Books We Loved, Aug. 2020
Updated: Aug 19
P.K. Adams, Midnight Fire (Iron Knight Press, 2020)
Although the sixteenth century attracts considerable attention among readers of historical fiction, few novels in English take place outside the axis of Borgia Italy, Medici France, and Tudor England. P.K. Adams’ Jagiellonian Mystery series is a welcome exception. Set at the glittering Italianate court of King Zygmunt I of Poland/Lithuania and his son, Zygmunt August, these novels map fictional plots onto real historical incidents to create fast-paced, fluid stories that are as much about the tensions of a culture in transition as what drives a person to commit murder.
In Midnight Fire, the heroine, Caterina Konarska (formerly Sanseverino) returns to Zygmunt’s court twenty-five years after the events of Silent Water, the first book in the series and a previous Books We Loved pick of mine. Caterina and her husband undertake the long journey from Italy in search of a cure for their young son, Giulio, who suffers from mysterious fevers that have stumped the doctors in Bari.
In Kraków Caterina discovers a court far different from the one she left a quarter-century before. The old king is dying; his wife, Bona Sforza of Milan and Bari, struggles to hold on to power; and their son, Zygmunt August, threatens to cause an international scandal by marrying his beautiful but disreputable Lithuanian mistress, Barbara Radziwiłł. Queen Bona offers Caterina a deal: persuade Zygmunt August to give up Barbara, and Bona will arrange an appointment for Giulio with Poland’s premier physician. Seeing no alternative, Caterina accepts. But as she sets off for Vilnius with her son, she has no idea of the danger she faces or the layers of treachery she will encounter in Zygmunt August’s Renaissance palace.
The link above leads to the print edition, which is already available. The e-book will be available for preorder in September and online in early October.—CPL
Emily Martin, Sunshield (Harper Voyager, 2020)
A frustrated prince out to make a name for himself, a mysterious young woman who goes by the name of the Sunshield Bandit, and a prisoner named Tamsin—Emily B. Martin lets us get to know each character in alternating POVs while keeping the eventual connections hidden. Martin makes you empathize with her characters, creating the rare plot-driven book where you feel like you’re following the travails of people who could be your friends.
The Sunshield Bandit is fiercely protective of her cobbled-together family, a group of escaped bond servants and slaves like herself. With her loyal coydog, Rat, and her friends, she subsists in the harsh desert from the gleanings of her stagecoach robberies. Tamsin has been thrown into a stone cell, had her tongue mutilated and her hair shorn, and is looking for a way to let rescuers know where she is.
Veran, the prince of the Silverwood Mountains working as a translator at a foreign court, seems to have fewer challenges than the other two, but he and his companions soon become the target of serious accusations. That’s when he takes the chance of reaching out to the Sunshield Bandit for help. Interview with the author at New Books in Fantasy and Adventure.—GM
Deb Olin Unferth, Barn 8 (Graywolf Press, 2020)
The Guardian said Barn 8 is “strange and brilliant.” I’d say, “lovable and imperfect.” Personally, I felt relief to be a vegan while reading this quirky tale of the mass liberation of commercially bred layer hens who produce millions of eggs for American breakfasts, brunches, and delectable desserts, not to mention contributions to the nation’s economy.
Their freedom is the brainchild of Janey Flores, a naïve Brooklynite who becomes an unlikely egg auditor in Iowa. She masterminds an undercover action that is flubbed by a volunteer army of social misfits and fringe politicos who steal and relocate tens of thousands of chickens in a night’s work.
The hens’ plight is interwoven with how Janey mourns her mother’s death. Oliva Flores had been a free spirit, able to leave Iowa and bad decisions, whereas Janey smolders and is stuck. Olivia once had been the beloved babysitter of Cleveland who hires Janey and becomes Janey’s collaborator in the hen caper. Like the activist protesters in Richard Powers’ Overstory who are out to save the redwood trees, Janey’s crew has imperfect people who are variously driven to this one action.
I loved Barn 8 most for Janey, who bifurcates her sense of self into the old Janey and the new Janey during the torturous period of coming to terms with her mother’s death. Hers is a poignant struggle for identity concretized in the crazed plan to free hundreds of thousands of hens simultaneously in a single night.
Attached as I was to Janey and her issues, I felt she was abandoned, even sacrificed, for lesser characters and the plot. The lives and activities of hens and their search for freedom begin to dominate the story as reported by marginal, lonely workers trapped in meaningless jobs. In the end, we learn that little good will come of Janey’s action except for a few random hens who find freedom, survive, and flourish in an area long contaminated by industrial waste. Maybe that is the moral of the tale. Considering our current state of affairs and the urgent sacrifices required to save the planet that are not happening, many people will be lost. There is a sense at the end that despite life being pushed to the brink of extinction, some people, like the hens who themselves are stalwart descendants of the dinosaurs, will manage to flourish.—AA
Heather Webber, Truly, Madly (Griffin, 2010)
At first glance, the Lucy Valentine books tick all the “cozy mystery” boxes—a close-knit, picturesque setting; an eccentric cast of characters; a quirky heroine who can see things the local police can’t; and a love interest whose involvement in the investigation process and the heroine could be construed as a real conflict of interest.
But dig a little deeper, and while these stories will still definitely appeal to the cozy mystery lover, you'll find some key differences. First, the “picturesque setting” is a carriage house on Lucy’s grandmother’s sprawling property smack in the middle of Boston. Our quirky heroine can quite literally “see” things the police can’t: she’s psychic, the daughter of a man who's made millions by turning his own gift of seeing auras into a successful matchmaking business. Our eccentric cast of characters stars a tenacious reporter intent on figuring out the secrets about Lucy and her family, and our love interest is a private investigator with a heart problem that could kill him at any moment.
But just in case you were worried that the formula strays too far from the tried and true, there’s a cat. His name is Grendel, he has three legs, and he might be my favorite character in the entire series. (A dog joins the party in book 3, if that's your thing.)
There are five books and a novella in the series, and I read the first three over a long weekend at the beach. These are quick reads and a lot of fun.—CJH