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Weekend reads, or hunkering down for winter

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We had our first snow earlier this week; for us, it was two days, so heavy that school was cancelled. Unabridged Kid enjoyed himself and had a wildlife cafe for a bit.

Winter is my least favorite season so I'm trying to lean into the hygge by getting cozy when possible: fancy chocolates on chilly nights; cuddling the new kittens, Dash and Lilly; pretty decorations; and of course, books!

This weekend I'll be finishing up three reads for the Historical Novel Society (reviews to come in the spring issue of the magazine): Brett Cogburn's Gunpowder Express; Leanna Renee Hieber's A Sanctuary of Spirits; and Sarah-Jane Stratford's Red Letter Days.

I'm two books short of completing Read Harder 2019 and I am determined to crush it, although I suspect I'll be wrapping up at 11:57 on the 31st. I'm pulling together my top 10 reads for 2019 and it is a very hard list to assemble -- there were SO. MANY standout reads this year.

What are you reading this weekend?

The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott

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Was it so wrong to feel that she had been treated unfairly? That she'd been judged and damned and had not had the right to defend herself?

I stayed up until 1am to finish this novel, set in 1921, following a veteran and a widow of World War I. It had shades of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, too: a vague menace stalking our main characters, who were trying to find peace in a Europe looking to neatly memorialize what had happened.

The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott
William Morrow Paperbacks, 2019
Review copy from publisher for blog tour
Historical Fiction reading challenge

I've mostly given up novels set in eitherWorld War I or World War II; I'd read so many that I was feeling like I was getting the same thing over and over. This is Caroline Scott's debut novel, and she manages to not only create a story with the hold-your-breath tension of a domestic thriller, but she also brilliantly (tearfully) evokes the terror and horror of trench combat.

Edie's husband Fran…

The Art of Escapism Cooking by Mandy Lee

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Look, the only thing I'd like to cook at seven in the morning -- as I lie in bed with residual resentments from the day before and looming despair about the day ahead --is the people who say they love cooking breakfast. Who are these people? I imagine their breakfasts taste like denial buttered up with overcompensating enthusiasm.

Cookbooks are so much more than lists of recipes anymore. Some are really just about the pretty pictures or the personality of their author. Many are attempts to catch a popular trend, usually of the 'diet' variety.

Mandy Lee's cookbook might have mouthwatering pictures and a strong sense of her acerbic personality, but it's also a travel memoir, a biography, a Dear John; or, as the subtitle succinctly summarizes: a survival story.

I'm not sure I've ever really found myself thinking about how well a cookbook meets a political moment, however, until this one. (Which is a shame, because food is so much a part of culture, identit…

National Geographic's Visual Galaxy

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Our burning desire to take those first wobbly steps is rooted in our need to go see for ourselves, to taste and touch the world around us. We learn by exploring., from the Foreword by Col. Chris Hadfield

Of the million reasons I love being a parent to Unabridged Kid, one of the biggies is his hunger to know and learn. Seeing his joy, his awe, and his delight as he discovers something about the world around him is a pleasure I can barely express. Which is why I am so loving these gorgeous coffee table books from National Geographic.

Visual Galaxy
National Geographic, 2019
Source from the publisher for blog tour

Earlier this year I gushed about my sentimental attachment to National Geographic; I'm grateful that they are still sharing the beauty and mystery of our world and beyond.

The Foreword from Col. Chris Hadfield is a short love letter to everyone inspired by the sky and what is just past what we can see; I'm a Hadfield fan already but his brief introduction was genuine, a…

The Highlander's Christmas Bride by Vanessa Kelly

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"Don't think too long, because you're not that charming," Nick said. "She just might choose a nunnery, after all."

Despite my love of romances, I've somehow never gotten onto the Christmas romance train, which is odd because I do love Christmas movies (although I am firmly against Love Actually as either a sentimental holiday tradition or a movie to be liked; but I also believe both Die Hard and Bridget Jones's Diary are Christmas movies so take what you will from this.)

All that to say: Vanessa Kelly's newest has me thinking I need to do some Christmas-themed romance deep diving immediately.

The Highlander's Christmas Bride by Vanessa Kelly
Zebra Books, 2019
Copy from the author for blog tour
Historical Fiction reading challenge

While the plot is familiar -- seemingly-doomed-to-spinsterhood heroine meets brawny bachelor; both smother their interest in the other; random occurrence forces them to consider marriage to save reputations -- Kelly t…

Weekend Reads, or readathon-ing it...

