Everything is Beautiful In Its Time: Seasons of Love and Loss by Jenna Bush Hagar

I don’t know about you, but I love a good book list.  My favorite question for friends is “What are you reading?”  I’ve been following the Jenna Bush Hager “Read With Jenna” monthly selections, and I like to watch her interviews with the authors she picks.  Honestly, I didn’t know much about Jenna Bush Hager other than the obvious-child of 43 and grandchild of 41, but her book picks were good so I started paying more attention. She is definitely one to watch.

Her most recent book, out this September, is Everything Beautiful in Its Time:  Seasons of Love and Loss. Everything is a tribute to her maternal and paternal grandparents in the form of warm personal essays, written with an intimacy that is at once individual and ubiquitous, despite the famous subjects. 

One of my favorite parts is the letters written to and from grandparents.  A handwritten letter and sometimes an email were always sent to mark a birthday or holiday, or sometimes just to say I am thinking of you and I am proud of you.  Jenna writes to her grandparents after they pass away, as a way of processing her grief.  Being privy to these touching exchanges shares her celebration of kindness, life lessons, family. Equally charming is the way she shares these life lessons with her own young family.

Bottom line: this is a charming read from a charming story teller.  If you are grieving a loss, this will speak right to your heart.  If you are looking for a little inspiration, a pick-me-up, or a hopeful memoir, Everything Beautiful in Its Time is for you.

Thank you NetGalley for a copy of this book. It was savored.

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A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder by Dianne Freeman

A Lady's Guide to Mischief and Murder

I jumped into this historical mystery/romance series at book 3, attracted to the cover and feeling like I needed one more engaging series in my repertoire of mysteries.  I read at a leisurely pace, and enjoyed the story and the main characters; I decided to find Books 1 and 2 before the memory of A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder gets away from me.

Frances, the widowed countess of Harleigh, is looking for a charming and private setting for her sister Lily’s nuptials.  Lily is three months pregnant and needs to tie the knot away from gossiping eyes.  Frances’s secret fiance George Hazelton has a family estate in Hampshire, and agrees to host the wedding party.  He and Frances will marry once Lily’s wedding is complete.  Family and close friends travel to the countryside for what should be a joyful ceremony, but are greeted with accidents and mysterious deaths.  Frances and George try to figure out who is behind the mayhem and stop them before it is too late.

I liked Frances–she is my kind of detective/heroine.  She is headstrong, sure of her self, and has evolved far beyond her era.  Frances is definitely a main character I will enjoy knowing, especially as she continues to navigate her familial relations, friendships and wedding.  The mystery was good and kept me guessing to the end.  This series would delight fans of the Miss Kopp books, the Poppy Denby series, and of course Maisie Dobbs followers. 

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Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

A beautiful read! One of my top five books in the last few years!  I honestly haven’t felt the need to underline fiction since college, but Transcendent Kingdom had so many poignant pages wrestling with faith and religion and science and family that I was constantly tabbing parts to revisit.

Gifty is a PhD student at Stanford Medical School, studying reward seeking behavior in mice, and the neural circuits of depression and anxiety.  Her work is personally motivated; Gifty’s older brother Nana died of an oxycodone overdose, and her mother is currently living with her and suffering from major depression. Their family are Ghanaian immigrants who struggled not only with fitting into their new home, school and neighborhood, but with depression and addiction.  As a child, Gifty clings to evangelical religion to soften her grief and despair.  Adult Gifty is driven to understand all of the science behind her family’s struggles, spending the novel trying to figure out if there is a way for science and religion to co-exist, and where faith belongs.

All of this would seem very heavy and sad if it weren’t for the equally strong love within the pages. Gyasi addresses racism, immigration, discrimination, poverty, being a woman in science…that is a lot to put in one book, but it works.  There is no shaming, no guilt, simply the asking of the important questions, a context to consider them, and an invitation to spend some time pondering. 





Transcendent Kingdom is one of the best books I have read this year (and Covid offered me tons of reading time!) and even in the past several reads.  It isn’t too soon for me to think of my Jolabokaflod list, and Transcendent Kingdom will be at the top for anyone who was able to wait that long to read this incredible book.

Thank you NetGalley for an Advanced Reader Copy.  It was savored.











