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  • Writer's pictureFive Directions Press

Books We Loved, Apr. 2023

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

Ah, April. Easter, Passover—and, this year, Ramadan, too. Flowers blooming, temperatures warming, days lengthening: finally, it feels like spring. Even then, there’s time for a good book, and here are three: a rom com, a historical mystery, and a profound exploration of a family coping with loss. Surely one of them will appeal to you as you relax after that walk (or work) in the gardens.

Sarah Adams, When in Rome (Dell, 2022)

Amelia Rose is a world-famous singer who’s about had it with trying to maintain her perfect “pop princess” image. Drawing inspiration from her favorite movie, Roman Holiday (but without the nerve to actually get on a plane to Italy), she bails on a high-profile interview and takes off for the next-best thing—Rome, Kentucky.

When her car—one of the last vestiges of her life as a Normal Person—breaks down on his front lawn at the edge of town, local pie shop owner and country boy Noah Walker is kind enough to let her stay in his guest room overnight while they wait for a tow truck to the local mechanic in the morning. Noah makes no secret of the fact that this is a one-time favor he has no intention of repeating, but to Amelia, who’s used to having people fall all over themselves for her, his reluctance to strike up even a temporary friendship is a breath of fresh, and intriguing, air.

As it tends to go in sweet, small-town romances, circumstances (in the form of nosy townspeople and meddling sisters) do everything they can to foil Noah’s plan to be rid of Amelia as soon as possible. First, her car requires a part that will take several weeks to come in. Second, the only lodging in town—the bed and breakfast owned by Noah’s grandma’s best friend—is conveniently all booked up, without a room to spare. As the two are forced into close proximity for the foreseeable future, Amelia’s fascination with Noah’s lack of fascination with her grows into an undeniable attraction. And while Noah wears the hurt from his failed engagement to a city girl like a suit of armor, he can’t help but notice that Amelia seems to know exactly where the chinks are.

As she ingratiates herself into Noah’s family, his town, and his life, Amelia starts to wonder if she has any chance at leaving her celebrity life behind and creating a new one in Rome, and Noah wonders if he’s strong enough to let another woman blow through town with his heart in her suitcase.—CJH

C.S. Harris, Who Cries for the Lost (Berkley, 2023)

Fans of Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, know that the individual tales that form his saga combine complex, fast-paced, often political mysteries with a series of revelations about his family’s history that it would be churlish to reveal. All this takes place against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, mostly in Regency-era London with its vast social gap between the aristocratic rich and the starving, crime-ridden poor.

The eighteenth of Sebastian’s adventures, Who Cries for the Lost begins a few days before the Battle of Waterloo, a cataclysmic event—unknown to the characters, obviously—that will end Napoleon’s military ambitions once and for all. A mutilated body is fished out of the Thames River and taken to Paul Gibson—a friend of Sebastian’s who served as a surgeon during the Peninsular War—for an autopsy. When Paul’s lover identifies the victim as an aristocrat, the creaky wheels of the London policing system grind into gear. The Thames River Police may provide as much hope for justice as the costermongers and wherry boatmen of the city deserve, but a nobleman falls under the jurisdiction of Bow Street.

As the number of corpses rises and pressure from the Prince Regent in Carlton House intensifies, Sebastian must race to solve a series of baffling, seemingly disconnected murders before the outcry demanding a solution leads to the arrest and execution of his friends. Meanwhile, the country anxiously awaits reports from the Duke of Wellington’s army on the Continent, further stoking the tension, even as Sebastian confronts the reality of his nation’s past misdeeds during the war and wonders whether those atrocities explain the crimes being committed in the present.—CPL

Ann Korkeakivi, Shining Sea (Little Brown, 2016)

Following a three-year stint as prisoner of war, Michael Gannon, who is also a survivor of the Bataan Death March, is sent to a hospital in San Francisco to recover from his wounds. There he meets Barbara, a young volunteer. Once he is released, they marry, buy a house in LA, and start a family.

This is a scenario those of us with fathers who fought in WWII know well. It is the precursor to a period of expectation that has come to be known as the American Dream. But in the case of the Gannon family, the dream doesn’t get very far along before Michael, a doctor, has a heart attack and dies at age 43, leaving behind Barbara, the four kids they had in quick succession, and the one yet to be born. The stories in Shining Sea belong to them. It begins with Michael’s death in 1962 and ends more than a half century later.

Barbara does not have the luxury of grieving for long over the death of her husband. In only days she will give birth to her fifth child. The other four are grief-stricken themselves and acting out in different ways. She has no choice but to move forward by way of example. Shining Sea provides us with the opportunity to watch her kids grow up, to see how they cope in a time period that is familiar, at some level, to just about all of us. One sibling marries her drug-dealing loser boyfriend (who will eventually leave her with three kids) to keep him out of Vietnam. One goes to Vietnam. One loses his way after the suicide of his best friend, and in an effort to find himself in what is the longest and most wonderful chapter of the book, moves to Iona, a small island in the Inner Hebrides on the western coast of Scotland, and eventually takes a life-threatening (and life-changing) boat trip from Scotland to Ireland. One becomes a doctor like his dad. One, the youngest, who never got to meet her father but is impacted as much as the others by his heroism, travels to Africa to do good work on behalf of others.

The choices the children and Barbara herself make in Shining Sea are dictated as much by ongoing grief as they are by the times. The book moves its focus from one character to another. Besides the immediate family, it introduces Barbara’s sister and niece, her daughter’s children, one of whom she winds up raising, and Ronnie, the calm and helpful man she marries five years after Michael’s death. Shining Sea is expansive in its scope, true to the history of the times, and told with grace and insight. It is a beautiful book, the kind you can really settle into.—JS

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