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Ivey book slippers twinkle lights

January has been unpredictable, weather-wise: frigid, icy, blustery, mild, wet, sunshiny. As always, the books are getting me through. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Island of Sea Women, Lisa See
The women of Jeju, an island off the south coast of Korea, traditionally made their living as haenyeo, deep-sea divers. See explores the island’s matriarchal culture and the powerful changes wrought by the 20th century (wars, occupation, new technologies) through the story of two haenyeo, Kim Young-sook and Han Mi-ja. Young-sook recounts their childhood friendship, their years of diving together and the heart-wrenching losses they suffered. Really well done; See is prolific but I hadn’t read her before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Christmas on the Island, Jenny Colgan
Colgan returns to the Scottish island of Mure for a Christmas-themed novel. I find Flora and Joel (the main couple) frustrating, but I like Flora’s family, her teacher friend Lorna, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor. Entertaining, though not my favorite Colgan.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Year of Gardening and (Wild)Life, Kate Bradbury
The tiny back garden of Kate Bradbury’s flat in Brighton, England, was covered in decking when she bought it. She set out to revive it: ripping up the decking, planting ground cover and shrubs, finding flowers to attract bees and birds. She writes movingly about her childhood garden memories, the loss of habitat for wildlife in the UK, and her mother’s illness. Keenly observed; slow in places. Took me weeks, but it was lovely. Found, as so many good things are, at Three Lives (in December).

To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey
In 1885, Colonel Allen Forrester heads out into the (mostly) unmapped Alaska Territory with two men, while his wife Sophie must stay behind. Ivey tells their story, and that of the Colonel’s encounters with Alaska and its people, through journal entries and letters. I loved Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, but loved this one even more. Ivey’s writing is stunning, and I adored Sophie (bright, curious, determined and so human) and the Colonel’s keen eye and compassion.

Mistletoe and Murder, Robin Stevens
Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are spending Christmas (1935) in Cambridge, where, predictably, a murder finds them. Hazel narrates their fifth adventure in this fun British middle-grade series. I find Daisy a bit irritating, but I like Hazel and the mysteries are always good fun. I also liked the deft handling here of race and immigration in the UK – not a new issue but an important one.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Sonia Purnell
Losing her leg in a hunting accident didn’t slow Virginia Hall down: she would go on to become a key force for the Allies in World War II, working undercover in France to coordinate and support the Resistance. Purnell delves deeply into Virginia’s (formerly classified) story to weave a gripping tale of an extraordinary woman. Fascinating, well-researched and cinematic at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

This Much Country, Kristin Knight Pace
Reeling from a broken heart, Kristin Knight agreed to spend a winter in Alaska caring for a team of sled dogs. To her own surprise, she fell in love with the dogs and the place, becoming a dog musher and eventually opening her own kennel. She found romantic love again, too. Her memoir is a bit uneven, but the setting is captivating, and there are some wonderful lines. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Becoming, Michelle Obama
This memoir was on so many “best of 2018” lists (and broke all kinds of publishing records). It’s a wise, warm, thoughtful account of Obama’s childhood on the South Side of Chicago, her experiences at Princeton and beyond, and life as the First Lady. But it’s also more than that: a graceful meditation on how we become ourselves, a plainspoken tribute to all the folks who have supported her, and a call for all of us to keep investing in children who need it. Well written and just so good.

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

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strand bookstore cookbook shelves

I read 191 books in 2018. So many of them were good ones – not least because I got to review a few dozen gems (and interview a few authors) for Shelf Awareness, my longtime freelance gig.

I shared some favorites halfway through the year, but looking back over all of 2018, these are the ones I couldn’t stop talking about. (A few from my half-year roundup are reposted below.)

Best Feminist Reimagining of Mythology: Circe by Madeline Miller. A fantastic, well-written story of a “minor” sorceress who steps into her own power.

Best Antidote to the Current Political Madness: The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes’ memoir of the near-decade he spent working on communications and foreign policy for President Obama. So insightful and interesting.

Most Essential Reading on Race: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which weaves together marriage and mass incarceration; and Black is the Body by Emily Bernard, an incisive essay collection about family, race and womanhood.

Best Conversation Starter: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle. Who would you have at your ideal dinner party? This one was fun and surprisingly moving.

Best Reread: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which grabbed my heart just as it did when I was protagonist Francie’s age.

Most Blazing, Gorgeous Novel of Love and Heartbreak: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. I did not think I could read another Hemingway novel, but Martha Gellhorn’s narrative voice grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Most Vivid and Heartrending Refugee Story: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. (I liked Exit West too, but this dual narrative with its two scrappy female protagonists stole my heart.)

