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Five Favorite British Mystery Series (by Women Writers)



As you may realize by now, I start to hyperventilate if I don’t have something to read.  I feel aimless and lost, and I wander around the house  But I also know that not every book can be the latest tour-de-force that has taken the world by storm. That’s one reason I love mysteries. They’re usually relatively short, easy reads (for when tackling that 800 page monster just seems too daunting), they’re usually reasonably smart, and most importantly, they come in series. I’ve mentioned my love of series before. A series means that there’s always (often) another book to pick up, that you’re reasonably likely to enjoy reading, before you start on the hyperventilating. I’m always excited when I find a new mystery series I like, because it gives me backup books for days. Everyone knows about Agatha Christie (and if you haven’t, she wrote 80 books! That should keep you busy for quite some time), but here are five other great mystery series to check out.

(These all happen to be by women writers. I didn’t set out to make this one of those “women writers” list, but when I was jotting down my favorite mystery writers, I came up with a bunch of women writers. So there you have it.)

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3 Nonfiction Books I Liked More Than I Expected To


I’ve mentioned before that I’m an eager reader, but when it comes to how I spend my precious reading time, my tastes tend towards the fiction end of the spectrum (though I generally make exceptions for Bill Bryson). Occasionally, I will pick up a nonfiction book just to get with the zeitgeist, and understand what all those Slate Articles and Facebook statuses are about, even if I’d rather be reading P.D. James. Here are three that I found worth my time.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

The Expectation: Sandberg is the COO of a major Internet Company – what does SHE know about my struggles as a working mother? And what if I don’t want to lean in? I thought this would read as out of touch and entitled, the corporate version of GOOP, and many blog posts and articles backed up this expectation.

The Reality: Sandberg totally acknowledges all of the naysayers – she knows that she was lucky in her mentors and her opportunities, though her luck was augmented by hard work and seizing the opportunities that came along. Her anecdotes deal with the struggles faced by working women who are invested in both their families and careers – she doesn’t get into the nitty gritty of childcare, but who cares? It’s neither helpful nor interesting to me to know that my friend L, who lives in Texas, has a full-time nanny, but M., in New Hampshire uses a home-based daycare. We all have to work out our own child care situations. She recognizes that many women do want to make the choice to lean out, but she wants to ensure that it’s a choice, and not something women feel like they need to do. There’s a call to make structural changes in the workplace, but also some practical, real world tips on negotiating and being assertive, even for the peons, like me. I ended up wishing I could have lunch with Sandberg and call her up to seek advice every time I have to make a decision at work.

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman

The Expectation: We’ve all heard it all about French women – they’re chicer than we are, thinner than we are, better cooks than
we are, sexier than we are – now they’re better mothers, too. I’ve spent a lot of time in France and do appreciate many aspects of French culture (including the absolutely darling children’s clothes), but I was prepared to be deeply annoyed by French exceptionalism in this book.

The Reality: There was some French exceptionalism, I’m not going to lie, but the book read as a little more “anthropological study” and and a little less “how to” guide than I expected. There were some fascinating descriptions of the French approach to education (based on the 18th century philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for more on Rousseau and how that worked in practice, I’d also recommend reading How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate.) There’s also an in-depth look at the French child-care system (forget what I said above about not being interested in other people’s child care arrangements!) which reinforced some of my own experiences (we love day care). And finally, while all of the descriptions weren’t things I’d want to adopt into my family (I don’t really think babies SHOULD be sleeping through the night at 3 weeks old), or can’t (my kids will not adapt to a 4-times-a-day eating plan), there are some concrete tips that make our family life more pleasant (broccoli as a first course – GENIUS). It’s definitely worth a read.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

The Expectation: I didn’t have much of an expectation on this one. I never read Dear Sugar and never read Rumpus. I had heard about Cheryl Strayed, but only because my book club wanted to read her best selling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage), and I was not interested at all. I mean, the only thing more boring than actually hiking is reading about it. (Besides, I already read that book. When Bill Bryson wrote it.) This was available through my library’s e-media portal, and since I’m a fan of Dan Savage and a longtime Dear Abby reader, I figured, why not?

The Reality: I loved this book. It was beautiful. It was advice, sure, but it was advice that read like my favorite short stories. Searing and heartfelt and full of pain and so much love for the advice seekers. It was life-affirming. I sobbed through most of the book and promptly ordered a copy for a friend of mine who was going through a difficult time in her life. And then, a newfound Strayed devotee, I ordered a copy of Wild (though I admit that I haven’t read it yet. There are multiple P.D. James books on my Kindle!)

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Summer Reading List

Summer Reading List

The Nuni has just joined the summer reading program at the library, and she is SUPER excited.  This is the first summer she can really read, and she is taking all sorts of delight in sitting down with a huge stack of books and racing through them (she is naturally picking the easiest of her easy readers), all the while exclaiming in a loud voice, “I LOVE READING.”   This whole process of course leads to the ultimate goal- she can write the titles down on her list, take it to the library and get a sticker.

