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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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Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, Ally Carter
After reading the first book in the Gallagher Girls series, I wanted more – this is such a fun concept (a boarding school that’s really a training ground for female spies!). The characters – narrator Cammie, her headmistress/spy mother, her spy-in-training best friends and their highly trained faculty members – are great, and the action is fast-paced and often quite funny. (And you can tell the author loves creating every detail of this world.)

Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover, Ally Carter
Gallagher Girl book #3 is a little darker and a lot more intense – though it still is a really fun story of how to navigate being both a spy and a teenage girl. (Neither role, as Cammie often points out, is easy.) The cliffhanger at the end left me scrambling for the fourth book (fortunately I’d bought the whole series at once).

Only the Good Spy Young, Ally Carter
Book four and our characters – well, some of them – are being pursued by an ancient, international terrorist organization – and nobody’s sure whom to trust. The writing gets better, the characters get deeper, the questions get bigger. (Now, of course, I have to wait until March, when book #5 comes out, to find out what happens.)

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
I had a wonderful time at the pre-release party for this book – so I was eager to dive into it. And it did not disappoint. A complex, multilayered story of a very unusual circus, a challenge between two magicians (who inconveniently fall in love, which of course complicates everything), and a boy named Bailey who loves the circus at first sight. So many fascinating characters, gorgeous descriptions and twisting plot points. Truly fantastic.

My Year with Eleanor, Noelle Hancock
I liked the premise of this book – a young woman, laid off from her job, takes her inspiration from Eleanor Roosevelt and decides to spend a year confronting her fears. But a lot of her activities seemed like stunts (shark cage diving?) and she spent a lot of time whining about her own issues rather than taking the initiative to make them better. I eventually got bored and put it down.

The Best American Travel Writing 2011, ed. Sloane Crosley
An odd but compelling mix of travel essays – most of them about places I’d never choose to go (Kurdistan, South Beach in Miami, Russian Tel Aviv, Saudi Arabia, a commune in Copenhagen). Not always pleasant, but fascinating – and there are some beautiful moments amid all the cynicism and guns. To review for the Shelf.

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, Susan Gregg Gilmore
A story of racism, forbidden love and family issues in 1960s Nashville. Our heroine, though pleasant, is naive and self-absorbed – she never stops to consider the effect her actions will have on other people. And the ending felt like the author had simply run out of things to say. The Help and Saving CeeCee Honeycutt touch on this same territory, and do it better.

Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace
I’ve loved Betsy Ray for a long time, but only met Emily Webster last fall. She struggles with loneliness, despair and boredom when her classmates go off to college – but, in delightful fashion, she learns to “muster her wits” – founding a Browning Club, teaching English to Syrian immigrants, taking piano and dancing lessons, and even falling in love. Wonderful, and a good reminder to muster my own wits when life feels a little blah.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims
I love E.B. White’s writing, but had never read a biography of him – and this one proved fascinating. Packed with detail about his family life, his years in New York, his work at the New Yorker and his relationship with his wife, and his enduring love of farm animals. Wonderfully written and so well done – it also sent me scrambling to the library and the bookshop for White’s essays and letters.

The Last Letter From Your Lover, Jojo Moyes
A tale of star-crossed lovers, jumbled memories and (honestly) the most atrocious timing possible – frustrating at times, but compelling. Two parallel love stories, which each involve an affair between a married person and his/her single lover. Oddly, I felt more compassion for the 1960s married woman with the awful husband (Jennifer) than I did for the modern-day single woman dating a married man (Ellie). Perhaps I felt like Ellie had more options, or that her married man was a jerk (he was)? I don’t know. Anyway, this is still a well-written, powerful story about love and choices and second chances.

Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food during Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents, ed. Matt McAllester
A collection of travel essays set in the war zones of our time: Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Haiti, Bosnia. These writers are used to bribes and gunshots, to long days and sleepless nights, to poverty everywhere they look. But they have wonderfully vivid memories of meals shared with refugees, with soldiers, with friends made in unlikely places, even (in one case) with captors. The last essay, set in Bethlehem, brought me to tears. To review for the Shelf.

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