Books We Loved, Mar. 2022
At last, spring is in the air. But the evenings are still cool, and there’s plenty of time to curl up with a good book. Here are three suggestions, one of which offers an entire series to enjoy.
Tania Bayard, Murder in the Cloister (Severn House, 2021)
There is a great temptation, when writing about the past, to sanitize its circumstances and attitudes to make the characters more palatable to present-day readers. Tania Bayard, who has written four mystery novels set in fourteenth-century France, does not make that mistake. Her Paris is filthy and smelly, with muddy streets and refuse lying in heaps, horrible diseases, stray dogs, and dead rats in the gutters. And those streets are filled with beggars, prostitutes, thieves, cheats, and would-be sorcerers and witches, ready to prey on upstanding citizens.
Yet it also contains farsighted thinkers, gifted artists of all sorts, and would-be scientists. One of the shining lights is Christine de Pizan, a scribe at the court of Charles VI “the Mad” who will soon establish a name for herself as a poet and early feminist. Contrary to the stereotypes of medieval women as passive and obedient, Christine works hard to support her family and resolutely challenges the prejudices of the men around her, especially her frequent bête noire and sometime supporter, Henri Le Picart.
In Murder in the Cloister, the sudden death of a young nun causes the prioress to summon Christine, who has already solved three crimes affecting the royal family, to find out what happened. On the surface, Christine has been hired to copy an important manuscript, but her investigations turn up not only secrets and lies but ongoing sources of tension among the nuns. And even as she races to untangle the mystery before more deaths occur, she must counteract Henri’s efforts to protect—or is it undermine?—her and what she fears is his undesirable influence on her young son. But I suggest you start at the beginning, with In the Presence of Evil (2018) to get a full sense not just of Christine and Henri’s troubled relationship but of the world that surrounds them.
Colleen Hoover, Regretting You (Montlake, 2019)
Part romance, part twisty family drama, Regretting You by Colleen Hoover is an emotional rollercoaster in every sense of the word. Told from the point of view of Morgan, a thirty-something mother and housewife who put her dreams on hold after getting pregnant at seventeen, and her daughter Clara, who Morgan fears is poised to make the exact same mistakes she did, it tells the story of a family grieving a major loss while confronting the reality of secrets and betrayal.
Morgan and Chris were high-school sweethearts, while their best friend Jonah dated Morgan’s younger sister Jenny (told you it was twisty) before breaking all of their hearts by unexpectedly leaving and cutting ties just after graduation. Seventeen years later, Jonah is back in town, he and Jenny are together again, Jenny has just given birth to their son, and Chris and Morgan are happily married and the mother of a teenage daughter. Morgan, having just celebrated her thirty-third birthday, is wondering if this is all there is to life and mourning her forgotten dreams, while Clara tumbles headfirst into the throes of first love and the bad decisions that come with it.
When Chris and Jenny are killed in a car accident, the others are forced to pick up the pieces, but when they put them back together, it forms a picture none of them were expecting to find. With the grief of losing the people they loved compounded by the shattered illusions of who those people really were, Morgan, Clara, and Jonah struggle to come to terms with the tragedy and what it means for the three who are left behind.—CJH
Peng Shepherd, The Cartographers (William Morrow, 2022)
Nell Young, a dedicated cartographer, once had it all—a dream job in the New York Public Library; a stylish boyfriend, Felix, who understood her obsession with maps; and a good salary as a researcher. Then she and her father—Dr. Young, the top scholar at NYPL—had a fight about a find she made, and her dreams came crashing down. She lost her job, and Felix as well.
Seven years later, Nell is frumpy and depressed, working well below her capacity, when news arrives of her father’s unexpected death at the Library. While in his office, she comes across his secret hiding place for treasured items and is amazed to find one of the maps included in the box that provoked the fight. It’s not one of the rare expensive maps, but rather a cheap common map from the thirties. It’s not until she enters her father’s map into the catalogue that she realizes she may have the only surviving version of this edition. The others have all mysteriously disappeared. Soon she begins to wonder if her father was actually murdered in his office.
Much as Nell would like to solve this all herself, she’s forced to reach out for help. Could her parent’s former friends from the University of Wisconsin help her solve the mystery? Or will her questions draw the killer to her?—GM