Most Eloquent, Relatable Memoir of Running and Grit: The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. I think of lines from this witty, beautiful book regularly while I’m running.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne.

What were your favorite books of 2018?

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strand bookstore cookbook shelves

Early December always leaves me breathless. But – thank goodness – there are the books. (Photo from my recent trip to the Strand.)

Here’s the latest roundup:

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, Abbi Waxman
I loved Waxman’s debut, The Garden of Small Beginnings. (I was ambivalent about her second novel, Other People’s Houses.) And I liked this, her third novel following introvert, bookseller and trivia whiz Nina Hill as she deals with various unexpected pieces of news. Really witty, though a lot of the characters felt two-dimensional. I liked seeing Lili and her daughters (from Small Beginnings) again. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9, 2019).

How to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, Samantha Ellis
In her thirties, Ellis began to wonder: did the literary heroines she’d loved as a child still have something to teach her? The answer, of course, is yes. I loved Ellis’ memoir of finding her way as a person and a writer, and revisiting characters like Sara Crewe, Scarlett O’Hara and others. Some are my heroines too (Anne Shirley!) and some are newer to me, like Lucy Honeychurch and Scheherazade. So much fun.

Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and his memoir traces his journey to public service and his experience in the mayor’s office. He’s a Harvard grad, a Navy reserve veteran, a data-driven geek and a warm, thoughtful writer. City government may not sound exciting, but I found his narrative so compelling and hopeful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 26).

The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory
Freelance writer Nikole Patterson is blindsided when her actor boyfriend proposes via the JumboTron at a Dodgers game – and he spells her name wrong! When Carlos and his sister rescue Nik from a camera crew, Carlos and Nik become friends and then something more. But what, exactly? A really fun romance with lots of tacos, cupcakes and women’s empowerment messages. The latter felt a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed the story – especially since I knew (and liked) Carlos from Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date.

A Borrowing of Bones, Paula Munier
After a tour in Afghanistan where she lost her fiancé, Martinez, Mercy Carr has retreated to rural Vermont along with Martinez’s working dog, Elvis. When they find an adult skeleton and a baby girl (very much alive) in the woods, Mercy teams up with game warden Troy Warner to find the baby’s mother and the identity of the victim. A well-plotted, thoughtful mystery; first in a new series. Reminded me a bit of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries, which I adore.

Hope Never Dies, Andrew Shaffer
After the 2016 election, former VP Joe Biden is bored and restless. But when his favorite Amtrak conductor dies under suspicious circumstances, Biden and his old friend Barack Obama team up (with Obama’s requisite Secret Service escort) to solve the mystery. A fun, often witty bromance and a pretty good mystery. (I love the premise almost more than the execution.)

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
Conversations about race are often fraught, and Oluo, a black activist and writer, pulls no punches in this primer about how to talk and listen. It’s meant (mostly) for well-meaning white folks like me. Powerful and thought-provoking.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith. If you’re shopping for holiday gifts, please consider supporting indie bookstores – either in your community or by ordering from them online. 

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glass ocean book tea cafe

We’re headed for December already – and between the feasting, the commuting, the running and the rest of life, this month included some fantastic books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard
“Brown is the body I was born into. Black is the body of the stories I tell.” Bernard, an author and professor, explores race and family history in these powerful essays. Incisive and moving and so compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 29).

The Matchmaker’s List, Sonya Lalli
Still single at 29, Raina Anand reluctantly agrees to let her Indian grandmother play matchmaker. Secretly, she’s still in love with her ex, who reappears while Raina is helping plan her best friend’s wedding. A fun story of clashing cultural expectations (Canadian and Indian), with a likable (if frustrating) protagonist. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 22).

Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist, Meredith Goldstein
Goldstein writes the Love Letters column for the Boston Globe. This memoir is about that work, her mother’s illness, her own struggle to find love, and the surprising community she’s found through Love Letters. Funny, warm and surprisingly insightful.

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, Kate Christensen
Christensen has a complex relationship with food: finding comfort in it, avoiding it, exploring it in new contexts. She recounts her peripatetic childhood, her lost teenage years, her fierce love for her sisters and mother and her romantic travails, with accompanying food experiences and occasional recipes. Some delicious moments (and a lot of ill-advised decisions). Found last month at the wonderful Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine.

The Huntress, Kate Quinn
In the aftermath of the Nuremberg trials, most people want to move on from war stories. But British journalist Ian Graham has made hunting down war criminals his life’s work. His estranged Russian wife, former pilot Nina Markova, joins Ian and his partner in a quest to track down the titular huntress. Their story becomes intertwined with that of Jordan McBride, a young aspiring photographer in Boston, and her family. A gripping narrative of war, revenge and love – even bigger, darker and deeper than Quinn’s excellent The Alice Network. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 26).

