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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

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The President’s Hat, Antoine Laurain
This fun novel was a serendipitous find at Brookline Booksmith. It begins with Daniel Mercier, a Paris accountant who finds himself sitting next to President Francois Mitterrand at a restaurant. Mitterrand leaves his hat behind and Daniel takes it home with him – and the most extraordinary things begin to happen. The hat eventually finds its way to several other new owners, who find their lives changed after its arrival. Whimsical, mischievous, clever, and a loving portrait of 1980s France.

Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers
I loved my recent reread of Gaudy Night so much that I picked up its sequel, which follows Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey on their honeymoon in a (supposedly) quiet English village. Of course, a corpse turns up soon after they arrive, and our intrepid detectives must solve the mystery. I’d read this years ago, but had forgotten Lord Peter’s delight in quoting writers and philosophers at every turn, and the calm efficiency of his man, Bunter. And as a married woman with a career, I appreciated this sensitive portrait of a fledgling marriage between two strong-minded people. Slower going than Gaudy Night, but rich and rewarding.

I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays, Elinor Lipman
I loved Lipman’s novel The View from Penthouse B and enjoyed this collection of her essays on family, writing, friendship and other topics. Lipman is warm, witty, often sarcastic but deeply loving – especially when it comes to her family. Amusing and sometimes insightful, in the vein of Nora Ephron and Anna Quindlen.

The FitzOsbornes in Exile, Michelle Cooper
After her uncle’s death and a Nazi invasion, Princess Sophia and her family have fled to England from their native island of Montmaray. Now living with their aunt – who is determined to marry off Sophie and her cousin Veronica, and mold tomboy Henry into a young lady – Sophie records her hopes, fears and impressions of the London Season. A fun glimpse of the social whirl (including appearances by the Kennedy clan) and a sensitive exploration of a young woman trying to make her way in an unfamiliar world. My favorite of the series.

The FitzOsbornes at War, Michelle Cooper
Bombs are dropping on London, food rationing is taking effect, and Sophie and Veronica, princesses of Montmaray, are doing their bit for the war effort. Espionage, diplomacy and politics live side by side with personal drama in this conclusion to the Montmaray trilogy. Several minor plot elements seemed far-fetched to me, but I love Sophie’s voice and enjoyed following the characters through World War II (and, finally, back home to Montmaray).

The Family Man, Elinor Lipman
A phone call from his newly widowed ex-wife, Denise, turns Henry Archer’s quiet, lonely life upside down. Soon, Denise’s charming actress daughter has moved into Henry’s basement apartment; Denise is setting Henry up with her eligible (gay) friends; and Henry finds himself acting as lawyer to both Denise and her daughter. A fun, modern comedy of manners – occasionally veering into stereotype, but highly entertaining.

Margot, Jillian Cantor
It’s 1959, and The Diary of Anne Frank has just come to the silver screen (after the book took the world by storm). Meanwhile, quiet Margie Franklin, secretary in a Philadelphia law firm, has a secret. She is really Margot Frank, Anne’s sister, who escaped from the death camps and somehow survived. Cantor presents a compelling what-if story, a nuanced exploration of sibling rivalry (and love), and a sensitive portrait of a deeply wounded young woman. Wistful and moving.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg
Duhigg examines the neuroscience of “habit loops” – how our brains form patterns related to cravings, routines and rewards. He looks at individuals’ habits, then widens his focus to companies (Starbucks, Target and others) and social movements (the Montgomery bus boycott; Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church). Interesting stuff, with some truly disturbing examples.

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june books 2

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, Matthew Goodman
On Nov. 14, 1889, two young female journalists left New York City, headed in different directions. Nellie Bly (traveling east) and Elizabeth Bisland (traveling west) swung from train to ship to boat in their mad dash to circle the globe in under 80 days. Goodman captures the frenetic pace of their race, the dizzying array of countries they saw, the vagaries of shipboard life and the way the contest fired the public imagination. A fascinating glimpse of the Victorian era and a great real-life adventure tale. (Jaclyn read it at the same time and also loved it.)