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Busy weekends upon us, including this one. School open houses, playdates, and birthday parties. Spending time outside, enjoying New England fall when it's not an icy, rainy deluge.

But Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon is tomorrow, and as always, I've signed up in hopes of getting some good reading in. I've a string of books more than half read, and I'd love to finish them during the readathon.

I'm hoping I'll finish up Tarot for Troubled Times, which has given me so much to chew over and freshened up my tarot practice; as well as the absolutely emotionally gripping This Is How You Lose the Time War, which I'm both listening to and reading. It's deeply romantic and wonderfully fantastic, and the language is so good that after I hear the amazing audiobook readers do a chapter or two, I go back and read them to savor. And to my surprise, I'm going to be reading Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet. I&#…

Chilling Effecty by Valerie Valdes

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Before she could shoot, a familiar voice boomed from the loudspeakers. "Attend me, worthless muck-eaters. I have come to your inferior outpost to apprehend the human captain Eva the Innocent!"

I erroneously described this as Firefly with a lesbian Mal; but I was only wrong about our main character's sexual identity (pansexual, maybe?). Otherwise, this marvelously fun comedic sci fi takes the best part of shows like Firefly, with a charming crew and a "curmudgeonly" "anti-hero" captain (who is both adorable and heroic), and injects welcome imagination into the ragtag-posse-take-on-enormous-challenges plot line.

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
Harper Voyager, 2019
Copy from publisher for blog tour

Captain Eva Innocente loves her ship, La Sirena Negra, and her work: running cargo and passengers around the universe. The book opens with Eva struggling to recapture her most recent order -- a passel of psychic cats -- and so, by page 3, I was literally enam…

The First Lady and the Rebel by Susan Higginbotham

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"But you were right, in one respect. Those bullets made us what we are."

Susan Higginbotham's newest novel takes the familiar Civil War story of brother-versus-brother and offers a fresh, sad version: sisters Mary and Emily Todd. Mary Todd would marry Abraham Lincoln while Emily would marry Hardin Helm, a devoted Confederate who would eventually become a General in the Confederate Army.

The First Lady and the Rebel by Susan Higginbotham
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019
Source from publisher on behalf of blog tour
Reading Challenge: Historical Fiction

From a Kentucky slaveholding family, the Todd siblings were bound to be torn apart by the Civil War, but moreso when headstrong Mary sets her sights on the humble Abraham Lincoln and Emily on dashing Hardin Helm. Higginbotham shares both stories with a tender sympathy, even with both women behave in petty or cruel ways. Initially both families were friendly, with admiration between Abraham Lincoln and Hardin Helm, until war fo…

Interview with Susan Higginbotham

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I am so excited to share my interview with novelist Susan Higginbotham. Although she might be most well known for her novels set in the UK, she's started exploring 19th-century America in her more recent books, including her newest, The First Lady and the Rebel. It's the gripping story of Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and her beloved sister Emily, as they find themselves at the opposite ends of the Civil War. My review comes on Thursday but prepare for major squees. I loved this book!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

Because I've been writing since I was a child, I can't remember, but I can tell you that it likely had something to do with cats. My first attempt at a historical novel, however, was when I was in junior high and started to write a novel about a family of orphans living through the Blitz. (Clearly, given the current vogue for World War II novels, I was way ahead of my time.) It didn't have much plot, as I recall,…

Farewell My Life by Cynthia Sally Haggard

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The war had been over for less than four years, and Berlin was full of amputees begging on the streets, of gaunt young men startling at the slightest thing.

This is a splashy, dramatic historical novel that reads like a mix of penny dreadfuls, 1980s Joan Collins romances, and any number of thrillers. Mixing a tumultuous, intriguing setting -- Europe in 1921 and 1922, then a jump to 1938 -- with a dysfunctional family saga, this book is like a froofy cocktail in a bubble bath: a little excessive but oh-so good.

Farewell My Life by Cynthia Sally Haggard
Self Published, 2019
Copy provided by author as part of blog tour
Read Harder 2019

What I so appreciated and enjoyed in this book was the mix of expected and surprising in the story. I've read many pre-war historical novels and any number of gifted-heroine-exposed-to-the-world coming-of-age stories, but Haggard picked unique details that made this story new. The heroine at the heart of this novel is Grace, an Italian-American woman w…

The Only Skill That Matters by Jonathan Levi

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But the truth is that while it's great to have enthusiasm for learning, enthusiasm without planning cna do more harm than good.

