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Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

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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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I know we’re more than halfway through the year, but I still thought it would be worthwhile (and fun!) to share the best books I’ve read so far this year. Technically I’d read 102 books by the end of June, so here are the real standouts from the first half of 2018:

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.

Candid, Witty Essays on Marriage: Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun. Honest and funny and so real – perfect for reading after a decade of marriage.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s brilliant series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. I cannot shut up about these books: the mystery plots are solid, but the characters and their complex relationships are on another level.

Best Twisty Tale of Badass Female Spies: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Just so good.

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.)

Best Reread: A Wrinkle in Time, which I picked up after seeing the new film. I liked the movie, but L’Engle’s classic has more depth and heart and grit – and oh, I love Meg Murry.

Best Travel Memoir That’s About So Much More: Lands of Lost Borders, Kate Harris’ luminous, gritty memoir of spending nearly a year cycling along the Silk Road.

Most Perfect Gothic Novel to Read in Spain: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Twisty, atmospheric, witty, packed with great characters and surprise moments.

Your turn: what are the best books you’ve read so far this year?

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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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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.

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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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It’s been quite a month around here – which has meant, among other things, less reading than usual. But the books are still helping keep me sane, so here’s the latest roundup:

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and Jack Tiffany
I am a longtime, avid Harry Potter fan, and I had mixed feelings about this new story/script, before and after reading it. Fun to spend more time in Rowling’s world, and the characters are (mostly) still beautifully themselves. But it lacked the depth and power of the original seven books. I’m still glad I read it.

Precious and Grace, Alexander McCall Smith
I enjoy McCall Smith’s gentle mystery series about Precious Ramotswe, who runs the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana. I am less fond of her assistant, Grace Makutsi, but the dynamic between the two women is always interesting. This one wasn’t really a mystery, more a gentle reflection on life and forgiveness, but it was charming. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is placed under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel and sets about building a life for himself within the hotel’s walls. A witty, philosophical, engaging story – Rostov is charming and so is his supporting cast. I especially loved the hotel’s chef, Émile, and maitre d’, Andrey. (I also relished Towles’ debut, Rules of Civility.)

To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin
Widowed and penniless, Caitriona Wallace takes a job as a companion to two young people heading to Paris in 1887. There, all three of them become entangled with Émile Nouguier, an engineer working with Gustave Eiffel to build his tower. Beautiful descriptions, though I found every single character (except Eiffel himself) frustratingly passive. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 29).

The Shattered Tree, Charles Todd
This eighth entry in Todd’s Bess Crawford series finds Bess (battlefield nurse and amateur sleuth) tracking down a mysterious soldier in October 1918. These books are somber but well written, and I like Bess (though she does insist on thinking she’s invincible). A solid historical mystery.

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

What are you reading?

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red books flowers

I’ve been diving into allll the books this month – several of them on vacation (of which more soon). Here’s the latest roundup:

When in French: Love in a Second Language, Lauren Collins
North Carolina native Lauren Collins never expected to fall in love with a Frenchman. But when she found herself married to Olivier and living in Geneva, she decided to get serious about learning French. Her memoir muses on the difficulties of language and culture clashes, American monolingualism and the blending of two families. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 13).

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marjane Satrapi
Satrapi’s graphic novel tells the story of her childhood in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Powerful, often irreverent, sometimes funny. I reread this one for the RTFEBC (though it is definitely for older kids/teens).

The One-in-a-Million Boy, Monica Wood
This novel is the first pick for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s online Summer Reading Club. It follows the friendship between an 11-year-old boy and Miss Ona Vitkus, age 104 (he’s recording her life story on tape). Funny, poignant and sweet without being saccharine. So many wonderful lines.

The Darkness Knows, Cheryl Honigford
Vivian Witchell is an aspiring radio actress in 1930s Chicago. She’s just landed a plum new role when one of her colleagues is murdered – and Vivian is threatened. With the help of a handsome private eye, Vivian is determined to catch the killer. A fun period mystery; I loved the radio details. Vivian is spunky (if a little bullheaded) and engaging. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 2).

At the Edge of Summer, Jessica Brockmole
In the summer of 1911, orphaned Clare Ross arrives at a quiet French chateau. She forges a deep friendship with Luc, the house’s son, but they are separated by life and war. Years later, they meet again in Paris and must try to bridge the gaps of time and grief. A subtle, lovely story of art, love and human connection, beautifully told.

The Unexpected Everything, Morgan Matson
Andie Walker always has a plan. She’s all set for a summer program at Johns Hopkins when a political scandal (her dad’s a congressman) puts her back at square one. Suddenly, Andie finds herself working as a dog walker and spending hours with a very cute boy. It’s idyllic, until a series of secrets threatens to ruin everything. I love Matson’s smart, sensitive, fun YA novels, and this one is great. Especially fun for writers, as Anne said.

Arsenic for Tea, Robin Stevens
Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the school holidays. When an unlikable houseguest is poisoned at afternoon tea, the girls take on the case. A really fun second mystery featuring these characters – so very English. (I have the UK edition; link is to the U.S. edition, called Poison is Not Polite.)

The Invitation, Lucy Foley
A glamorous party in Rome. A chance encounter. English journalist Hal never expects to see the mysterious Stella again. But a year later, they meet on a yacht, both of them loosely tied to a movie cast sailing to Cannes for the premiere of a new film. A gorgeous, bittersweet novel of loss and redemption, alternating between the Spanish Civil War and 1950s Italy. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 2).

Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery, Jenny Colgan
Polly Waterford has a lovely little bakery, a doting boyfriend, a pet puffin and a quirky home in an old lighthouse. But when her landlady dies and her boyfriend has to go back to the U.S. for work, her carefully constructed life begins to unravel. A sweet (though often really sad) novel about baking, second chances and fighting to hold onto the good.

The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
The Plumb siblings are arguing about money again. Years ago, their father set up a modest trust fund (“The Nest”), and they were all counting on it until Leo, the eldest, got himself into trouble and their mother used The Nest to bail him out. Now, they all may have to reimagine their financial futures and rethink their relationships to one another. A smart, satirical but warmhearted novel of family and finances. (The second pick for the MMD Summer Reading Club.)

Lois Lane: Double Down, Gwenda Bond
Lois Lane, girl reporter, finally has friends and a place to belong: the Scoop, teen arm of the Daily Planet. Her second adventure involves following her nose to a big story involving the mayor’s office, her best friend’s sister and some seriously weird mind control. Lois is snarky but compassionate (think Veronica Mars) and her supporting cast is great. So fun.

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

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