Transcendent Kingdom is one of the best books I have read this year (and Covid offered me tons of reading time!) and even in the past several reads.  It isn’t too soon for me to think of my Jolabokaflod list, and Transcendent Kingdom will be at the top for anyone who was able to wait that long to read this incredible book.

Thank you NetGalley for an Advanced Reader Copy.  It was savored.

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A Dangerous Goodbye: A Fen Churche Mystery by Fliss Chester

A Dangerous Goodbye by Fliss Chester

I cannot wait for you historical mystery lovers to meet Fen Churche! Fen does her part for the British war effort in 1944, serving as a Land Girl, and pining for her fiance Arthur, a soldier undercover in France. When Arthur’s letters stop arriving, Fen is sure that he has been captured and fears the worst… but a clue in his last letter prompts Fen to travel to France to find Arthur. She ends up taking a room in a chateau at a winery in exchange for working in the fields, and almost immediately, people begin to be murdered, Fen is also searching for a church relic she believes Arthur hid when he gave a fake to the Gestapo, all while just trying to stay alive.

I absolutely loved this book and I loved Fen. She is a fantastic heroine with inklings of Nancy Drew. The plot has a touch of Agatha Christie, so you really can’t go wrong. I loved the way Fliss Chester built suspense and made me wonder which characters were trustworthy and which had more sinister intentions. I went right to the end trying to figure things out, and appreciated the tidy explanations, even if I might have hoped for different outcomes. A Dangerous Goodbye is a very enjoyable and satisfying mystery and a must read for lovers of the genre. I hope I meet Fen Churche again soon! Thank you NetGalley for the Advanced Reader Copy!

Professional Reader10 Book Reviews

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Talland House by Maggie Humm

Talland House: A Novel by [Maggie Humm]

Talland House by Maggie Humm landed on my to read list well before I was given the opportunity to read an advanced copy from NetGalley and from Smith Publicity, Inc. I was attracted to the cover–the historical feel–and the the subject–the story of Lily Briscoe outside the pages of Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse, that made Lily Briscoe a character in literary history. I love historical fiction, and thought Talland House would teach me a bit more about the essence of Virginia Woolf and this particular story. I remembered an article in the New York Times a few years back about Talland House, the home in St. Ives, Cornwall where Virginia Woolf spent a few summer months each year. I was enamored with the way that the freedom of open space affected Woolf, swimming, running through the gardens, spying stars in the night sky, mirrored her freedom of thought as an adult and member of the Bloomsbury Group. This summer life was so much an opposite of Victorian life in London.

First, if you haven’t read To the Lighthouse, it is perhaps the most autobiographical novel Woolf authored, taking place over the course of ten years and spanning the Great War. Part One has the Ramsays and their 8 children going to Hebrides on the Isle of Skye for the summer, and enjoying several visitors, including Lily Briscoe, a young painting student determined not to marry. Part Two sees the Great War break out and Mrs. Ramsey’s death, and Part Three finds the Ramsays and some of their guests returning to the Isle and sailing for the Lighthouse.

Talland House tells Lily’s story outside the pages; Humm imagines her role and gives us Briscoe’s perspective. Humm introduces us to Lily the student, the painter, the friend, the lover, the daughter grieving her mother’s death and finally the detective trying to solve the mystery of Mrs. Ramsay’s death. Talland House doesn’t just fill in the gaps; it tells a new story in the context of one that is likely familiar, giving the reader a more complete frame of reference and deeper understanding of the characters. It is almost like joining new friends on a vacation and sharing a vacation home. You will know your friends differently after sharing a home; you will know Lily Briscoe and Virginia Woolf differently after reading Talland House.

I am a volume reader, closing one book and opening the next in the same breath. Talland House slowed me down, pushed me to match the pace of the novel and to savor the writing. Maggie Humm is Emeritus Professor at the Univeresity of East London in the UK, and a respected Virginia Woolf scholar. Her talent for mixing academic knowledge with compelling historical fiction is impressive.

A picture of Talland House from the author’s website.
Image result for talland house
And an image from the New York Times Article In Search of Virginia Woolf’s Lost Eden in Cornwall by Ratha Tep 2.26.2018

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Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

friends and strangers.jpg

I’ve been a J. Courtney Sullivan junkie since Commencement, savoring each new novel as soon as it is published. At the top of my curated “vacation reads” stack this August was her newest novel, Friends and Strangers, which coincidentally was a Jenna Bush Hagar Read With Jenna pick. I happened upon an Instagram Live with the author and Jenna and was absolutely wowed; I could not wait to read this book.