The subtitle of this book -- "The proven methodology to read faster, remember more, and become a superlearner" -- immediately attracted me. I usually only read one or two nonfiction books in a year but wish I read more, especially for personal and professional development. Never mind my perpetual yearning to learn another language or be more adept at some of my woo hobbies.

The Only Skill That Matters by Jonathan Levi
Lioncrest Publishing, 2019
Source via publisher, thanks to TLC Book Tours

I was unfamiliar with Levi and his SuperLearner empire, but found his book to be easy to engage with and understand. At the center of this book is a particular practice of priming one's self for learning and a particular way of studying; and honestly, I wish I had had this book when I was in college. I managed to do well in high school without learning ho…

National Geographic's Almanac 2020

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Breaking bread is the universal bonding mechanism of humanity. At a table, over food, one has no enemies.

National Geographic magazine is a sentimental staple in my life: I grew up on old issues given to me by neighbors and treasured the subscriptions I got for Christmas. I've given up my paper magazines in the name of conservation but am still drawn to that familiar yellow border and the images and knowledge within.

Almanac 2020 by National Geographic
National Geographic, 2019
Copy provided by publisher for TLC Book Tours

I hadn't had an opportunity to pour over any of NatGeo's annual almanacs until offered one for review, and it's an ultra dose of everything the magazine does well, broken up into small, easily consumed tidbits. It's perfect for trivia nerds and kids: most of the topics are covered in two pages or less, broken up with NatGeo's trademark stunning photography or infographics and timelines for context.

Between us, I'm not precisely sure what ma…

Cover Reveal: Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

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I loooooooooooooooooooooooove Nancy Bilyeau's books (here's my review of her most recent, The Blue, which was fascinating!) and I'm so excited she has another book coming out in 2020.

Introducing...



Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau Publication Date: January 16, 2020 Endeavor Quill
Genre: Historical Fiction



The year is 1911 when twenty-year-old heiress Peggy Batternberg is invited to spend the summer in America’s Playground.

But the invitation to Coney Island is unwelcome. Despite hailing from one of America’s richest families, Peggy would much rather spend the summer at the Moonrise Bookstore where she works voluntarily, than keeping up appearances with Brooklyn socialites and her snobbish, controlling family.

But soon it transpires that the hedonism of Coney Island affords Peggy more of the freedom she has been longing for. For one, she finds herself in love with a troubled pier-side artist of humble means, whom the Batternberg patriarchs would surely disapprove of.

Disapprove …

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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Above them bright satellites transited in the darkening sky and the last hawks were returning to the rest of their nests and around them passersby did not pause to look at this old woman in her black robe or this old man with his stubble.

I was interested in the sci-fi element of this novel -- the magical doors -- and the political implications of it -- migration, borders, identity -- but what hooked me by the heart and left me in tears by the end was the beautiful, complicated, painful, oh-so-realistic relationship of Nadia and Saeed.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Penguin Random House Audio, 2017
Copy via the library

Hamid reads his own book in audio, and it was a delightful listen. The philosophical musings felt more organic and natural -- like being in Nadia's mind or Saeed's thoughts -- than when I read them, and the inevitability of Nadia and Saeed -- growing together, growing apart -- felt so much more poignant with someone telling me about them.

Nadia and Saeed meet in uni…

Interview with author Cynthia Ripley Miller

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I'm excited to share my interview with author Cynthia Ripley Miller; I've just started her newest book, The Quest for the Crown of Thorns, a historical novel that is giving me The DaVinci Code-meets-Outlander vibes. Set in 5th century Rome, it's a romantic thriller adventure with fascinating historical elements that have me hooked. If you're intrigued, check out the interview and enter the giveaway at the end of this post.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I prefer writing in the late morning continuing into the early evening. Depending on how much time I have, I'll take a break and step away from it for some fresh air, and then return a little later. When I walk, I listen to music. Often, the words or melody will trigger ideas that I may incorporate into my stories. I'll often write after the dinner hour as well.

Regarding rituals, in my office, I have pictures that represent how I imagine my settings and characters to look. I have talismans that ha…