I’ll Be Seeing You, Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan
In 1943, two soldiers’ wives strike up a pen-pal correspondence spanning the miles from Iowa to Massachusetts. Rita Vincenzo, middle-aged and sensible, and Glory Whitehall, young and impulsive, are unlikely friends – but their letters help them weather the storms raging both abroad and at home. Beautifully written, evocative and sometimes heartbreaking – with occasional flashes of joy. Lovely.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser, Lois Leveen
Born into slavery in Richmond, Va., Mary Bowser is freed by her owner and sent to Philadelphia to be educated. When war breaks out, she returns to her native city to pose as a slave and spy for the Union – even working as a maid for Jefferson Davis. An absorbing historical read, based on the real life of its brave heroine.

Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz
Alex Rider, age 14, is left alone in the world after his uncle Ian’s death – and he quickly discovers Ian’s life wasn’t what it seemed. Ian was a spy for MI6, and his bosses recruit Alex to help with a dangerous mission. Fast-paced, stuffed almost too full of shiny gadgets and death-defying moments, but fun. First in the nine-book Alex Rider series.

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, Edward Kelsey Moore
Odette, Clarice and Barbara Jean have been friends most of their lives, gathering every Sunday at the titular restaurant for gossip and good food. As they all face personal battles (illness, losing loved ones, a spouse’s infidelity) in middle age, they reflect on the long story of their friendship and how it has shaped their lives. A compelling story that swings from heartbreaking to hilarious, full of warm, wonderful characters (including the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt!). I loved it.

Spy School, Stuart Gibbs
Ben Ripley, age 12, is a math whiz – but he’s shocked when he’s recruited for the CIA’s top-secret spy training school. Once he arrives, though, Ben realizes there’s something fishy going on. He joins forces with Erica, the school’s top student, to try and figure it out. Fast-paced and funny, though not as richly developed as Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Anne convinced me to pick up this classic, set partly in my beloved Oxford. It’s the story of Charles Ryder and his entanglement with the Flyte family: charming Sebastian, beautiful Julia, quirky Cordelia, stodgy Brideshead. It’s also a portrait of a disappearing England, and encompasses several love stories and musings on faith. Gorgeously written, though also deeply sad.

Start Here: Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors, ed. Jeff O’Neal & Rebecca Joines Schinsky
I backed this book on Kickstarter last summer. The book nerds at Book Riot have collected lots of advice about “reading your way into” 25 authors (see subtitle), ranging across many genres. Fun to dip into (the sections are short), utterly practical and (in typical fashion) quite opinionated.

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his-majestys-hope-cover

Last spring, I won an advance copy from Goodreads of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first in a historical mystery series starring whip-smart, red-headed, mathematician-turned-spy Maggie Hope. Born in England but raised by an aunt in the U.S., she returns to London as a young woman, as the rumblings of war from Hitler’s Germany grow louder and more ominous.

Maggie intends to stay in London only long enough to sell her grandmother’s house and tie up the loose ends. But, loyal to her new friends and inspired by the determination of the British people, she stays on, longing to contribute to the war effort. Before long, Maggie is working for Winston Churchill, using her intellect and wit to convince him and everyone else that she’s more than just a secretary.

I enjoyed Mr. Churchill’s Secretary – meeting Maggie and her group of friends, then getting an insider’s look at life in the War Rooms under Churchill. Maggie also makes a few vital discoveries about her own history, and the tense finale paved the way for the sequel, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy.

No longer a mere typist, Maggie goes undercover at Windsor Castle to tutor and protect Princesses Margaret and “Lilibet,” as the future Queen was then known, helping prevent a kidnapping attempt. Susan Elia MacNeal ratcheted up the plot tension, character development and quality of writing in her second book, and the setting – Christmas at Windsor Castle! – was captivating.

Maggie’s third adventure, His Majesty’s Hope (out tomorrow), is the best yet. Now fully trained as a spy, Maggie parachutes into Berlin on a mission that will bring her dangerously close to both the enemy and her own past.

Susan graciously agreed to answer a few questions about Maggie – read on to learn more about Maggie’s origins and Susan’s research travels. (As a fellow Anglophile, I am so jealous of the latter.)

How did you come up with the character of Maggie Hope?