It’s a preliminary step in what I hope will be a lifetime love of reading.  And summer seems like the perfect time to embark on a reading program for adults as well.  My perfect summer involves long hours by the beach or the pool or on an adirondack chair out on the porch with my nose in a good book.  Not just any book makes for good summer reading.  Summer reading should be gripping, enjoyable, light.  This is not the season for tackling Bleak House, or brushing up your knowledge of Russian agricultural theory.  The below list includes some  of my favorite fun books that are perfect for summer reading.

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Chapter Book Series for Young Girls

Chapter Books

The Nuni, lucky child that she is, gets read to every night before bed.  We started with board books, then moved on to picture books. Right around the time she was three, I decided that if I had to continue reading Fancy Nancy every night, I might actually die of boredom. At around the same time, the Nuni was commuting with me to preschool for over two hours a day, and had grown tired of Broadway musicals. I turned to chapter books – a great love of mine in both childhood and adulthood. We listened to audiobooks in the car, and read a chapter (or half a chapter) at bedtime. Picture books are wonderful, but chapter books are where the love of literature is really born. These are some of our favorite series to listen to and read together. Since the Nuni is a girly girly girl, she likes hearing stories about girls, and all of these feature strong, independent and interesting girls to draw in my fearless daughter.  (NOTE:  Links are Affiliate links which means I may get about 4 cents from Amazon if you click on them.  You know the drill)

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Eight Great Board Books to Read with your Child

Board Books
As part of my Lenten obligation to give up stuff (I’m going through our house and trying to reduce our load of things in an effort to focus more on what’s important), I’ve been doing a sweep of bookshelves. Books are particularly hard for me to cull — I am a bibliophile and a re-reader. I also grew up with two professors of English, and I want my bookshelves to be the resource for my kids that my parents’ bookshelves were for me. Still, we had plenty of books that will never be re-read (and some that were never read in the first place — ahem, I’m looking at you, college Sociology texts!) and that I have no need to pass on to my kids. So, four banker’s boxes later, out they go. Then I tried to do the same with the Nuni’s bookshelves, and this proved even more difficult. I took the opportunity to adios a few books I considered twaddle to begin with (too many princess books), and ones that neither the Nuni nor I particularly liked (children’s Bible stories are not a fave in our house. My favorite nativity story has the actual text from Luke).

The plus side of this exercise is that I was able to rediscover some of my favorite books from her babyhood, that were read over and over again and beloved by both mother and child. Right now most of our reading together time is spent on chapter books (right now we’re enjoying The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton), and her solo reading time is spent on early readers, like Mo Willems’ excellent Elephant and Piggie Series. So it was fun to revisit these old board books (from the time when chewing was a very real possibility) that I’m looking forward to reading to Roo.

Here’s a list of my favorites:

Moo Baa La La La by Sandra Boynton

A twist on your classic “animal noises” book, this one never failed to elicit a toddler laugh. All Boynton’s books are silly and delightful, but this one, with its simple words and lilting rhythms, is my favorite.

Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlburg

This is a wonderful “I spy” book containing multiple nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters. Babies will love the rhythms and rhymes (Cinderella on the Stairs I spy the Three Bears!) and toddlers love finding the hidden characters in the detailed illustrations. This was one of my favorites from childhood, and I’ve loved sharing it with my child, too.

ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book by Allison Jay

There are a million and twelve ABC books out there, but this one is just BEAUTIFUL. The words are simple (A is for apple, B is for Balloon, etc.) but the illustrations, done in Jay’s signature folk art style, are gorgeous and intricate. Each page is its own “I spy” game, with B standing not only for balloon, but also for beehive, butterfly, and ball (and can you see the C cows?) The pictures also tell a charming story, making this a wonderful book for children to look at on their own, as well.

Dr. Seuss’s ABC

While we’re on the subject of ABCs, I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out Dr. Seuss’s wonderful version. There’s a reason the good doctor is beloved, and this book, full of bouncing rhythms, nonsense words, and a secret lesson in phonics, pretty much sums it up.

I Love You Stinky Face by Lisa McCourt and Cyd Moore

I was given this as a gift at my baby shower with the Nuni, and I love the message (mothers give unconditional love) and the execution (EVEN if you’re a green alien who eats bugs instead of peanut butter). My girlie girl found it hilarious, and I’m sure this little boy will be just as tickled.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

Every parent of a girl must own this princess tale, in which the princess in question exhibits bravery and a can-do attitude and demands respect in return. Every parent of a little boy should read it too — we could all stand to benefit from the lessons about gratitude and what’s important (hint: it’s not wearing a nice dress).

