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  • Writer's pictureFive Directions Press

Books We Loved, Dec. 2020

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Rachael Bloome, The Secret in Sandcastles

(Secret Garden Press, 2020)

This novel, the third in Rachael Bloome's Poppy Creek series, focuses on Penny Heart, owner of the local antiques shop. Abandoned by her mother as an infant and wounded by the death of the father who raised her, Penny keeps herself safe by staying put, traveling only in her mind to the beach pictured in a treasured old photograph, and walling off her heart. Until, that is, Colt Davis: Childhood Nemesis returns to town, and sets his sights, and his own heart, on the unattainable Penny.

In true romance novel fashion (because it works!) they’re thrown together in a way that makes it impossible not for them to spend time together. The mayor of Poppy Creek, in an effort to increase tourism, charges Penny with writing an article about the town’s most thrilling adventures. Colt, with his father’s dying wish for him always in the back of his mind, has spent the last several years traipsing around the world in search of the same. The mayor asks him to help Penny come up with a list, and the sparks start to fly.

As Penny works to shed the fears which have kept her from truly experiencing all that life has to offer, Colt finds himself in a position where he has to make a choice: break his promise to his father, or break Penny’s heart.

It’s a romance novel, so we know the final destination. But the journey to get there is a sweet and enjoyable one, with the distinct feeling that you’re making friends along the way. The Poppy Creek series is a true treasure!—CJH

Caleb Carr, The Alienist (Random House, 2006)

Steeped in history and only intermittently gruesome, The Alienist features Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist out to solve multiple murders he believes to be committed by the same troubled person. Dr. Kreizler—who, it turns out, bears his own share of childhood scars—specializes in the study of the disturbed mind. The book is set in the last decade of the nineteenth century, when such psychologists were known as alienists.

With the aid of Teddy Roosevelt, who was actually the police commissioner of New York City during this period, and several fictional characters, including an unusual young woman with a strong stomach and an agreeable journalist with a drinking problem, Dr. Laszlo searches for the identity of the serial murder, who leaves a series of clues. In their quest, his upper-class comrades are exposed to the reality of seamy slums, overpopulated dank tenements, and underage prostitution, as well as the corruption of the police.

Fascinating, erudite, and full of little details about life in fin-de-siècle New York.—GM

Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman, Death and the Maiden (William Morrow, 2020)

This fifth and last installment of a mystery series set in Norman England came to me by accident, but I really enjoyed it despite encountering the characters so late in their story. Adelia Aguilar, the heroine of the series, has retired to the country after the death of her patron, King Henry II. There she is training her daughter, Allie, in medical and forensic skills when a message comes from the Fenlands that an old friend is dying. But Adelia has injured her ankle and can’t ride, or even walk, so she sends Allie instead.

Escorted by the formidable Lady Penda, who goes about clad in a wolfskin cloak and armed with a crossbow, Allie reaches the Fens. But her patient makes no bones about wanting Allie out of the Fen country as fast as possible. Rumors of missing girls receive horrifying confirmation when a young woman’s body surfaces in the marshes. Allie concludes that the victim, Martha, didn’t die of drowning but was killed—and quite recently, although Martha went missing months before. The hunt for the murderer is on.

Several features of this novel appealed to me. Mystery novels often rely excessively on the cleverness of their plots at the expense of the characters, but—as with Jennifer Ashley’s Death below Stairs series—that’s not true here. As readers, we get a clear sense of the time period, with all its distinctive traits and contradictions. We encounter women who, even in the misogynistic culture that is medieval Europe, remain credibly educated and competent, strong in their own defense and the defense of others. The solution to the crime both makes sense and takes place without any of the standard, not-quite-believable tropes. And the international origins and experiences of the characters act as a powerful reminder that, even in 1191, the various parts of Europe were not isolated from one another. This is not my steppe world, by any means, but it exhibits some of the same complexity and cultural diversity. All in all, a highly satisfying read.—CPL

Judith Simon Prager, What the Dolphin Said: On the Future of Humankind (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2017)

If you have had an opportunity to read much about dolphins, you probably already know that people all over the world and all through time have come to accept that dolphins are extraordinarily intelligent and may even have capabilities that fall into the category of healing arts. As Buckminster Fuller once put it, “Dolphins may well be carrying information as well as functions critical to the regeneration of life upon our planet.”

In What the Dolphin Said, a novel based on a true story, author Judith Simon Prager—a teacher and practitioner working in the healing arts, known especially for her creation of a program called “Verbal First Aid”—tells an enchanted story about two journeys. One is the journey of Selene, a therapist whose childhood experiences and robust intuition lead her to believe that the breakthroughs she’s made—in her research into how to use communication as a tool for healing—are only the tip of the iceberg. Her yearning to go further and learn more leads her on a mission that will include dolphins and the people who work with them. The other journey belongs to Apollo, who is in fact a dolphin. And while his first-person narrative is obviously the more fictionalized part of the book, his story is based on a real dolphin who finds his way into a research center where children with a variety of disabilities are undergoing sessions with dolphins and finding various measures of success. Moreover, he is a character to fall in love with.

This is not a book to rush through. The chapters alternate between the activities of Selene and Apollo, and both are rich in details. The Selene chapters offer readers, among other things, the chance to look in on many of her sessions with clients, which are fascinating. The Apollo chapters provide a compilation of virtually everything known to date about dolphin behavior. But this wealth of information never gets in the way of the plot; this is at heart a book about a woman and a dolphin trying to move forward on paths they perceive to be their calling, in spite of their respective obstacles.

What the Dolphin Said is brilliant, and likely to inspire readers to want to learn more— about both dolphins and consciousness (which may be in some sense one and the same).—JS

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