Maggie Hope is definitely inspired by my late friend and writing mentor, the novelist Judith Merkle Riley. She was, like Maggie, brilliant — and, also like Maggie, combated more than her share of sexism as she worked in academia in the ’60s and ’70s. Judith was an amazing person, and Maggie has her intelligence, her warmth, her sense of humor — as well as her impatience with red tape and bureaucracy.

Maggie’s name, Margaret, was a nod to Judith’s character Margaret of Ashbury, in her first novel, Vision of Light. Maggie Hope’s hair is red because Margaret’s hair was red — Judith based Margaret physically on her daughter, who’s a redhead (and is still a very good friend of mine!).

I chose the name “Hope” because of an actual conversation Winston Churchill had with one of his real wartime secretaries, Marian Holmes. When they met, he thought she said her last name was Hope — and was actually disappointed that it wasn’t. (Although he went on to call Miss Holmes “Miss Sherlock.”) I thought it was intriguing that Mr. Churchill really wanted a secretary with the surname “Hope.”

What drew you to write about World War II in Britain?

I was very lucky to be able to accompany my husband, puppeteer Noel MacNeal, on a business trip to London. I remember we went out to a pub with some British friends, and one handed me the latest Time Out London and said, “You might want to take a look at the Cabinet War Rooms — despite what you Yanks may think, World War II didn’t start on December 7, 1941.”

So I decided to have a look the next day, and had a completely transformative experience. The museum is in the actual underground bunker where Churchill and his staff ran the war during the Blitz, and there are many places where you can do a complete turn and see it just as it must have been during the war. For a moment I really did feel like time had telescoped in on itself, and I’d somehow been transported to the war rooms of 1940. And I knew I wanted to write about it.

Have you been able to visit the places depicted in your books – Bletchley Park, the “finishing school” for spies in Scotland, etc.? If so, what was that like?

Yes, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to travel to many of the places I’ve written about. It’s always thrilling to me. I usually travel alone (or at least do my research alone) and I feel like my characters come with me!

For His Majesty’s Hope, I went to Berlin and a good friend of mine, who’s also a working mom, came with me. So much of the research was disturbing, I was grateful to have someone to have dinner with and laugh with at the end of the day.

What made you decide to take Maggie to Berlin (and behind enemy lines) in this third book?

Well, Maggie has paid her dues, both psychologically and physically. She’s now exactly the kind of spy the SOE would have wanted to send behind enemy lines. She’s certainly come a long way since she started out as Mr. Churchill’s secretary!

Do you have a favorite period detail or incident you’ve come across in your research?

I love vintage perfumes and have been known to track them down on eBay. It’s like time travel in a bottle. Even though it doesn’t necessarily make it into the book, I know what perfume or cologne each character wears (or doesn’t wear).

Can you tell us a bit about Maggie’s upcoming fourth adventure?

Yes! In The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, we follow Maggie to Scotland, where she’s become an instructor at one of the spy training camps, and is trying to make sense of her experiences in Berlin. And, of course, she’s pulled into a mystery. Meanwhile, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Japan are eroding and the Japanese plan their attack on Pearl Harbor, using spies (one German, one Japanese) on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The ultimate attack on the U.S., and the U.S. finally entering World War II, will have profound reverberations for Maggie.

Thank you so much for having me as a guest!

Thanks, Susan! Be sure to check out His Majesty’s Hope and Maggie’s other adventures.

*I received an advance reading copy of His Majesty’s Hope, but was not compensated for this review or interview.

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may reading roundup 1 books


The Importance of Being Seven
, Alexander McCall Smith

The sixth Scotland Street novel finds Matthew and Elspeth expecting triplets (!), Angus and Domenica traveling to Italy on holiday, and Bertie struggling, as ever, with his overbearing mother, Irene (and longing to turn seven). Fun and philosophical and gently satirical, like all the other books in this amusing series.

The End of Night, Paul Bogard
Our night skies are disappearing, due to the increasing brightness and volume of man-made light. Bogard visits a wide range of bright and dark places – from the dazzling Las Vegas Strip to Acadia National Park in Maine – to explore the effects of light pollution on our health, our public spaces and our society. His deep love for the night is infectious, and his interviews with folks ranging from astronomers to night-shift workers are fascinating. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9).

