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Posts Tagged ‘Shelf Awareness’

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Back in early March, I spent most of a happy weekend in Sonoma County – though it was bitterly cold outside here in Boston. I did that not by hopping a plane (though I did fly to SoCal a few weeks later), but by savoring Miriam Parker’s charming debut novel, The Shortest Way Home.

Here’s a bit of the review I wrote for Shelf Awareness:

Hannah Greene has her life all planned out–or thinks she does. She’s landed a dream job right out of business school, and is envisioning a high-powered New York City future with her boyfriend, Ethan. But a weekend trip to Sonoma County right before graduation changes everything.

When Hannah falls in love with Bellosguardo, a small local winery, she talks her way into a marketing job there, giving up her hard-won position at Goldman Sachs and the plans she and Ethan have laid. Despite the winery’s appeal, Hannah’s 180-degree turn isn’t without its stomach-flipping bumps and surprising curves.

Miriam Parker’s debut novel, The Shortest Way Home, follows Hannah’s journey as she struggles to navigate her new path despite the weight of everyone else’s expectations (and her own).

Parker tells her story in Hannah’s voice, sharing both her protagonist’s delight at the beauty of Sonoma County (and her picture-perfect cottage on the vineyard’s grounds), and her anxiety over having made a rash decision that could upend her life. While she doesn’t regret giving up the Goldman job, and is increasingly convinced that Ethan wasn’t the right guy for her, Hannah second-guesses her new career path at every turn. Can she make a success of the winery? Will this new place, far from everything she knows, eventually become home?

Packed with good books, California sunshine and glass after glass of local wine, Parker’s debut is a sweet, funny, charming novel of a woman daring to upend expectations (her own and everyone else’s) to make her own way. Readers will toast Hannah’s roundabout journey and perhaps be inspired to take a detour or two of their own.

In addition to reviewing the book, I got to chat with Miriam about its creation. We had a delightful phone conversation, and I’m sharing a few excerpts from it below:

KG: Tell us about the inspiration for The Shortest Way Home.

MP: In a lot of ways, this book is a dream for me. I love reading, I love wine, I love travel. This was a book I wrote in the mornings, on vacation and on the weekends away from my job. I decided I was going to take all the things I loved and write a book about them.

You’d been to Sonoma before, but did you go back once you started writing the book?

Yes! I took my dog, Leopold Bloom, and stayed in northern Sonoma County. In the mornings I would write, and in the afternoons I would drive around with the dog and interview people at wineries. I highly recommend going on vacation with your dog!

I loved talking to people at the wineries. You learn the most amazing little details! For example: I learned that wineries plant roses at the end of their rows, because they’re much more sensitive than vines. If there’s any disease or blight around, the roses will show it before the vines, which gives the vineyard owner a heads up.

I also loved learning about terroir. Grapes take on the flavor of what’s planted in the ground around them, so if there’s rosemary, for example, they might have a hint of that. But they also take on the flavor of what was planted in the ground before they were: vegetables or other herbs. I thought it was fascinating that grapes take on both the history and the current flavor of the land.

The Shortest Way Home is mainly Hannah’s story, but several other characters are on their own journeys to figuring out what they really want.

Telling a story of people who are at different stages in their lives, trying to figure out what they want, felt really important to me. I spent a lot of my 20s being disappointed that life wasn’t lining up like it was “supposed to.” I was making mistakes, trying things, and everything didn’t feel like the story I’d seen in the movies or been taught to expect. And then I got into my 30s and realized that things don’t always line up: you have to give them space to happen. I think if I could have told my 21-year-old or even my 30-year-old self that, I would have appreciated it.

The most important question: What kind of wine pairs well with The Shortest Way Home?

I think it pairs perfectly with a glass of sparkling rosé on the back patio! Ideally with a nice herbed goat cheese and rosemary crackers.