First Book of Sushi by Amy Wilson Sanger

One of my girlfriends gave this to me before I was even pregnant with the Nuni, and it quickly became a fast favorite. How could I not love this whole series (which includes Yum Yum Dim Sum and Hola, Jalapeno!)? The brightly colored collage pictures are fun, here, and the rhythms are addictive (Miso in my sippy cup, tofu in my bowl. Crab and avocado fill my California roll). What a great way to introduce tiny kids to a variety of foods!

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

THE classic baby book. But classic for good reason. Nothing beats the soothing rhythms of Good Night Moon for talking a child down to sleep. You’ll read it so many times you’ll have it memorized, which comes in handy when you’re driving and trying to calm an excited child in the car seat behind you. Baby hypnosis of the best kind.

My Father’s Daughter


My father did not do many of the things dads do. He did not tinker with tools, or fish, or play golf. He did not manage the household finances, or take me to baseball games, or mow the lawn. My dad did crossword puzzles. He read mystery novels, and most of all, he planned vacations.

My dad was a great traveller, which is a particular accomplishment for someone who had the attachment to comfort that he did. For someone who thought camping was a hotel room without a coffee maker, he managed to cover quite a bit of the world (at least, if you saw the world in the way an Edwardian nobleman around 1906 did, which is to say, outposts of the British empire, Europe, and bits of North Africa.) He sailed the Norwegian fjords, saw the Egyptian pyramids, visited glaciers in both Alaska and Switzerland, sunned on the French Riviera, did his Christmas shopping in New York, and climbed the Acropolis. Despite all these adventures, my dad’s most favorite vacations were the months he spent, nearly every summer, renting an apartment in Paris and pretending he lived there.

Every time he was home, he spent all of his time planning the next vacation, whether it was 1 months away or 11. (Never more than 11, natch). He obsessively researched hotels, planned packing systems, and booked airline tickets (and upgrades) well in advance. My mother kept pretty much every other part of our household spinning, but when it came to vacations, my dad was king

This summer we’re planning a trip, to London and Paris, a trip I’ve dubbed the “Mike Wheeler Memorial Tour.” The trip is happening in part to take a piece of my dad with us — he would want to spend eternity in Paris; that is certain. It’s also happening because my father, true to form, had already bought plane tickets and booked a Parisian flat for him and my mother, and those things aren’t refundable.

(London is on the itinerary because Ken and I met there and fell in love there, so we stop in whenever we can. It’s also less expensive to fly to London and take the Eurostar to Paris, especially since Nuni now travels on the trains but not the planes for free.)

Of course, the minute Ken confirmed his work schedule I started PLANNING. I am, after all, my father’s daughter. I began with the planes and trains, then booked the London hotel (we’re staying in the flat in Paris), and moved on to dinner reservations for London (you can use opentable!) and a rough sketch of things to do in London and Paris (both are cities in which I’ve spent a lot of time, but there are always new things to discover).

Once the things are booked that I can book, then I start in on the books. After all, anticipating a vacation significantly contributes to your enjoyment of said vacation, and I must get in the mood. In addition to guidebooks (my favorites are always the Dorling-Kindersley Eyewitness Guides) I start inhaling, essays, fiction, nonfiction, food books and travel memoirs. By the time I actually leave home, I both feel like I’ve been on vacation for a month already and am stuck reading the Twilight books while I’m actually ON vacation.

That said, if you’re planning a trip to either London or Paris, here are some of my favorite related books:


London Travel Guides) The best guidebook series for practical information plus historical background

Bleak House
OK, it’s very long. But very atmospheric. A real classic of Victorian literature, and one of my dad’s favorites.

The Camomile Lawn
Set partly in a country house, this wonderful novel really captures life in London during WWII.

God Is an Englishman
Not all about London, per se, but embodies the Victorian ethos that you still see traces of all over the city.

Notes from a Small Island
This book is about England as a whole, but Bryson, with his trademark wit, manages to lovingly eviscerate all of English culture. Also worth reading is his biography of Shakespeare.

London: The Biography A literary biography and semi-chronological history that really unpacks London from its earliest days.


Paris (Eyewitness Travel Guides)

Paris to the Moon A series of really lovely essays that describe the experiences of an American in Paris.

My Life in France One of my favorite books of all time. You can actually hear Julia Child’s voice, and her enthusiasm for all things, but especially for Paris, rings through loud and clear.

The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious – and Perplexing – City Wit and recipes from the witty and urbane David Lebovitz (it is also entirely worthwhile to check out his blog.) The often perplexing intricacies of French culture, or why your favorite pastry shop will never be open when you visit.

A Moveable Feast Jazz Age Paris, Gertrude Stein. This may be THE book about Paris. And maybe my dad’s favorite book ever. I think I’ll reread it in his memory.