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Anna Quindlen
I loved this warm, witty book of essays, in which Quindlen touches on everything from the importance of girlfriends to the profound changes wrought by the women’s movement during her lifetime. She writes wisely and often humorously about marriage, motherhood, family and aging – it felt like I was sitting across the table, listening as she shared her wisdom. Wonderful.

Someday, Someday, Maybe, Lauren Graham
Aspiring actress Franny Banks came to NYC after college, determined to make it big in three years – and she’s got six months left. Graham (whom I loved on Gilmore Girls) has created a fun first novel, full of New York moments, sly humor and wonderful mid-90s details (answering services, high-top sneakers, pay phones). Franny is funny, smart and full of spunk, and I rooted for her the whole way. The ending was a bit abrupt, but this was a wonderful ride.

The Romeo and Juliet Code, Phoebe Stone
After leaving England, 11-year-old Felicity is dropped off at her grandmother’s house in Maine while her stylish, mysterious parents return to Europe to pursue their secret work. When Felicity’s uncle starts receiving top-secret letters from her father, Felicity and her new friend Derek investigate. I found Felicity naive and bratty at first, but I did enjoy the story, and I eventually warmed to her. Fun weekend reading.

Calling Me Home, Julie Kibler
African-American hairdresser Dorrie is surprised when her favorite (white) client, Miss Isabelle, asks a big favor: she wants Dorrie to drive her from Texas to Cincinnati for a funeral. As the women travel north, Isabelle shares her story of falling in love with a black boy as a teenager in 1930s Kentucky. Meanwhile, single mom Dorrie is dealing with her own problems, and wondering whether she can trust the new man in her life. I found 1930s Isabelle a bit naive and selfish, but I liked both Dorrie and present-day Isabelle, and several plot twists kept me turning the pages.

Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, Paul Gallico
I loved this spunky, sweet tale of a British charwoman who saves her money for years so she can jaunt over to Paris and buy herself a Dior gown. The gown is exquisite, of course, but the people Mrs. Harris meets, and the connections they forge, are the best part of the story. (Also: the flowers.) Recommended by Jaclyn. Similar to Miss Pettigrew, shorter and simpler but just as charming.

The September Society, Charles Finch
Victorian gentleman detective Charles Lenox returns for a second case, investigating the death of a young man at Oxford (his alma mater). I loved the visits to 1860s Oxford, different from and yet so similar to the Oxford I know and adore. And I like Lenox, a thoughtful and principled detective, and his circle of friends. Great fun.

Ready for a Brand New Beat, Mark Kurlansky
Released at the beginning of the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, “Dancing in the Street” became the anthem of an unsettled generation. Kurlansky delves into the history of music in mid-century America, the origins of Motown, the civil rights movement and the continuing life of the song, which endures today. Fascinating and well-researched, with plenty of outsize personalities. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 11).

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Apr 2013 010

A Dangerous Fiction, Barbara Rogan
Literary agent Jo Donovan, widow of a famous author, is living her dream life in New York City. But when an overeager client begins stalking Jo and a dozen of her clients fall prey to a hacking scam, her carefully constructed life begins to crumble. When a friend and client is murdered, Jo finally goes to the police – and encounters an old love, Tommy Cullen. Fast-paced, witty and sharp, full of deftly drawn characters, this fun literary mystery provides a fascinating glimpse into the NYC publishing world. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 25).

Letters from Skye, Jessica Brockmole
When Elspeth Dunn, a young Scottish poet, receives a fan letter from a college student in Illinois, she never expects it to change her life. But though her correspondence with David Graham provides a bright spot in the shadow of World War I, it has disastrous consequences for her family. Years later, as the German bombs fall on Edinburgh, Elspeth disappears, leaving her daughter with a yellowed letter and few clues to her mother’s, and her own, history. Beautifully told in warm, witty letters, in the tradition of Guernsey and other epistolary novels. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9).

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, Alexander McCall Smith
Changes are afoot in Scotland Street: marriage (and an adventurous honeymoon) for Matthew, cub scouts for six-year-old Bertie, an unexpected basket of puppies (courtesy of his dog, Cyril) for Angus Lordie. But the humorous everyday interactions, and the gentle absurdities arising therefrom, remain. So much fun.