I’ve read several novels in the “domestic fiction” genre this year, many of which include both race and privilege as part of the dynamic. The theme of privilege–both its price and its benefits–is explored throughout this novel and the reader might route for an outcome that is tied to what a prestigious education or the safety of family money can afford you. Race plays a role as well, in the relationship between Sam and the women she works with in the kitchen of her college to earn money toward tuition, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Elisabeth is a writer and new mom, recently relocated from Brooklyn to a small town in Western Massachusetts. She is an author and has a contract for another book as well as a new baby who is the fruit of several rounds of IVF. Like many moms, she loves her child but is tired and can seem to get nothing done in a day. Sam, a student at a women’s college, is hired as a part time nanny to care for Elisabeth’s son while she writes her next novel, the deadline quickly approaching. Sam is reliable, hard working, and a perfect remedy for Elisabeth’s to do list, if only Elizabeth could get to it. The two become close, which is what happens between a mom and the person who cares for her child. A nanny may be an employee, but when it comes to your children, most people want to be sure that relationship is good. If you are Elizabeth, you are a little lonely, having a hard time making new friends, and looking at Sam more like a girlfriend than an employee. To be fair, Sam has her blind spots as well, with the people she works with in the school’s kitchen and with her British boyfriend. He may have a cute accent but what a tool.

What makes this book a must read are the characters. They are authentic, I was immediately invested in them, and I wanted to get to know them. Sullivan is spot on with her details and her character development. Five stars folks. Grab a copy!

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A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America’s First All-Black High School Rowing Team by Arshay Cooper

A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team

My cousin rowed crew in college, and was completely changed by the experience. His mom would tell me about how hard he worked, and how tight his team was. I know sports and being part of a team can really be great for kids, and I have often wondered how crew is able accomplish that. I mean, I have never heard the story of a crew team that was terrible. Aside from a friend who rowed at Princeton, my cousin at Vassar, and The Boys in the Boat, my crew knowledge was minimal, and most definitely an over simplified and over generalized understanding. I was browsing for a new “listen” on Audible, and remembered hearing about A Most Beautiful Thing on one of the upcoming releases book webinars that filled my quarantine afternoons, so…download…play…and this is how I stumbled upon an incredibly moving and thought provoking memoir.

Arshay Cooper grew up on the West Side of Chicago, and sadly fit a grim stereotype living in a one bedroom apartment, with his three siblings, his mother, a recovering addict, and his abusive father who was often MIA. Arshay had to travel to school in a zig-zag route to avoid the different street corners run by gangs that would most certainly hurt or kill him if he walked that way. His dream was to become a chef, and to date a sweet girl named Grace, but his reality was just surviving the day. Leaving school one day, he noticed a boat in the cafeteria and a sign inviting students to join a newly forming crew team. He passed it by, but, after several days of passing, Arshay stopped to eat some of the free pizza and maybe check things out. That stop would change his life.

Arshay Cooper reads his own book and he is a brilliant narrator. I always always love when the author of a memoir reads their own work, especially when they have a voice I could listen to forever. Arshay’s telling this team’s story feels honest and authentic, and not exaggerated. Yes there is triumph and victory, but this is no Hallmark movie where the pieces are neatly placed to form a perfect picture. A couple of wealthy white people can show up at an inner city POC school and do, and they are able to fund whatever it takes to start the first all black high school crew team–a sport so often associated with wealthy Ivy League schools–but it won’t be enough. Some will give up because the workouts are too exhausting, some will be lured away by the money they can make selling drugs. Some parents do not trust the white coaches. Other students and other teams mock them, yet for those who stay with the team, this is a story of resilience, determination, discipline, friendship, earning respect, suffering heart ache, the power of believing in someone and the life-changing stalwartness of believing in yourself. Arshay Cooper is masterful in depicting the interactions, the conversations, and the events that moved him from underdog to victor.

A documentary of A Most Beautiful Thing was just recently released, and I will be watching. I hope you will listen to or read this book before you watch. This won’t be the only time you hear of Arshay Cooper, and this won’t be the only book telling his story, that I believe, but it is where you will want to meet him.