Not For the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence, Wendy Sherman
Sherman is a distinguished diplomat and a faculty member at my former workplace, the Harvard Kennedy School. Her memoir chronicles her deep involvement in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, as well as her background in social work and the lessons she’s learned as a woman in high-stress workplaces and unexpected situations. A solid, thoughtful political memoir.

The Glass Ocean, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
I enjoyed The Forgotten Room by these three authors (and I’ll read pretty much anything Williams writes). I also enjoyed this compelling novel of three women: two aboard the RMS Lusitania and one historian trying to piece together their story a century later. Tess, the young con woman trying to go straight, was my favorite.

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

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id rather be reading book flowers Anne bogel

I’m not quite sure how September is half over (I say this every month), but here’s the latest reading roundup. I’ll be linking up with Anne Bogel and others for Quick Lit, and in a moment of serendipity, the first book is hers…

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, Anne Bogel
Anne is a longtime Internet friend (and we met IRL in NYC a couple of years ago). She sent me a copy of her brand-new book of essays on reading and the bookworm life. As expected, it was delightful, and I saw myself in many of its pages. A perfect gift for the book fanatic in your life.

Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch may finally get to marry her intended, Darcy – but, of course, a spot of murder will intervene first. I’ve enjoyed this series, but this wasn’t my favorite entry: several key characters were largely offstage, and the mystery was confusing. Still, Georgie and her world are a lot of fun.

The Endless Beach, Jenny Colgan
Flora MacKenzie is trying to make a go of both her seaside cafe and her brand-new relationship. But as she prepares for her brother’s wedding and tries to balance accounts, she’s facing romantic trouble too. The setting (the Scottish island of Mure) is enchanting, but I was far more interested in the secondary characters, including a Syrian refugee doctor, than Flora or her (irritating) boyfriend.

Sound: A Memoir of Hearing Lost and Found, Bella Bathurst
Bathurst is a British journalist who lost much of her hearing in her mid-20s, and dove into all sorts of research about hearing loss, deaf culture and remedies for deafness. She has since regained much of her hearing via surgery. This slim memoir was slow to start, but was a fascinating look at various aspects of sound, listening, audiology and the simple things hearing people take for granted. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 2).

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
Celestial and Roy, a young black couple in Atlanta, are newly married and on their way up the career ladder when Roy is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. The book traces their relationship over the next five years, until Roy gets out of prison (early) and they both must reckon with the changes those years have wrought. I read this novel with my heart in my throat; powerful and stunning don’t quite do it justice. It speaks with equal potency to this racial moment and to the inner intricacies of a marriage.

Little Big Love, Katy Regan
This was an impulse grab at the library, and I loved it: a big-hearted, funny, bittersweet British novel about a boy named Zac who goes on a quest to find his dad. It’s narrated by Zac; his mum, Juliet; and Juliet’s dad, Mick. All three of them are hiding secrets. It weaves together themes of family, loss, fitness and body image, and love in many of its forms.

The Summer Wives, Beatriz Williams
I love Williams’ elegant novels about love and secrets, often involving the sprawling, blue-blood Schuyler family. This one takes place on Winthrop Island in Long Island Sound: the story of a fateful summer and all that came after. An engaging story of love and jealousy and murder, though Miranda (the main character) struck me as a bit passive.

Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship, Kayleen Schaefer
Women are often stereotyped as catty and competitive – but for many of us, female friendship is a saving and sustaining grace. Schaefer explores the evolution of female friendship over the last half century or so, via her own experience and a bit of sociology. I liked her honesty and enjoyed a lot of her modern-day references, but wanted more context (and more diversity).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
My husband read this book a few weeks ago, and I’ve never heard him laugh so hard over anything he’s read. So I picked it up and blazed through it in a day. It was…baffling. There were some truly funny moments, but overall it wasn’t quite my bag.

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

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thought bookstore shelf books nbc

August has flown. Between two back-to-back weekends away and starting a new job, I don’t know where I am half the time these days.

The books, as always, are helping preserve what sanity I have. (Bookshelf photo from Spoonbill & Sugartown, snapped on my recent Williamsburg trip.)

