Books We Loved, Apr. 2021
Updated: May 14
Anne Louise Bannon, Death of the Zanjero
(Healcroft House, 2018)
It’s 1870, and Maddie Wilcox, a young widow supporting herself by running the family vineyard, just wants to ensure she has water for her household and her grapes. She lives in Los Angeles, California—at that time not much more than a village—and irrigation means the difference between success and starvation.
So when the local zanjero (water supervisor) turns up dead one morning in Maddie’s ditch, she gets caught up in discovering what happened. In fact, she gets into a contest with the local marshal, who’s all too willing to settle on the first suspect to cross his path. But it soon becomes clear that almost everyone in town has a reason to murder the zanjero, including Maddie herself.
The highlight of this series is Maddie, a gutsy woman who turns out to have skills in addition to managing her vineyard. But the other characters also emerge in swiftly drawn, complex portrayals that make the series a pleasure to read. And the solution to the murder, when Maddie at last discovers it, emerges from a series of skillful misdirections yet makes perfect sense. I can’t wait to dig into Death of the Marshal, where Maddie’s grouchy opponent meets his end. And there’s a third book after that, with more to come.—CPL
Amy Sue Nathan, Left to Chance (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2017)
The complexities of female friendship and the scars our past can leave are explored in this novel by Amy Sue Nathan. Teddi, a famous photographer, returns to her hometown to photograph the second wedding of her late best friend’s husband. Teddi hasn’t been back since she ran out of Celia’s funeral, a fact nobody in town is ready to let her forget—especially Beck, Celia’s brother and, at least until the funeral and her escape to San Francisco, the love of Teddi’s life.
But Teddi is determined to leave the past where it lies, except where Celia’s daughter Shay is concerned. A budding artist struggling with school bullies and her father’s remarriage to someone other than her mother, Shay is the one remaining tie to the town, and the people, Teddi never wanted to show her face in front of again. But Shay is also the one thing that just might keep Teddi from leaving again.
As she comes to terms with how her choices have affected those closest to her and struggles to balance the life she lives against the one she wants, Teddi must not only learn how to say goodbye but how to stop being afraid of saying hello.—CJH
Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through
Sigrid Nunez, whose novel The Friend won the National Book Award in 2018, has done it again with her latest novel, What Are You Going Through. The plot of What Are You Going Through (a title rendered curiously rhetorical by its lack of a question mark) is rather simple: the narrator has a friend who is terminally ill. The friend has a little pill that she can take when she is ready to end things on her own terms. Thinking she will be ready in the near future, the friend invites the narrator to go off with her to an Airbnb and keep her company until the time is right.
You would think a novel where you don’t learn the narrator’s name and where she herself refers to the other characters as her ex, her friend, the landlord, the neighbor, etc., would lack intimacy. The truth is anything but. This is a deliciously intimate book. The narrator describes every person with whom she comes into contact, whether they are important to the story or not, with a precision that is both quiet and somehow electrifying. Who cares what their names are! We know them right through to their hearts by the time she is done with them. This is true even in the case of a cat she meets along the way. And her conversations with her ex, a man bent on sharing his belief that the world is coming to an end, are priceless.
What Are You Going Through is a fiercely intelligent, blissfully emotional read, impossible to put down. My response to having it end was the same as when I finished The Friend. As soon as I recovered from the impact of reading a story where grief and humor are so tightly woven together that you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, I ordered yet another Nunez title.—JS
Andrea Stewart, The Bone Shard Daughter
In a world of floating islands, various narrators try to achieve or avoid their destiny or understand the mysteries of their existence. There’s Lin, the emperor’s daughter, set against her foster brother by the manipulative emperor himself, who fosters the rivalry between them by bestowing keys as mark of his favor. The keys open various rooms that hold the secret to his power. The emperor’s most powerful tool is the bone shard magic that he uses to program constructs, assemblages of beasts that he builds, which then execute his commands. When the emperor begins to show Lin’s foster brother how to use the bone shards, Lin is determined to find out the secret as well and position herself to be the next emperor.
Then there’s Jovis, a talkative smuggler whose one aim in life is to find the woman he loves, who disappeared one day on a boat with blue sails. Jovis’s quest keeps getting sidelined, though, as he becomes more and more involved with the resistance movement against the emperor, led by the Shardless Few. The emperor’s constructs are animated with small pieces of bone harvested from children, which he engraves with magical commands. Once the bone shard is activated, life drains from the donor. The Shardless Few have managed to evade the emperor and hope to break his rule over the islands.
Other characters include a woman who gathers mangoes all day and has only dim memories of being brought to a remote island by a boat with blue sails. Who is she, and why is she there? Does she know anything about Jovis’s lost love?
We also meet the governor’s daughter, whose lover embroils her in the struggle of the Shardless. Will the governor’s daughter turn against her own father?
As the story progresses, the characters come together in surprising ways. New alliances are forged and secrets revealed.—GM