You can read my full review and Q&A on the Shelf Awareness site. And if your interest is piqued, watch out for The Shortest Way Home when it comes out in July. Cheers!

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alice network book chai red

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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heart sneakers trail

I’ve been reading a lot of great books about marriage lately, and decided to highlight a couple of them for a recent column in Shelf Awareness, which appears below.

They may go together like a horse and carriage, as the song has it. But love, when it’s meant to last a lifetime, can be messy, painful, even deadly dull. Two new books offer a complicated take on marriage that’s much more genuine – and more interesting – than the traditional fairy-tale narrative.

Essayist Ada Calhoun admits the truth: marriage is foundational and nourishing, but it’s also frustrating and just plain hard. Calhoun’s collection Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give delves into the facets of marriage that starry-eyed couples don’t always want to acknowledge. These include paying (literally) for a spouse’s mistakes, daydreaming about other partners (and other lives) and slogging through what she bluntly calls “the boring parts” of wedded bliss.

“Dating is poetry,” Calhoun writes. “Marriage is a novel. There are times, maybe years, that are all exposition.” Her mock “toasts” brim with wit, wisdom and gut-level honesty about the trials of staying married and the quiet rewards of remaining faithful, however imperfectly.

Renowned couples therapist Esther Perel explores a more dramatic but no less sticky aspect of long-term commitment–infidelity and its fallout–in The State of Affairs. Drawing on her years of work with couples (of various ethnicities and sexual orientations) who have dealt with infidelity, Perel explores the reasons people seek extramarital relationships and analyzes their effects.

Despite the pain they cause, she insists that affairs provide “a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.” Her clients’ stories have many different endings, but most, encouragingly, are still in progress: an affair can expose the fault lines in a marriage, but doesn’t have to mean total destruction.

Both Calhoun and Perel present clear-eyed yet ultimately hopeful perspectives on marriage as a tough, flexible and ultimately life-giving endeavor.

Have you read either of these authors? What are your favorite books about marriage?

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yellow crocuses light leaves flowers

March blew in like a lion with two wild, wet nor’easters back to back, and no lack of responsibilities at work and at home. As I navigate these blustery days, here’s a handful of tiny things, like bits of glitter, that are saving my life now:

  • That first sip of Darwin’s chai in the morning, after I lift the cup off the bar and before I put the lid on. It’s hot, spicy and life-giving.
  • Catching the trolley or the Red Line without having to wait.
  • The first (!) golden crocuses, spotted in the yard of a pink house on Cambridge St. (The man who lives there cut some of his roses for me last summer.)
  • Good pens, and ink-stained fingers.
  • Letting the sunlight flood full into my face as I look out the kitchen window, step outside my office building or sink into my favorite pew at Mem Church.
  • Brian Doyle’s rambling rollicking jubilant heartbreaking sentences in Mink River. They read like the Irishman he was: tender and clear-eyed, vivid and joyous.
  • The first scent of spring on an evening run last week: not just damp earth, which I also love, but the distinct smell of fresh blooming things.
  • The chalk heart that someone draws over and over again on the river trail.
  • Seeing my work in Shelf Awareness, which never fails to thrill me. If you love books, you should subscribe – it’s free, fun and informative.
  • A few places in my life where I am sure of a welcome: my florist’s shop, my boss’ office, my Thursday-morning haunt on the sixth floor. And – say it with me now – Darwin’s. (Though that’s not such a small thing at all.)

Some of these lifesavers are tiny indeed. But they anchor me and bring me joy, over and over again.

What’s saving your life these days? I’d love to know.

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bloodline book christmas tree star wars

I am, as regular readers may know, a Star Wars fan. I say that cautiously, since I can’t even aspire to the highest levels of fandom in the Lucasfilm universe. (I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi, by the way. I thought a few lines did not quite land, but I loved being back in that galaxy with a band of rebels old and new.)

