trip to Oxford in October. Anne generously sent me a copy of her book, Reading People, when it came out last fall. And the other four I’d picked up on previous travels: one in London, three in New York.

All of them had been sitting there a while.

So when I heard about #theunreadshelfproject via my bookworm friend Leigh, I decided my reading goal for 2018 would be to make my way through this nonfiction stack. It sounded doable: 13 books spread over 12 months. (By the time 2018 rolled around, it was down to 11: I read and loved H is for Hawk and Reading People in December.)

I’ve since read three (more) of the books pictured here: Love of Country, Ordinary Light and Encore Provence. I’ve also added a bonus novel: Brian Doyle’s Mink River, which sat on my shelf for months after I bought it at McNally Jackson last winter. I’m in the middle of Scratch, and hoping to tackle Shopgirls or Crossing the Unknown Sea next.

With any luck, by the end of the year I’ll have either read all of these or decided they need a new home somewhere else. (But even if I don’t love Pigtails and Pernod, I might keep it around: it reminds me of a wonderful afternoon spent browsing the bookshops of Charing Cross Road with Caroline.)

Did you set any reading goals for yourself this year? Do your stacks tend to pile up like mine?

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james baldwin quote books

Here in the middle of Black History Month, I have to start with a disclaimer: any reading list I can offer will be woefully incomplete.

I am reading more books by and about people of color these days, but I have a lot of catching up to do. While I recognize the gaps in my reading list, and the absurdity of highlighting black history during only one month of the year, I wanted to share a few titles that have helped me see beyond my own experience.

These books celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans, ask difficult questions about race and responsibility, and tell a good story – fiction or nonfiction. (For a list of great kids’ books on this theme, see my librarian friend Shelley’s recent post.)

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is the fascinating true story of the brilliant black women who worked for NASA (doing complicated math the likes of which I can’t imagine) during World War II, the Cold War and the space race. It focuses on their accomplishments but doesn’t minimize the discrimination they faced. I also loved the movie version, starring Octavia Spencer and a knockout cast. Meticulous research + engaging writing + fantastic real-life characters = a brilliant launch.

I’ve recently discovered the work of Tracy K. Smith, who was named U.S. poet laureate last summer. I read Smith’s new collection Wade in the Water (out in April) for review; it’s thought-provoking, often searing, with some gorgeous lines. Then I picked up her memoir, Ordinary Light, which I just finished. It’s beautifully written, and powerful. (I appreciated Smith’s admission that she didn’t want to deal with the hard truths about her heritage for a long time.)

I love young adult fiction, and I’ve recently read several spectacular novels that feature young black women:

  • Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham is a dual-narrative novel that tells the story of the Tulsa race riots of 1921 and also hits on present-day issues.
  • Nicola Yoon’s second novel, The Sun is Also a Star, has one protagonist who’s terrified she’s about to be deported back to Jamaica, where she can barely remember living, when she meets (and falls for) a Korean-American boy.
  • Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give needs no introduction from me. It’s a horrifying portrait of the aftermath of a shooting (from the viewpoint of a witness), but I also loved it for its rich, complicated depiction of family life.

An oldie but a goodie: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was the first book I ever read (at around age 10) that featured a black protagonist who wasn’t a slave. Cassie Logan lives in Mississippi in the 1930s; her family owns their land, but is still dealing, every day, with the legacy of slavery, sharecropping and pervasive, damaging racism. I loved Cassie and her family, and my heart also broke for them every few pages. The sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, is also great.

Fast forward to a recent discovery for me: Brittney Cooper, whose essay collection Eloquent Rage is out this week. Cooper tips her hat to bell hooks, Audre Lorde and other giants of black feminism, but her tone and approach are very much her own. So much here to ponder; so much that made me uncomfortable, for good reason.

I recently read A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality and the Law (out in March), a transcript of a conversation at NYU Law School by four leading black thinkers and activists: Sherrilyn Ifill, Loretta Lynch, Bryan Stevenson and Anthony C. Thompson. It’s short, but thought-provoking, and reminded me that I still need to read Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

You probably don’t need me to tell you about Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jacqueline Woodson, Jesmyn Ward or Colson Whitehead. Or about James Baldwin, whose quote (above) I found in the bathroom at McNally Jackson in NYC. Some of these authors are still on my to-read list. And they are only the beginning. I know, above all, that I still have so much to learn.

What are the most essential books you’ve read by and about people of color? Please share in the comments.

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alice network book chai red

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.

What are you reading?

