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  • Writer's pictureFive Directions Press

Books We Loved, June 2023

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

Multicolored desert mountains, background to "Under the Blue Moon" by Joan Schweighardt

It seems hard to believe that the unofficial start of summer is already behind us and the summer solstice just around the corner. This month, we have a trio of books we loved for you to take along to the park or the beach or dive into on long, sunny evenings: an exploration of queerness in a society that barely recognizes the possibility of gender difference; a pair of Regency high-society ladies who are too old and too single to satisfy the rigid norms of their time; and a mystery that haunts an English family for fifty years. And do keep an eye out for the release of our own Joan Schweighardt’s latest novel, Under the Blue Moon—a literary investigation of homelessness, recovery from tragedy, and the power of hope—on June 20, 2023. You can read more about Blue Moon on our book page and in Occhi Magazine. And if you like what you see, you can order the book.

Abstract swirls of red and pink, cover of "The Death of Vivek Oji" by Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi, The Death of Vivek Oji (Riverhead Books, 2020)

The Death of Vivek Oji takes us through different perspectives about Vivek—a young person of fluid gender born as a male in Nigeria, where transgenders and gays face hostility and, in some cases, death. Vivek’s body, wrapped in cloth, is left on their doting mother’s porch. There was a riot in the marketplace and Vivek, who had begun dressing as a woman when they went out, may have been killed by someone during the general violence. The one person who knows the truth is Vivek’s cousin Osita, who publicly identifies as a straight man but also struggles with his sexuality.

The novel uses first- and third-person perspectives to explore the feelings and perceptions of those who loved Vivek. Vivek’s mother, devastated with grief, turns to Vivek’s close circle of friends, a group of young women who know each other through their foreign-born mothers, interrogating them in the hopes of uncovering more about the death of the child she considers her son. However, Vivek’s death cannot be understood without a fuller understanding of who they were in life.

Poetic and fluid, tragic and yet somehow hopeful, The Death of Vivek Oji is a moving glimpse into Nigerian society, as well as an exploration of what it means to be different.—GM

A pair of women in Regency dress, in mirroring shades of blue and violet, one holding a gun behind her back and the other a knife

Alison Goodman, The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies (Berkley, 2023)

This sparkling take on Regency romance, set in 1812, features a pair of forty-something unmarried twins—Lady Augusta Colebrook and her sister, Lady Julia. The novel opens with Augusta and Julia tackling, on behalf of their friend Charlotte, a would-be blackmailer in the Dark Walk of the semi-scandalous Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Pleased by their success, Charlotte recruits the twins to rescue her goddaughter, Caroline, from an abusive and possibly murderous husband.

Augusta is forthright and daring, Julia more superficially feminine but blessed with a photographic memory that makes her a fount of knowledge on the ins and outs of high society. Julia is also recovering from the accidental death of her fiancé two years before and a recent diagnosis of breast cancer—something that rarely appears in Regency novels.

It is in the hope of distracting her sister from melancholy, therefore, that Augusta agrees to help out Caroline. Near the end of their journey to the victim’s house, the two sisters are waylaid by a highwayman. Only after Augusta wounds the attacker with her pistol does Julia recognize him as Lord Evan Belford, whose alleged murder of his dueling opponent twenty years before led to his transportation to Australia. Augusta uses Lord Evan’s injury as an excuse to wangle their way into Caroline’s house, and the stage is set for the first of three cases through which the twins find their goal in life: to help women disadvantaged by the misogynistic laws of nineteenth-century Britain. It’s all tremendous fun, and I can’t help thinking that if Georgette Heyer were writing today instead of in the last century, this is the kind of novel she would produce.—CPL

A Tudor-style English house against a rural background, cover of "The Secret Keeper" by Kate Morton

Kate Morton, The Secret Keeper (Atria Books, 2012)

A trinary is a configuration in which three stars are bound by gravitational attraction to orbit one another. Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper could be considered the literary equivalent of such a system. There are three main stories here, all connected by the same force and yet all different in terms of time and place and expectations.

The Secret Keeper opens in 1961 on Greenacres, a farm in the English countryside belonging to the Nicolsons. The moment we meet them—Dorothy, her husband Stephen, and their five children—we know they are an exceedingly happy family, that none of them has ever wanted for love from any of the others. But a wrench is thrown into the first idyllic scene. During a birthday picnic for Gerry, the baby of the family, a stranger arrives on the property, and Dorothy, who is carrying Gerry down to the creek for the festivities, is forced to handle the situation as best and as quickly as she can.

The only witnesses to the shocking incident that follows are Gerry and Laurel, the eldest of the five siblings, who is up in the treehouse when it occurs. Gerry is too young to remember anything more than a vague feeling that something disturbing happened that day, and Laurel, at age sixteen and dreaming of her boyfriend and her plans for the future, is too self-absorbed to make too much of it either. But fifty years later, in 2011, when Dorothy, by then widowed, is on her deathbed and all the Nicolson children have been summoned back to Greenacres to sit with her through her end days, the gap between what Laurel actually saw and the explanation her parents provided for it at the time widens, and she feels she must find out the absolute and whole truth before her mother expires.

Much of the story takes place in 1941, during the London Blitz, where Dorothy, her then boyfriend Jimmy, and her affluent and enigmatic neighbor Vivian—all young people whose personal losses are exacerbated by the horrors of the war—come to form a dangerous triangle. It is this triangle that will eventually result in the event that takes place in 1961 and finally gets sorted out, by Laurel, with some help from Gerry, in 2011.

The Secret Keeper is unputdownable. The secret of the title is complex and multilayered and the final reveal is well worth waiting for.—JS

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