A Beautiful Blue Death, Charles Finch
When a young housemaid turns up dead, Charles Lenox, Victorian London gentleman and amateur detective, is called upon to help solve the mystery. I enjoyed watching Lenox spar with Scotland Yard, track suspects and clues through London, and despair of ever getting properly made boots. A fun introduction to Lenox and his circle of friends (including his brother Edmund and neighbor, Lady Jane). Not particularly suspenseful, but an interesting mystery.

Red Bird, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s work, though this wasn’t my favorite volume of her poetry – some of it felt preachy, some a bit vague. Some lovely lines, though, and I like the poems about her dog, Percy. And I love the poem “I don’t want to live a small life” (which is why I checked out this book in the first place).

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox, brilliant architect and slightly unhinged wife and mother, disappears from her Seattle home (a crumbling former girls’ school) without a trace. It’s up to her Microsoft tech-genius husband and her smart, savvy teenage daughter, Bee, to piece together the series of events that led Bernadette off the deep end. Told in letters, emails, texts and other documents, this novel is at once wildly funny, sharply satirical and genuinely warmhearted. I loved it. Recommended by Shelley.

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april reads part 1Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Gennifer Choldenko
This sequel to Al Capone Does My Shirts (which I loved) takes us back to Alcatraz in 1935. Moose Flanagan’s autistic sister, Natalie, is finally in a special school that seems to be helping her. But Moose asked Al Capone for help in getting her in – and now Capone might want a favor in return. Darker and more complicated than the first book, but still humorous, with plenty of baseball.

Frances and Bernard, Carlene Bauer
An epistolary novel whose title characters meet at a writer’s colony in the summer of 1957. They eye each other warily at first but become friends, and eventually fall in love. But Frances’ fierce commitment to her work and Bernard’s struggles with mental illness threaten to tear them apart. (Based on the friendship of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell.) The language was vivid and incisive, but I found both characters disappointingly conscious of their own cleverness.

Going Vintage, Lindsey Leavitt
When Mallory finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her with a “cyberwife,” she swears off all “modern” (read: post-1962) technology. Reduced to talking on a rotary phone and researching a history paper in the library (gasp!), Mallory sets out to recreate her grandmother’s high school experience: starting a pep club, sewing her own homecoming dress. But life without the Internet isn’t so simple – and her ex’s cousin is distractingly cute. A fun, sassy story about first love, family (I loved Mallory’s sister, Ginnie), and finding out who you are when you’re alone.

His Majesty’s Hope, Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope, World War II-era mathematician and spy, returns for a third adventure, this time parachuting into Berlin on a secret mission. Working with the German resistance, she comes perilously close to the Nazi halls of power, and to a few secrets from her own past. Fast-paced, full of intrigue and replete with historical detail, and the ending left me eagerly anticipating the fourth book. (I received an advance copy of this book, out May 14. Look for a fuller review and a Q&A with the author closer to that time.)

I, Rhoda, Valerie Harper
I loved Harper’s dry wit and larger-than-life personality as Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and enjoyed this inside look at her life and acting career (both TV and live theatre). This is more autobiography (“I was born,” etc.) than memoir, but I loved her tales of being a young dancer on Broadway, and then the only newbie in a star-studded cast on MTM (the role that changed her life). A fun and joyous ride.

This Is What Happy Looks Like, Jennifer E. Smith
When teen movie star Graham Larkin sends an email to the wrong address by mistake, he’s surprised to get a reply from Ellie, a shy redhead from Maine. After months of corresponding without knowing each other’s names (a la You’ve Got Mail), their worlds collide when Graham begins shooting a film on location in Ellie’s hometown. A sweet, smart, funny story about first love in the Internet age, and a deft exploration of a young person living his life on camera.

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, Clare Mulley
Krystyna Skarbek, a beautiful Polish aristocrat, became the first woman to work in the field for British intelligence during World War II. Adopting the name Christine Granville, she lived for adventure (and love), pinwheeling around Europe and North Africa, working to assist her fellow Poles when she could. Mulley recounts many of Christine’s exploits and exposes the Allies’ betrayal of Poland during and after the war. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 11).