I watch the original three films at least once a year. I quote them all the time: “Never tell me the odds!” And I’ve dressed up twice as Princess Leia: once in my teens for a midnight movie, once much more recently. (When my friend Nate turned 30 a few years ago, we all turned out in character to mark the occasion.)

Until this fall, though, I’d never read a Star Wars novel.

Why not? Call it confusion, or intimidation: there are dozens of novels, set in every conceivable niche of the Star Wars timeline and galaxy. Where to start? Add to that the thorny question of what’s considered “canon”: I’m not qualified to even touch that one.

But there’s a darker reason: my own literary snobbery.

Although I’m a lifelong bookworm with two literature degrees, I usually insist I’m not a book snob: I believe people should read what they love, be it a Pulitzer winner or the latest bestseller. But I secretly thought Star Wars novels had to be just cardboard imitations of the movies I loved.

Enter Claudia Gray’s novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan, which follows the young Leia as she takes a survival course and flies around the galaxy on missions of both humanitarian aid and espionage. It’s smart, fast-paced and full of the series’ signature wry humor. (Bonus: it introduces Amilyn Holdo, who appears as Vice Admiral Holdo in most of my favorite scenes in The Last Jedi.)

After devouring Princess of Alderaan, I picked up Bloodline (above), Gray’s 2016 novel recounting Leia’s political career in the New Republic (post-Return of the Jedi). I might have loved that one even more: Leia the senator is even more brave and badass (and a little wiser) than Leia the teenage rebel.

I doubt I’ll be diving into the whole Star Wars backlist any time soon. But it’s been a deep pleasure to read more of Leia’s story–and a reminder that, as Yoda says, sometimes we must unlearn what we have learned.

Have you read any Star Wars novels? Any recommendations for me?

Most of this column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, where I’m part of the book review team.

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rules of magic book sunflowers

I think it’s safe to say that my one little word this year is a sneaky one.

Back in January, I chose magic for my 2017 word, believing and hoping I needed it after a year (in 2016) that felt hard at every turn. I needed all the gumption I could get last year, and I haven’t stopped needing it this year: many days have required equal parts magic and grit. But my word has always been there, peeking around the corner, surprising me, especially when I’m not looking for it.

I do occasional author interviews for Shelf Awareness, my longstanding freelance gig, and I was thrilled when my editor asked if I’d like to talk to Alice Hoffman about her new novel, The Rules of Magic. It’s a prequel to Practical Magic, which I had not read, but I’d read and adored Hoffman’s novel Faithful, and I was so excited about this one.

Spoiler alert: I loved the book. It’s an utterly enchanting, heartbreaking story of three siblings who have to reckon with their unusual gifts and the very ordinary human experiences of love, loss and figuring out who they really are. And I loved talking to Alice, who was so warm and engaging, and answered my questions patiently. The book comes out today, and to celebrate, I’m sharing a few snippets of the Q&A below.

KG: The magic the characters use [in The Rules of Magic] is a kind of everyday alchemy: there’s a sense that magic is already here in our world, and they can channel it or avoid it via certain “rules.” Can you talk about your concept of magic and magical power?

AH: I’m interested in everyday magic: magic that you could turn a corner and find. I think a lot of that has to do with the books I read as a child, because those are the books that make you a writer. I loved Ray Bradbury’s books, and there’s a real sense of that everyday magic in the here and now. That’s what I’m interested in both as a reader and a writer: magic that is affected by the everyday.

My books have a kind of push-pull regarding magic, and also between the mystical and spiritual and the demands of “real” life. In The Rules of Magic, they’re braided together. The characters really fight against who they are, so that’s another push-pull. The book is ultimately about being who you are, and I think that’s really hard to do, even if you’re not a witch.

It’s hard for a lot of us to be who we are, even if we’re not fighting a family curse.

It really is just that: accepting yourself. It’s true for everyone in the book, and it’s a process. It takes a whole lifetime to learn who you are.

