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  • Writer's pictureFive Directions Press

Books We Loved, Dec. 2023

Another month, and the holidays are now well underway—in the case of Hanukah, almost over. Only one of the books we loved this month actually takes place during the winter celebrations, but—whether light entertainment perfectly suited to the end of a workday or thought-provoking dives into other worlds or others’ hearts—they are all good reads.

An English manor house sits in the snow, surrounded by decorated fir trees and mistletoe; 2 windows show a diamond ring and another decorated tree; cover of Murder under the Mistletoe

Erica Neubauer, Murder under the Mistletoe (Kensington, 2023)

This latest installment of an ongoing mystery series set in 1926 features Jane Wunderly—an intrepid American widow who has already visited Egypt, England, and Turkey in previous adventures with her partner, now fiancé, the mysterious Redvers. You can hear my interview with the author about the earlier novels on the New Books Network. The next full-length adventure, Secrets of a Scottish Isle, moves forward to 1927 and comes out in March 2024.

In this holiday novella, Jane and Redvers are back in Britain, celebrating Christmas at his ancestral home. Jane expects to spend the holidays getting better acquainted not only with her new family but with the man she’s agreed to marry. Then her father-in-law to be announces his forthcoming marriage to the humorless Evelyn Hesse, upstaging Jane and Redvers.

But being kicked out of the limelight is the least of the problems threatening to doom Jane’s Christmas. It turns out that Evelyn had several previous husbands, all of whom died under mysterious circumstances. Then a man is murdered at a holiday party, thrusting Jane and Redvers into yet another case, one that threatens their own family and future.—CP

Stylized dragons against a background of rocks and sunlit clouds; cover of The Dragons of Deepwood Fen

Bradley P. Beaulieu, The Dragons of Deepwood Fen (DAW, 2023)

This immersive fantasy takes you deep into a world of duality. There are two suns, one light and one dark; and two types of dragons, one yielding a substance called umbra and one a substance called aura. There are two peoples, one subjugated by the other. The people of the woods, mostly the dark-skinned Kin, have been conquered by the people of the mountains, who are organized into an empire with five capitals and five rulers, as well as an Imperator who is elected to rule over the Holt, the subjugated wooded territory that still retains some rights. But the Empire is not as united as it seems. A secret faction of the church, called the Chosen, hopes to free the dark Lord Faedryn from his imprisonment by the Goddess Alra and depose the ruling families. To that end, they enter into alliance with the Red Knives, a group of rebels who hide out in the Holt.

Three young people try to navigate this complex world—Lorelie, an investigator for the Empire; Rylan, the illegitimate son of the Imperator; and Rhiannon, a young orphan with magical powers, who lives in an abbey in the Holt.

With the complexity and political intrigue worthy of The Game of Thrones, but thankfully none of the sadism or sexual violence, Bradley Beaulieu has crafted a gripping and quick moving tale with likable protagonists.—GM

A piano keyboard against a black background; cover of J. M. Coetzee's The Pole

J. M. Coetzee, The Pole (Liveright, 2023)

In his new novel, The Pole, the much-celebrated South African writer J. M. Coetzee uses short, precise chapters to tell a brief but contemplative story about love, language, and passion.

The Pole of the title is Witold Walcyzkiecz, a pianist who is an interpreter of the work of fellow Pole Frédéric Chopin. Witold is in his 70s when he receives an invitation to perform a “Circle Concert” in Barcelona. These concerts are organized by a group of arts patrons whose job is to make all arrangements for their guest performers, including taking them out for post-performance dinners and seeing them back to their hotels.

On the night the Pole (no one can pronounce his name, hence the moniker) performs, it falls to Beatriz to cater to him as the Circle’s more aggressively entertaining members are unable to be there. This is a chore for her. The concert disappoints her; it does not transport her to other realms as Chopin’s music usually does. She does not find the Pole, who is some twenty years her senior, to be a particularly interesting dinner companion either. And the fact that they are forced to speak in English, a second language for both of them, doesn’t help.

Though the story is told from Beatriz’s point of view, Coetzee does not give the reader much reason to believe the Pole has any more interest in Beatriz that she does in him. She is the wife of a rich banker, a woman with too much time on her hands. The volunteer work she does at the Circle is more a reflection of her social status than of any true knowledge of or love for music. Yet, not a week after the concert, Beatriz receives a message from the Pole featuring one of his recordings and a note saying he is planning a trip back to her area and hoping to see her, in fact coming for that purpose. This will be the first of many overtures she will receive from him. She brings him peace, he insists. She cannot figure out what he wants from her, besides the obvious, the notion of which appeals to her not at all. Perhaps it is her curiosity regarding the matter that eventually drives her into his arms.

Does the Pole really love Beatriz, or, now that his days are numbered, is he merely desperate to leave someone behind who will remember him? There are enough references to Dante and his Beatrice to suggest that the Pole sees Beatriz as a muse. Does Beatriz, who has never even read Dante, really come to care about the Pole, or is his perception of her so much sweeter than her own perception of herself that she cannot let it go? The poems he ultimately leaves for her, written in Polish and requiring her to hire a translator, only add to the confusion.

The Pole is absolutely compelling—beautiful and thought-provoking, much like the work of Milan Kundera.—JS

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