The House of Belonging, David Whyte
A slim book of poems about belonging to yourself, people, and places – Whyte beautifully evokes the Yorkshire of his childhood. I also like his poems about solitude, and the one about his son is sweet. Lyrical, if a bit vague at times, and mostly lovely.

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Mar 2013 019

Together Tea, Marjan Kamali
Darya, an Iranian immigrant to the U.S., loves mathematics so much that she makes spreadsheets and graphs for each of her daughter’s potential suitors. But Mina – 25, single, unhappy in business school and longing to become an artist – wants her mother to stop the matchmaking. When the two women travel back to Iran for the first time in 15 years, they gain a new perspective on their homeland, their adopted country, and each other. Light, funny and also moving – a wonderful mother-daughter story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 21).

The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman
An evocative, heartbreaking story of Tom, a WWI vet who becomes a lighthouse keeper, and takes his new bride Isabel to a posting off the western coast of Australia. After they lose their third baby, a boat washes up on shore with a dead man and a live baby girl in it. They bury the man and begin raising the child as their own. But Tom’s conscience plagues him: what about the baby’s mother? After four years, he makes a fateful decision. Beautifully written, but deeply sad.

Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
It’s 1935 and Moose Flanagan, age 12, has just moved with his family to Alcatraz, where his father works as a prison guard. As if that weren’t enough, Moose has to adjust to a new school, watch out for his severely autistic sister Natalie, and steer clear of Piper, the warden’s bold, troublemaking daughter. I loved Moose’s honest (sometimes snarky) voice, and his deep affection for Natalie (though he gets frustrated with her at times, like any brother). A fascinating sliver of history in a highly unusual setting. I’ll be reading the sequel.

Espresso Tales, Alexander McCall Smith
The sequel to 44 Scotland Street, which I also enjoyed, takes us back to that building in Edinburgh and its quirky tenants. Pat is taking charge of her life; her widowed neighbor Domenica tries matchmaking with mixed results; and six-year-old Bertie and his father, Stuart, band together to stand up to Bertie’s overbearing mother, Irene. Meandering and whimsical; gently philosophical at times, gently absurdist at others. Fun.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne
Bruno, age nine, is not happy about his family’s sudden move from Berlin to a house in the middle of nowhere, next to a camp he knows only as “Out-With.” He’s bored at first, but goes exploring and meets the titular boy, Shmuel, who lives on the other side of a long wire fence. Bruno and Shmuel become friends, though Bruno has no idea what life is like on Shmuel’s side of the fence. A moving story, though I found Bruno overly naive at times.

Kissed a Sad Goodbye, Deborah Crombie
The sixth mystery featuring detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James finds them investigating a murder on London’s Isle of Dogs. Duncan is also trying to navigate his new relationship with Kit, the 11-year-old son he only recently met. Lots of personal issues; also some fascinating London history, with flashbacks to World War II, and a peek into the tea industry (the victim’s family owns a tea company).

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
I love Jane Stuart – dreamy and thoughtful, yet spunky and capable. And I love the story of how she goes to spend a summer on Prince Edward Island with the father she’s never met – and it changes her whole world. Beautiful descriptions, colorful supporting characters, and a wonderful portrait of both inner and outer renewal. The perfect book for these weeks between winter and spring.

A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, Theresa Levitt
Augustin Fresnel, French physicist and engineer, shocked the scientific community with his experiments on light and its wavelike behavior. He then invented a lighthouse lens that produced beams far brighter than the reflector system then in place. Levitt traces the development of his work, its adoption by the French and English (and eventually the Americans), and the prominence of lighthouses in several wars. Overly detailed at times, but interesting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 3).

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NYC 112

Perfect Scoundrels, Ally Carter
Kat Bishop and her crew of teenage thieves are back – but this time they’re not stealing art. Kat’s boyfriend, Hale, has inherited his grandmother’s billion-dollar company after her sudden death, and Kat senses something fishy. But Hale is proud to be his grandmother’s heir; how can she tell him the will may be a fake? Carter writes fast-paced, well-plotted, witty stories with great ensemble casts (I love Kat’s crew of thieves and her Uncle Eddie), but somehow the romance felt lacking in this book. Still a fun ride, like all her books.