Courage is a thread that runs through the book: choosing courage over caution, being brave above all. Can you talk about that? How does courage relate to magic?

In a certain sense, the characters discovered this thread on their own. The book is really all about courage: the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human. Most people spend their lives running away from all that. The characters have to learn that.

The book deals with destiny and choice: the characters try to dodge the family curse, and they wrestle with accepting fate versus making their own choices. Can you talk about that?

That’s a big question. But it’s central to the book: the idea of the curse, which affects whether and how the Owens women fall in love. And yet, if you love someone, and open your heart to them, they will ultimately break your heart, curse or no curse. They may betray you; they may not be who you thought they were. Or they may get sick and die, as ultimately we all do.

At some point, inevitably, there is pain involved with love. I think it’s a big leap to make, and I think people are very brave when they do it. I think part of the Owens “curse” is just being human. And along the way, there are beautiful, wonderful things, and that’s part of being human too: such joy.


If you love magic, gorgeous writing or a good story, I highly recommend The Rules of Magic.

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On any given day, I get a lot of email. I bet you do too.

I appreciate the tabs in my Gmail inbox that (mostly) separate the pertinent, interesting stuff from the marketing emails and social media notifications. But some of the best, most surprising messages end up in the “Updates” category.

These aren’t the notes from friends (though I love those) or the emails from my editors about freelance assignments. (Though those are important and sometimes moderately lucrative.) These are the email newsletters to which I subscribe, and they are some of the best things in my inbox.

Here’s a roundup of my faves:

shelf awareness readers banner

Shelf Awareness
Full disclosure: I am biased, because (in case you didn’t know) I write book reviews for this smart, funny, big-hearted, bookish newsletter. But I still read it every single day. It comes out in two versions. (I get both.)

The longer-running daily newsletter is stuffed with book-trade news and bookstore updates, plus one book review each day. The Readers edition comes out on Tuesdays and Fridays and is chock full of book reviews and “book candy” – all those fun bookish articles/quizzes/photo galleries you see floating around the Internet.

The Shelf crew is proudly pro-indie bookstore and anti-literary snobbery. We love great books and we want to help people find them, and we love bookish fun in all its forms. Our mascot, Vik (a happily book-obsessed Buddha), likes to dress up for special occasions. I have met some wonderful people, and interviewed a few fabulous authors, through my work with the Shelf.

One caveat: your to-be-read list (or library holds list) will grow after reading the Shelf. But if you’re a bookworm, that’s not really a bad thing.

 

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Modern Mrs. Darcy‘s newsletter
Anne Bogel writes a smart, thoughtful, charming blog at Modern Mrs. Darcy. I also love her monthly-ish newsletters, which inevitably contain thought-provoking musings, lovely photos and links to blog posts you might have missed. I sometimes save the newsletters to read again.

Anne’s voice is warm and inviting, and she’s always finding and sharing good stuff. It’s a pleasure when her newsletter pops up in my inbox – it’s like getting a letter from a friend. (I count her among my Internet friends.)

 

innocent newsletter banner smoothies

Innocent Drinks newsletter
When I lived in the UK, I developed an addiction to Innocent smoothies, which are tart, fruity, delicious, and (sadly) not sold in the U.S. Innocent sponsors the annual Big Knit, in which they ask folks to knit tiny hats for their smoothie bottles, then donate part of the proceeds from each behatted bottle to charity. They publish a weekly e-newsletter full of updates from Fruit Towers (their office), tidbits about smoothies, and humorous absurdities. (I’ve always thought it would be a hilarious place to work.) The newsletter makes me laugh, and crave smoothies.

I also subscribe to a few bookstore newsletters (from Brookline Booksmith, the Harvard Book Store and the Bookstore in Lenox); Hollywood Housewife’s newsletter; and the New York Times daily headline email. And, of course, I always like to see an email telling me I’ve got a library hold to pick up.

What are the best things in your inbox?

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