Arshay Cooper
http://www.arshaycooper.com

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Jackie and Maria by Gill Paul

Jackie and Maria: A Novel of Jackie Kennedy & Maria Callas by [Gill Paul]

Some days, a gossipy novel of a few well known historical personalities fits the bill for a summer read. Gill Paul gives us Jackie and Maria in parallel, tied together not by a couple of brief meetings, but by Aristotle Onassis, who draws their lives together until their cataclysmic overlap. Most of America knows who Jackie and Maria are, and we’ve heard the rumors that swirl about their glamorous but difficult personalities, their tragedies, and their fierce relationship with the press and the paparazzi, and their bitter rivalry, so when Paul imagines their inner thoughts and feelings, their conversations and their relationships, particularly with tycoon Onassis, it isn’t so much new information as it is a chance to re-experience history, and to be immersed in a fairy tale.

Paul introduces us to Jackie and Maria at the beginning of their public lives when Jackie meets and marries John Kennedy, and when Maria, married to her friend and business manager Battista meets Aristotle Onassis and begins a years long affair. Both women share a deep desire for children and both lose their newborns. They both despise the press and photographers, valuing privacy over fame, yet know how to use them to their advantage. And, both share an affair with Onassis.

Jackie and Maria was a quick read, and a novel I just could not put down. I was completely seduced by their personalities and their rivalry, delving in head first. This novel could be about two completely imagined women and would be juicy women’s fiction, but the readers’ knowledge of these ladies and their star studded supporting characters, makes Gill Paul’s novel all the better.

Thank you NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for my honest review.

Professional Reader

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A Royal Affair by Allison Montclair

A Royal Affair

One of my favorite genres is an historical fiction mystery with female leads, and it is even better around if the novel takes place around World War II.  A Royal Affair is the sophomore mystery for Allison Montclair, coming on the heels of The Right Sort of Man.  Our detectives, Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge have established The Right Sort of Marriage Bureau to help the lovelorn of post-war London find a spouse, with their commission payable upon marriage.  While this may be their intent, murder seems to regularly factor into business, and solving crimes seems to be what these ladies are most successful at accomplishing.  In A Royal Affair, the agency is employed to dig up some dirt on Queen to be Elizabeth’s intended, Phillip.  There is a rumor that Phillip is not the legitimate son of Alice and her Greek husband Christo, but rather of Christo’s brother Andrea, with whom Alice allegedly enjoyed a long love affair.  Mixed into the mystery are the challenges of our detective’s personal lives for a little more spice and intrigue.

If you like this genre of mystery, or perhaps are a fan of the Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear or the Maggie Hope Mysteries by Susan Elia MacNeal, you will want to give this series a try from book 1.  My one challenge in reading was that I had to pay very close attention to character names, and found myself flipping back to be sure I had the right person.  And that is quite doable for this Agatha Christie-esque read.

Thank you NetGalley for an Advanced Reader Copy of A Royal Affair in exchange for a fair review.

Professional Reader

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The Two Mrs. Carlyles by Suzanne Rindell

The Two Mrs. Carlyles - Kindle edition by Rindell, Suzanne ...

I love Suzanne Rindell’s writing, so I do not even need to read the flap to know I will want to read her latest book as soon as possible. The Two Mrs. Carlyles was excellent! Violet is a young orphan working as a cook in a house for dance girls. She survives by the skin of her teeth flying under the radar as much as possible and relying on an alliance with a couple of the “dancers.” When an earthquake hits, her employer and his mistress die, though the cause of death is hardly from a natural disaster. In fact, it is hardly natural at all. Violet and her friends Cora and Flossy realize there has been a murder, break into their employer’s safe and steal as much money as they can carry, and set out to begin again on their own. They plan to meet up near the Golden Gate Bridge in a year’s time. Violet finds a room in a boarding house and a job as a sales girl. She is eventually swept off her feet by the very wealthy widower Harry Carlyle. Harry’s first wife Madeline allegedly died in the earthquake, though the gossips say otherwise. Harry soon marries Violet. Her welcome to his mansion is anything but, with servants treating her coldly, particularly Miss Weber.

The Two Mrs. Carlyles reads like a modern day domestic thriller, and had me hooked from the start with great suspense. Rindell is a master at crafting a timeless story in an historical atmosphere. I was constantly tempted to trust her characters, though I deduced there were no reliable narrators and no one without an ulterior and self preserving motive. A thoroughly enjoyable page turner!

Professional Reader

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