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
I’ve returned to this book every winter since we moved to Boston, and I spent part of the recent blizzard curled up on the couch with it. I love the Ingalls family’s closeness, their singing, their humor and grit and perseverance, and the way they glory in the simple things, even when the winter winds howl outside. And I wanted to slip into the feed store for some pancakes with those Wilder brothers. Vivid and hopeful and altogether wonderful.

Full Dark House, Christopher Fowler
A bomb blows up the office of the London police’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, killing one of the unit’s oldest (and quirkiest) employees, Arthur Bryant. John May, Bryant’s partner, reflects on their decades-long collaboration, which began during the Blitz of World War II. As he remembers their first case, he wonders if there’s a link to the present-day bombing. The first in a series following Bryant and May (an Odd Couple-esque pairing) and their unorthodox crime-solving methods. Fun, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I wanted to.

Garment of Shadows, Laurie R. King
Mary Russell wakes alone in a strange room in Morocco, with no memory of who she is or how she got there. Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes is trying to find her, while becoming increasingly preoccupied with the region’s volatile politics. A brilliant mix of history, adventure, political intrigue and wonderful supporting characters (including Mahmoud and Ali, whom we have encountered before). Russell’s ingenious mind and quick reflexes are on display, as is King’s fascination with the Arab world. Wonderful.

A Future Arrived, Phillip Rock
I loved this last volume in the saga of the Greville family, which follows the main characters (and their children) through the late 1930s to the beginning of World War II. Martin Rilke introduces his young brother-in-law to the world of journalism; Lady Alexandra’s son becomes a pilot; and everyone wonders how this war will compare to the last one. Well plotted and excellently drawn; lots of familiar faces and I enjoyed watching the new generation come of age.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
I’ve not read much Hemingway except for A Moveable Feast, which I adore. But I found this tale of Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley and their friends tedious and frustrating. They may have been a “lost generation,” but none of the characters are likeable, and I found the prose style choppy. I did enjoy the descriptions of Pamplona, since I’ve been there, and of bullfighting. On the whole, a dud for me.

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books tree snowman christmas

(This really means “week before vacation and vacation” reading, and/or “The Final Book Roundup of 2012.”)

The Secret Keeper, Kate Morton
As a teenager in 1961, Laurel Nicolson sees her mother kill a man. She doesn’t know who he was or why he came to their house – and the family never speaks of it again. Forty years later, as her mother begins to slip away, Laurel and her brother begin a feverish search for answers. This was my first Morton novel and I loved it – so evocative of both modern-day England and London during the Blitz. The sibling dynamics are perfectly drawn, and there were a couple of brilliant, dramatic twists. Utterly absorbing. (I received a galley from the publisher, but was not compensated for this review.)

All Shall Be Well, Deborah Crombie
I tore through this second book featuring the Scotland Yard team of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. They investigate the death of Kincaid’s terminally ill neighbor Jasmine, from a lethal dose of morphine. She had considered (and mentioned) suicide, but the details add up to homicide instead. Better plotted, better written and more interesting than the first one, with more insights into Kincaid’s and Gemma’s lives. (I wonder – especially since the writer is a woman – why she calls him “Kincaid” and her “Gemma.” Perhaps it’s my feminist self being nitpicky?)

At Bertram’s Hotel, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple, staying at the posh, old-world titular London hotel, observes a number of strange events that add up to a murder case. As usual, she solves the crime with keen observation and unruffled calm. Dashing celebrities, foggy nights, fast cars and lots of secrets make this an entertaining mystery.

A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver
Oliver’s newest collection is full of lyrical observations, several elegies to a beloved dog, and the nature imagery for which she is known. I didn’t love it quite as much as Thirst, which blew me away, but it was still quite lovely.

The Game, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell travel to India, to search for an Irish spy who has disappeared – none other than the title character of Kipling’s Kim. They travel in the guise of gypsy musicians, stay at a maharaja’s palace, and encounter a dizzying array of characters, both friend and foe. This is a fabulous adventure story and a brilliant tribute to Holmes’ and Russell’s ability to think on their feet. One of my favorites in the series.