Here’s the latest roundup:

Smoke and Iron, Rachel Caine
The Great Library‘s grip on power is slipping, but its leaders can still do a lot of damage. Jess Brightwell and his band of friends have hatched a crazy plan to bring them down. A fast-paced, compelling addition to a great series: I love the way several characters have grown into themselves. So curious to see how Caine will wrap it up in the next book.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Before Khan-Cullors was an activist, she was a young black girl trying to love and live in a world that often didn’t want her to do either. She weaves her own story together with the narrative of the Black Lives Matter movement. Her account of her brother Monte’s suffering at the hands of law enforcement is especially moving. The style didn’t always work for me, but this is a powerful and necessary story.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter, Kate Morton
Elodie Winslow, an archivist in London, uncovers a mystery: an old photograph of a beautiful unknown woman, presumably associated with the painter Edward Radcliffe and Birchwood Manor, the house he loved. The narrative switches back and forth from the present day to various points in Birchwood’s (and the woman’s) history. Mysterious and atmospheric and quite odd, at times, but I enjoyed it. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 9).

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, Anne Lamott
I’ve been a Lamott fan since I discovered Bird by Bird and Traveling Mercies as a college student. I haven’t loved her last few books as much, but thoroughly enjoyed this pithy, straight-shooting collection of essays on hope in a time of despair. Lamott is funny and wise, kind and honest, which is exactly what you’d hope for in such a collection. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 16).

Dear Mrs. Bird, AJ Pearce
The premise of this book is my catnip: plucky female British heroine having wartime adventures. Emmeline Lake takes a job working for Mrs. Bird, a no-nonsense advice columnist in London, and starts writing her own replies to the readers whose problems fall under Mrs. Bird’s idea of Unpleasantness. Predictably, a certain amount of chaos ensues. I loved Emmy and her best friend Bunty, and the story was charming.

This Side of Murder, Anna Lee Huber
England, 1919: Verity Kent, a young WWI widow, is trying to move forward with her life. When she’s invited to a house party with her late husband’s fellow officers, she finds coded messages, contention among the other guests, and murder. This one was so-so for me, though the mystery did compel me enough to keep reading.

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

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spirit of 76 bookstore interior

We’re halfway through August already (!) and I’m trying to hang on – and diving into all the books, naturally. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, Natalie Goldberg
I heard Natalie read from this, her newest memoir, last month in Lenox, Mass. She was a delight, and this book about her journey with cancer contains both great pain and moments of joy. Short, lyrical chapters trace Natalie’s diagnosis, treatment and wrestling with her own mortality, all while her partner was also fighting cancer. I carried it in my bag for weeks, reading it slowly. It’s heartbreaking, sometimes lovely, fiercely honest all the way through.

Island of the Mad, Laurie R. King
When a college friend of Mary Russell’s asks Mary to locate her missing aunt, Russell and Holmes find themselves wandering Venice, which (in 1925) is brimming with both carefree aristocrats and grim Blackshirts. I love Russell’s narrative voice – so smart and insightful. The case and the elaborate parties (and Cole Porter!) are extremely diverting.

Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, Stephen L. Carter
Few people know that a black female lawyer – Eunice Hunton Carter – was part of the team that took down NYC mobster Lucky Luciano in the 1930s. Stephen Carter – her grandson – sets out to tell her remarkable story. A deeply researched, insightful biography of an extraordinary woman. (I also enjoyed Carter’s novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln a few years back.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 9).

Tango Lessons, Meghan Flaherty
Flaherty first fell in love with tango as a teenager visiting Argentina, but it took her years to try it for herself. She chronicles her journey into New York’s tango scene, and the ways tango has challenged her ideas about dance, desire, taking risks and many other things. Well written and engaging, if occasionally too self-conscious.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I picked up this old favorite and fell instantly back in love with Francie Nolan’s story of growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Francie is smart, thoughtful, keenly observant – so many of her insights still ring true. I also love her fiercely hardworking mother, Katie, and her generous aunt, Sissy. This is a story of deep poverty and struggle, but it’s also about fighting to make your way in the world, being proud of where you came from, and the joys and disappointments of love (romantic and otherwise). So good.

Forever and a Day, Anthony Horowitz
Marseilles, 1950: The original 007 has been killed by three bullets, and the British intelligence service has sent a new man – James Bond – to find out who killed him and why. This prequel gives Bond an intriguing first assignment, complete with a mysterious woman (of course) and associates who may or may not be what they seem. Well done, though the ending fell a bit flat. I’ve never read the original Ian Fleming novels, but now I want to. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 6).

The Valley at the Centre of the World, Malachy Tallack
To most people, Shetland is the end of the world – but to its residents, it’s the titular center. Tallack’s novel follows the intertwined lives of a few people living in the titular valley. Beautiful and quiet. Possibly to review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 6).

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

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