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  • Writer's pictureFive Directions Press

Books We Loved, Aug. 2021

As we approach the last full month of summer (and where did those last two months go?), we still have time for long, lazy days of reading. So take refuge from the spiraling pandemic and settle down with one of these, personally selected by our Five Directions Press authors.

Matt Bell, Appleseed (Custom House, 2021)

Bell’s ambitious and original triptych of interlocking stories explores the human relationship with the wilderness through three timelines—set in the past, the near future, and the far future—after a cataclysmic human-made catastrophe.

In one time period, the late 1800s, a faun, Chapman, travels through the wilderness of Ohio, planting apple orchards with his human half-brother. Chapman’s apple orchards become the inspiration for the tall tale of Johnny Appleseed.

The second segment of the novel follows John Worth, a scientist who regrets his part in building the corporate empire that supplies a climate-change-battered world with genetically modified foods (including apple trees) and shelter in return for absolute power. John plots against the CEO, a childhood friend named Eury.

In the third part of the novel, something apparently has gone wrong—or right, depending on your perspective—either with Eury’s plan to tackle climate change through launching a swarm of nanobees into the stratosphere or with John’s intention to subvert her. The world is a frozen wasteland, apparently populated only by a cyborg creature.

The gorgeous writing and fraught symbolism will engage serious readers with a philosophical bent. Interview with the author at New Books in Fantasy and Adventure.—GM

Mary Martin Devlin, The La Motte Woman (Cuidono Press, 2021)

Jeanne de St.-Rémy has a grudge against the world. Born into the French royal family—if admittedly by a somewhat labyrinthine route—she spends years of her childhood so disinherited and ignored that at the age of six, she is begging in the streets of Paris. A lucky accident brings her to the attention of the Marquise de Boulainvilliers, who adopts the little waif, raises her as a daughter, and helps her prove her claim to be considered a relative of King Louis XV through a legitimized descendant of the previous royal family, the Valois. The marquise even helps Jeanne secure a pension, but Jeanne remains unsatisfied. She will settle for nothing less than full acceptance into the court at Versailles.

Through a series of affairs and a forced marriage to Nicolas de La Motte, who becomes Jeanne’s loyal partner if not the husband of her heart, Jeanne ploughs through all obstacles on her path. Her greatest conquest is the Cardinal-Prince Louis de Rohan, a high-ranking aristocrat whose campaign to regain his influence with the new king, Louis XVI, is repeatedly challenged by a hostile Marie Antoinette. When Jeanne learns of a magnificent diamond necklace, a creation so elaborate and enormous that its purchase price would bankrupt a nation, the stage is set for a scandal that will bring down the very monarchy Jeanne is so desperate to enter.

With a keen eye and a vivid appreciation for detail, Mary Martin Devlin creates an indelible picture of how three clashing obsessions—Jeanne’s quest for the validation of her heritage, Rohan’s yearning for his appointment as prime minister, and the jewelers’ determination to produce a unique and, in their minds, perfect work of art—intersected to destroy the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette, with catastrophic results for the French monarchy as a whole. Interview with the author at New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail (D.X. Varos, 2021)

Chicago two years after the end of the US Civil War is no place for a woman alone, especially the twenty-two-year-old widow of a Union soldier set on supporting herself despite the opposition of her husband’s family. To establish her independence, Quinn Sinclair earns a diploma from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, takes the new surname of Paschal, and forms her own firm with Garnick, a reluctant conscript still trying to live down his time in the Confederate Army.

Quinn hires a lawyer to extract her inheritance from her husband’s family, although she soon realizes that the lawyer may have a goal of his own—persuading her to give up this wild idea of hers and settle down with him. But an agency just getting on its feet can’t afford to alienate a paying client, so Quinn does her best to keep the lawyer busy with other tasks. Worlds collide when the case of an outraged husband accused (wrongfully, he insists) of murdering his wife intersects with that of a client in jail for setting fire to the home of her faithless fiancé, and soon Quinn is thrown out of her boarding house, stripped of her possessions through another act of arson, and in danger of losing her agency altogether. At that point, she concludes she has nothing to lose by grabbing the Devil by the tail—or, in this case, going after one of Chicago’s most powerful politicos.

A fun read that delves into an era not often covered in historical fiction and presents a fast-paced, satisfying mystery that moves seamlessly from the city’s slums to its mansions. Garnick and Paschal are an appealing pair, and I’m glad to see that this is the first of a planned series. My fellow host G.P. Gottlieb interviewed the author for New Books in Literature.—CPL

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (Knopf Doubleday, 2021)

Maggie O’Farrell has done a magnificent job of taking what few facts we know about the early life of William Shakespeare and filling in the gaps with characters that lift off the page fully formed, one more enchanting than the next. But the reader doesn’t have to know a thing about Shakespeare or have read his work to enjoy this novel. In fact, the young man in the story is never identified as Will Shakespeare. He is a son, a brother, a husband, a tutor of Latin, a maker and seller of animal-skin gloves—an ordinary man who will become extraordinary over time.

We meet this young man in the late 1500s, during the bubonic plague, when he is eighteen years old. While tutoring the young children of a widow in the same village, the young man falls in love with the children’s older stepsister, a woman some eight years his senior who flies a kestrel, keeps bees, and knows the medicinal power of virtually every plant in the forest. The young man is immediately bewitched. What the woman, Agnes, and the young man have in common is that they are both struggling to follow their dreams among family members who would have it otherwise. The man’s father, a master glove maker and businessman, wishes his writerly son to follow in his path. Agnes’ stepmother doesn’t like her stepdaughter, who is unruly, can read people’s minds, and wanders at will.

Agnes and the young man marry and begin a family. And even though Agnes doesn’t quite understand the complexity of her husband’s needs, she is able to intuit that he will never come into his own living in a tiny house adjacent to the home of his bully of a father, selling gloves and tutoring students in their rural community. And thus she devises a plan that will set him free, at great detriment to her own needs. Later, when one of their three beloved children dies from the plague, Agnes, whose grief is boundless, fails to comprehend that her husband’s way of handling his grief can be so different from her own … until she tracks him down where he lives his other life, in London.

This is a glorious and timeless story of transformation, in the most expansive meaning of the word. It’s thrilling to read and painful to put down at the end.—JS

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