The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman
I was not expecting a novel about a widow with two young girls to be laugh-out-loud funny. Lillian’s husband died suddenly three years ago. She fell apart, but her sister Rachel helped pick up the pieces. Lillian is a textbook illustrator, and her daughters Annabel and Clare are now five and seven. A new work assignment has the whole family taking a gardening class, led by a Dutch master gardener. The class bonds over pizza and gardening, and a couple of romances have potential. Though conversations are very frank, especially when Lillian’s sister-in-law comes to visit, there are no sex scenes. The characterization is top notch and the witty dialogue, both spoken and internal, is great. It will not surprise the reader to learn that the author has three kids and several pets, as Annabel, Clare, and their new friend Bash often steal the scene. This first novel was a delight to read. More, please!
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Tristan Lyons recruits Boston linguist Melisande Stokes for a top secret government project, translating modern and ancient documents. Their research shows that magic did exist, but abruptly stopped in 1851. Mel gets absorbed into D.O.D.O. (so secretive that it’s months before she learns she works for the Department of Diachronic Operations) as the pair work with physicist Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca to build an ODEC. At first, the office memos and messages are just something to get through between Melisande’s diary and action scenes. As the pace picks up, the messages get funnier and wilder as the improbable becomes mundane, even as the acronyms pile up. The ODEC is a time travel machine that can only be operated by a witch, and the person sent through time by the witch arrives empty handed and naked. Melisande tries repeatedly to acquire a rare book to help fund their work, Tristan learns to fence, an Irish witch plots to stop the end of magic, Vikings plunder Wal-Mart, and Melisande gets stuck in Victorian London, close to the ending of magic. A complicated, mostly entertaining, and lengthy tale that blends technology, history, and fantasy, along with a good dose of humor.
Jackie’s Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family by Kathy McKeon
In 1964, Kathy Smith leaves a miserable job to become Jackie Kennedy’s personal assistant and substitute nanny. Kathy grew up in a large family in a three room cottage in rural Ireland, sharing a coat with her sister Briege. While money was short and the children started doing chores on the farm quite young, there was also time for fun and weekend dances. Her uncle Pat’s family sent hand-me-downs and food from New York, and bought tickets for Kathy and Briege to come to America, where Irish girls could easily find work. Kathy’s interview with “Madam” was basically meeting little John and watching his dog do tricks. Generous and very kind, Jackie Kennedy was also a demanding employer, wanting Kathy to help fill the lonely evenings after young Caroline and John were asleep, and often coming up with just one more errand at the end of the day. Well trained by the previous assistant, Kathy took care of Jackie’s wardrobe, especially packing and unpacking for her many trips, and spent lots of time with the family on Cape Cod, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Still a teenager, Kathy became lifelong friends with John, and was clearly devoted to the Kennedy family, mourning along with them when Bobby died. Full of humorous anecdotes, a wonderfully readable memoir of life with the Kennedys in good times and bad.
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
After a minor medical procedure intended to make Briddey Flannigan and her boyfriend Trent able to sense each other’s emotions, Briddey hears a man’s voice, and panics. She’s hearing the thoughts of C.B. Schwartz, a nerdy coworker at Commspan. C.B. tries to convince Briddey that she’s now telepathic, and that no one else must know. Trent wants help to develop a new phone app, while Briddey just wants some peace and quiet, unlikely given her overly intrusive Irish-American family and gossipy coworkers. Briddey’s young niece Maeve gets involved as C.B. teaches Briddey how to quiet her mind before Trent and their doctor find out what really happened. Fans of slapstick romantic comedy will enjoy this fast-paced romp, which skewers our society’s dependence on digital technology and avoidance of self-reflection and true intimacy. The author nicely contrasts internet dating sites with the simple pleasures of reading in a library surrounded by others, or taking a walk late at night.
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
I was charmed by this short and funny memoir by a copy editor at The New Yorker. Between explaining the eccentricities of spelling and grammar at The New Yorker and a chapter titled “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”, Norris entertains and educates. Gender in the English language, how to decide if commas in a sentence should stay, and an enlightening look at the history of compound words which may or may not be separated by a hyphen are a few of the topics covered. Anyone who has groaned at the sight of a sign boldly stating: “Buckle Up! Its the Law” will likely enjoy Norris’ personal and literary anecdotes; I certainly did.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Hope is a Norwegian American from Minnesota, daughter of a community college science teacher, who was expected to major in English at the University of Minnesota, but found her calling instead in science. She has been a scientist for over 20 years, and along with her lab manager Bill, has built and run laboratories in Georgia, Maryland, and Hawaii, as well as done fieldwork in Ireland, Norway, and many other places. Her field is geobiology, which seems to be a blend of geology, botany, and the environment. Her passion is for plants and trees, and her story is framed with descriptions of the life cycle of different kinds of plants. The themes of her story are cold, night, silence, sleeplessness, the joy of discovery, and the rewards of persistence and asking questions. Bill is a delightfully quirky, sarcastic character, and I’m glad to know they still work together. Hope struggles as a young woman in a sexist environment, and as one with a bipolar disorder. There is actually plenty of humor here, along with the evident joy she feels in a scientific life of research, discovery, and teaching. Her difficult journey to motherhood is also shared. I was fascinated by Hope’s well-publicized memoir, and found it a very quick and satisfying read.
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
The Invisible Library has a huge collection of rare books. Irene, the daughter of two librarians, is a junior librarian assigned to retrieve a unique version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales from an alternate version of London, along with her new apprentice, Kai. The London they’re visiting has magic, vampires, and steampunk elements. Unfortunately, the book has been stolen, and they need help from a handsome Londoner. Murder and mayhem ensue. The pacing is fast, there is humor and intrigue, an unexpected dragon, and possibly a romance in the sequel if Irene can get back to this London and keep the library’s big secrets. A fun fantasy adventure, with a sequel, The Masked City, being published in September. For readers of Diana Wynne Jones, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Patricia Wrede. This first novel is a June Library Reads selection.