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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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bloodline book christmas tree star wars

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.

What are you reading?

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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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leguin book ballet flats

September, like all the months lately, was full: of apples, long walks, yoga, endless emails and work chaos, and a lot of things I can’t quite explain or articulate. But it also contained (thank heaven) a few good books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Dreamland Burning, Jennifer Latham
When Rowan Chase stumbles on a skeleton on her family’s Tulsa property, she uncovers a mystery that leads to some searing truths about the city’s history. A heart-wrenching, well-crafted YA novel that shifts between Rowan’s present-day narrative and the Tulsa race riot of 1921. Powerful. Recommended by Anne and others.

The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom, Helen Thorpe
In Room 142 at South High School in Denver, Eddie Williams teaches an unusual group of students: newcomers to the U.S. from many different countries and conflict zones. Thorpe spent a year in Mr. Williams’ class, learning the students’ stories, and she tells them with skill and grace in this thoughtful, fascinating, meticulously researched book. I fell in love, as Thorpe did, with the newcomers and was captivated by the narrative of their adjustment to life in the U.S. So very timely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 14).

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I read this luminous novel years ago and loved it. (I’ve since read its companions, Home and Lila.) Some friends of mine hosted a dinner and book discussion on Gilead recently, so I picked it up again. Took me weeks, but I savored the quiet, melancholy joy of Robinson’s prose, and her characters – narrator John Ames and his loved ones – who felt so real.

A World Without “Whom,” Emmy J. Favilla
Favilla is the copy chief for BuzzFeed, and her book – subtitled The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age – is as snappy and irreverent as you’d expect. But it’s also thoughtful, well-informed and relentlessly commonsense. As an old-school, old-soul English nerd, I admit to cringing a few times, but I also (literally) LOL’d and took down a few cheeky quotes. For grammar nerds both traditional and modern. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 14).

Wonder Woman: Warbringer, Leigh Bardugo
I’ve been a little obsessed with Wonder Woman since the new movie, and I’m wearing her symbol on my wrist these days. I loved this fast-paced YA novel about Diana, Princess of Themyscira, and her quest to help Alia Keralis, a girl from New York who doesn’t know she’s a Warbringer: a powerful descendant of Helen of Troy. Heart-pounding and so much fun, with bravery on every page.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin
“Words are my magic, antiproverbial cake. I eat it, and I still have it.” Le Guin is best known for her speculative fiction, but this sharp-eyed, big-hearted collection of essays, adapted from her blog, is excellent too. I loved reading her thoughts on aging, cats, writing, egg cups, belief and science, and other miscellany. So much fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 5).

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

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disappearance damascus book plum

How is it mid-September already? I love this golden month, but my brain is all over the place lately. I have finished a few books, though, and here they are:

The Unlikelies, Carrie Firestone
Sadie Sullivan is bummed: the summer before her senior year looks like a dud. But when she saves a baby from her drunk father (and gets badly beaten up), Sadie becomes a “homegrown hero.” She and four other local teens (the Unlikelies) band together to fight hate and do some good in their town. I read this sweet, sharp, funny YA novel in one night. Recommended by my colleagues at Shelf Awareness.

Blackbird House, Alice Hoffman
I picked up this linked story collection after loving Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic: I just wanted to stay in her world a while longer. The stories wind around the titular house, on Cape Cod, and its occupants over generations. Deeply bittersweet, with a fairy-tale quality and beautiful, melancholy descriptions.

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Esther Perel
Infidelity is as common as it is heartbreaking, and Perel, a renowned couples therapist, argues that we need a new conversation around it. She delves into many facets of affairs: secrecy, lies, jealousy, the effects of modern technology, the politics of open marriages and the ways marriage and infidelity shape our sense of identity. Fascinating and thoughtful; a sensitive take on a really sensitive topic. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 10).

A Disappearance in Damascus, Deborah Campbell
Soon after Campbell landed in Damascus on assignment for Harper’s in 2007, she met Ahlam, an Iraqi refugee and “fixer” who worked with journalists and humanitarian groups to help tell the story of Iraqis who had fled to Syria after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. When Ahlam was arrested and imprisoned, Campbell became determined to find her, however long it took. Vivid and compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (published Sept. 5).

On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana, a minor British royal, ends up in Italy trying to help out a friend and doing a(nother) small errand for the queen. Of course, the house party she’s attending doesn’t go as planned: there’s a murder, and Georgie tries to solve it before the killer strikes again. A really fun entry in this highly entertaining series.

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

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