Locked Rooms, Laurie R. King
Fresh from their Indian adventure (above), Holmes and Russell land in San Francisco, so Russell can deal with matters relating to her family’s property there. But a series of disturbing dreams forces her to rethink her memories of childhood, and of the car wreck that killed her family. A dazzling portrait of San Francisco in the early 20th century, both before and after the 1906 earthquake. I loved the exploration of Russell’s character and her family history, and the Chinese bookseller, Mr. Long.

The Language of Bees, Laurie R. King
Arriving home at last, Holmes and Russell can’t rest for long: Holmes’ grown son Damian, whom he has met only once before, turns up on their doorstep asking for his father’s help. As they search for Damian’s missing wife and child, Russell doubts Damian’s innocence and worries over Holmes’ refusal to suspect his son. Not my favorite of the series – the plot involves a creepy cult, and the ending is literally “to be continued.” But I’ll still read The God of the Hive to find out what happens.

A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache returns to the village of Three Pines (introduced in Still Life) to solve another murder, this one of a self-styled, self-centered design guru whom no one liked. Many characters from Still Life reappeared, but for some reason this story fell rather flat for me. Perhaps it was too similar to the first, or I was simply irritated at several plot threads left dangling. I do like Gamache, though: he’s a thoughtful, wise character.

What did you read over your vacation, if you had one?

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november books candle harry potter e.b. white

Wish You Were Eyre, Heather Vogel Frederick
I loved this sixth (and, sadly, final!) installment in the Mother-Daughter Book Club series. These five spunky girls round out their sophomore year with Jane Eyre, competitions in singing and hockey, a visit from their Wyoming pen pals and some exciting Spring Break trips. There’s a bit of boy drama too, and repeat appearances from their families and friends. I cheered when they urged each other to “get your Jane on” – meaning “be brave and stand up for yourself.” Jane is one of my heroines and I’m glad she inspired them too.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Emma Straub
Elsa Emerson, born in Wisconsin, takes off for Los Angeles at age 17 with her new husband and a head full of Hollywood dreams. She quickly becomes a studio star (and a mother), but of course life in Hollywood is never quite what it seems. I found Elsa-turned-Laura interesting, and her story both heartbreaking and hopeful, but I grew annoyed with her sometimes. She seemed so passive, despite her dreams, always dependent on other people for attention and adoration. Still, a fascinating look at the “golden age” of filmmaking and a complex family story.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
Beginning another reread of this beloved series. I love how the reader learns about Hogwarts and the magical world right alongside Harry in this first book. And I love that Harry’s years with the Dursleys haven’t soured him on being kind to other people. He may despise Draco Malfoy, but he is compassionate and loyal. (I own the British edition, hence the slight title change. Link is to the U.S. edition.)

Letters of E.B. White, ed. Dorothy Lobrano Guth, updated by Martha White
I’ve been reading this tome (700 pages!) since mid-September, and I relished White’s witty, precise observations on farm life in Maine, writing for the New Yorker, cross-country road trips, his own career and his long, happy marriage to his wife Katharine. This is a lot of letters, but I so enjoyed having White’s voice in my ear morning and evening. More to come about this book.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling
I love rereading this series for so many reasons: the jokes are just as much fun, the plot points just as enthralling, the fifth or sixth time through. But I can also see the hints of foreshadowing, since I know the end of the story. Lots of those hints here, as life at Hogwarts grows ever more exciting and complicated (and Hermione loosens up enough to break school rules with Harry and Ron). I’d almost forgotten about ridiculous Professor Lockhart, and the teachers’ spells in the Chamber of Secrets are so clever.

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
A Scottish spy (don’t call her English!) and an English pilot, her best friend, go down together on a mission to France, and get separated. The spy narrates Part 1, writing her story for her Nazi interrogators, not knowing whether Maddie (the pilot) is dead or alive. Maddie takes over in Part 2, wondering the same thing about her friend. Brilliantly told (unreliable narrators, plot twists, double agents), and also heartbreaking. I’m reminded again of the tremendous sacrifices made by both government agents and ordinary people in World War II. Stunning, gripping and full of bravery.

What are you reading these days?

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