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the winter sea book cover lights bare feet

It’s still cold: it is January in Boston, after all, though most of our recent snow has melted. I’m switching between getting out in the weather (commuting, running, seeing friends) and curling up inside with good books. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion, Catriona Menzies-Pike
Menzies-Pike describes herself as a “gin-addled bookworm” who traded late nights for long runs, to her own surprise. She took up running almost on a whim, and it has transformed her sense of how she moves through the world. I recognized myself (I’m a novice runner) in this wry, insightful, whip-smart memoir about running, grief, moving forward, and the politics of running as a woman. Fantastic, and the perfect book for me right now.

The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley
Novelist Carrie McClelland heads to the ruins of Slains Castle, north of Aberdeen, to research her latest historical saga. She invents a heroine, naming her Sophia after a distant ancestor, but soon finds she’s writing down details she couldn’t have read elsewhere. Kearsley intertwines Carrie’s story with Sophia’s journey and the history of the Jacobites. Perfect midwinter reading – I loved the characters (especially the Countess of Erroll and Colonel Graeme), the romance and the setting.

Moxie, Jennifer Mathieu
I heard about this YA novel from Shelf Awareness, Sarah and Kari. Vivian is a good girl in small-town Texas who gets fed up with the egregious sexism at her high school from male students and administrators. Inspired by her mom’s Riot Grrrl zines, she makes her own – called Moxie – and starts a movement. I loved the fierce girl-power vibe, but also how messy and real it felt: Viv and her friends struggle to take a stand and reach across lines of race, class and cliques. Inspiring, fresh and often funny.

A Fountain Filled with Blood, Julia Spencer-Fleming
This sequel to In the Bleak Midwinter finds the Reverend Clare Fergusson and chief of police Russ Van Alstyne dealing with a rash of hate crimes in their small New York town. We learn more about their respective military experiences, and the plot deals (somewhat obliquely) with homophobia. Not as gripping as the first one, but I like these characters, especially Clare.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper
“Owning anger is a dangerous thing if you’re a fat Black girl like me,” Cooper writes. But she owns her rage in these powerful essays, with brilliance, bravery and wit. We need – I need – more voices like Cooper’s, as we grapple with questions about race in this country. She urges us to own our complicity, ask good questions and join the fight for justice. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 20).

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, Marisa de los Santos
I adore de los Santos’ luminous novels about family, and loved this dual-narrative one about Clare, whom I know from Love Walked In. Days before her wedding, Clare meets an elderly woman named Edith, who gives her some wise advice (which leads to Clare calling off the wedding) and later leaves her a house and a mystery to solve. Lovely and insightful – vintage de los Santos – and I loved revisiting these familiar characters. 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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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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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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mostly books interior abingdon uk bookshop

Every year it’s a challenge: to look back over the books I’ve read in a year (nearly 150, this time!) and choose a handful of favorites. I talked about a few gems in my first-half-of-2017 roundup, back in June. But here are the books that shine the brightest in my whole reading year:

Most Enchanting Family Saga: The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. I’ve gushed about this one a lot, and I even got to interview Hoffman for Shelf Awareness. (She was lovely and wise, and patient with my fangirling.) I fell totally in love with these characters, and a few words about their courage have remained written on my heart.

Deep and Captivating Dive into the Word-Hoard: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. I loved every page of this beautiful, keenly observed book about landscapes, the words we use to describe them, and how those things shape each other (and us). A must-read if you’re a walker, a writer or a good noticer.

Loveliest and Most Honest Memoir of Transformation: The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis. An unflinching, beautiful, often heartrending look at what it means to leave behind a faith and a marriage, and navigate new territory without a map.

Funniest Lighthearted Fiction: The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman. I couldn’t stop laughing at this wisecracking, warmhearted novel of grief, love and gardening.

Most Luminous Memoir of Faith and Struggle: In the Shelter by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Wise and lovely: always calling us to pay attention to what is here, what is real, what is full of possibility.

Timely and Vivid Nonfiction: The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe – a vivid account of refugee teenagers and their families struggling to adjust to life in Denver. Powerful, clear and compelling.

Poetry: Blue Iris by Mary Oliver, which contains so many beautiful flower poems – a perfect match to my flower walks and #FlowerReporting this spring and summer.

Favorite Reread: Either The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I love de los Santos’ warm, thought-provoking family stories, and Gilead is wise and slow (in the best way) and utterly lovely.

Gorgeous, Layered Family Saga: Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Each section in this novel focuses on a different member of the same extended family, across countries and generations. Bittersweet and absorbing.

Best Title (with Wry, Hilarious Career Advice): Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco. I really enjoyed this snarky, smart memoir about life in the Obama White House. But the title is almost my favorite part – it’s frighteningly applicable to so many situations these days.

What were your favorite books this year?

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