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  • Writer's pictureFive Directions Press

Books We Loved, Feb. 2023

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

In appreciation of Valentine’s Day, we offer three novels featuring love in all its forms—rewarding, disappointing, interrupted, forbidden, platonic, familial, and more. Because isn’t human connection—its presence, its complications, and its absence—what ultimately determines our quality of life?


Sophie Cousens, Before I Do (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2022)

Anyone who’s ever woken up on their wedding day wondering if they’re about to make the biggest mistake of their life (I’m sure there are more than would admit to it) will identify with Audrey—a twenty-something aspiring astronomer who’s always struggled to find her footing. Until, that is, she met Josh, who provides her with the strength, stability, and security she’s always wanted but never knew how to find.

On the eve of their wedding, though, the bad omens start flying left and right (literally). First, a dead bat drops out of the church ceiling during the rehearsal. An impromptu Mexican wedding lasso trick performed by Audrey’s stepfather almost decapitates the bride and groom when they get tangled up in it. And then Josh’s sister walks into the rehearsal dinner with Fred—the guy with whom Audrey spent one magical day six years before, never heard from again, and could very well have been The One she was really supposed to be with.

Flashing between the current day and the six years leading up to it, Before I Do has fun with the concept of pre-wedding jitters and the big “what-if” that is Audrey’s almost-relationship with Fred. But despite the effervescent cover, the book does an equally admirable job of exploring grief, as well as the complicated relationships of mothers and daughters, girlfriends, stepparents, and in-laws. Sophie Cousens’ trademark humor and appealingly flawed characters are put to good use in this charming new story.—CJH

Maggie O’Farrell, This Must Be the Place (Vintage, 2016)

In this book we meet the main character, Daniel Sullivan, a professor of linguistics, in a first-person chapter set in 2010 in Donegal, Ireland, where he lives with his wife, six-year-old daughter, and stepson in a somewhat dilapidated house in a truly off-the-beaten-path location. Daniel has a lecture to give in Belfast, and thereafter he is flying to New York, where he grew up, to celebrate his (much-loathed) father’s ninetieth birthday. He is driving to the train station with his family when he hears on the radio a recording from an old interview with someone he knew back in the mid-1980s from his college days, Nicola Janks. The clip is followed by the voice of the radio announcer, who refers to Nicola as someone who died not long after the interview.

As the story proceeds, we come to know that Daniel’s Donegal family is not the only one he has had. In his previous life he lived in Berkeley, California, with his then wife and their two children. By the time the first chapter ends, we know how and why that marriage ended, what Daniel lost as a result, and how he came to meet his current wife … and that he is now haunted by questions regarding the death of Nicola Janks.

It’s a lot to cover in one chapter, but the plot is just getting going. In the next chapter, which takes us back to 1989 and which is also told in the first person, we get to know Claudette, the former film sensation who is Daniel’s current wife. In the one after that, we advance ten years and meet Niall, Daniel’s son from his first marriage, who suffers physically and emotionally from a very serious case of eczema. This chapter, which includes Daniel prominently, is in third person, and, in keeping with Niall’s need to maintain order in his life, the chapter features footnotes.

And so it goes. By the time the reader is approaching the end of the book, she has come to know all Daniel’s kids, his brother, his sister-in law, his deceased mom, an old friend, a previous lover, Claudette’s ex, and a fellow traveler on a trip through Bolivia, in first-, second-, or third-person chapters that jump around in time and space. One chapter consists entirely of a list of the possessions Claudette left behind when she abandoned the film industry, which are currently going up for auction.

Sounds like a hodgepodge, and in some sense it is. And if it wasn’t spectacular, it probably wouldn’t work. But every single one of these many characters is interesting, if not downright lovable, and each of their stories is unique. As for clarity, this book has it in spades, in spite of the format … or maybe because of it. The chapters are puzzle pieces that are more than satisfying for the reader to snap together.

Maggie O’Farrell, whose newer novels Hamnet and The Marriage Portrait have been reviewed in these pages, does not disappoint.—JS


Sheri Cobb South, In Milady’s Chamber (Sonatina Press, 2018)

Thanks to Five Directions Press, I know that self- and coop-published books can be just as good as their commercially produced counterparts. This delightful Regency mystery series is an example. In this first installment, Lady Julia Fieldhurst returns home after a society ball to discover her husband, the viscount, on the floor of her bedchamber, stabbed to death with her own nail scissors.


Bow Street arrives in the person of John Pickett, a twenty-four-year-old former pickpocket who has become the protégé of Bow Street’s magistrate and has already advanced to the coveted position of Runner. Although Julia is the chief suspect—her time at the ball cannot be completely accounted for, and her relationship with her husband is known to be strained—John becomes convinced that she did not commit the crime and sets out to prove her innocence by finding the real killer. In the process, an impossible attraction is sparked between the widowed viscountess and her staunch defender, the ramifications of which are still playing themselves out in my current read—book 5, 2019’s Too Hot to Handel (yes, Handel, not Handle!), in which plans to capture a gang of unscrupulous jewel thieves bring John and Julia together once more.

The plots are well done, the solutions the right mix of difficult to deduce and satisfying when revealed, the writing vivid, and the editing good. But it’s the interplay between John and Julia, their gradually developing realization that they might have a future together despite society’s disapproval, and the strong supporting cast that have caught my attention. I am happily working my way toward book 12, In the Family Way (2022), with hopes of interviewing the author for the New Books Network someday.—CPL

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