Books We Loved, Mar. 2023
Updated: Sep 10
To greet the approach of spring, we focus on new novels in this month’s selection of books we loved. Specifically, we have a contemporary mystery set during the depths of Covid quarantine and two historical novels, one that takes place at the glittering royal court of sixteenth-century France and the other a sparkling romance that explores the art world of Victorian London, complete with marmoset and forgery—all three hot off the press as this post goes up.
And while you enjoy these already published books, keep an eye out for a new title of our own, Joan Schweighardt’s Under the Blue Moon. A beautiful and heart-wrenching story of mistakes, forgiveness, and homelessness, Under the Blue Moon is in production. We will have more specific information soon, but in the meantime you can check out the book page at https://www.fivedirectionspress.com/under-the-blue-moon.
G.P. Gottlieb, Charred: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery (D.X. Varos, 2023)
The Whipped and Sipped Café is the heart of GP Gottlieb’s new murder mystery, in more ways than one. Alene, the owner, is a single mom with three kids and the main caretaker for her aging dad, who lives with the family. The setting is Chicago, 2020, in the early days of COVID when all sane people are masking and vaccines are not yet available. The café is closed to indoor dining, but patrons who want one of their delicious concoctions can pick up and take out.
The action in Charred begins immediately. As if she doesn’t have enough to contend with, Alene agrees to drive Kofi and his girlfriend Kacey, both of whom are her neighbors as well as members of the Whipped and Sipped Café staff, to the site of a recent building fire before she even prepares her family’s breakfast. Besides his work in Alene’s café, Kofi is an artist who transforms junk into sculpture. Charred wood from burn sites is one of his favorite materials.
However, when Kofi returns to the car (where Alene is waiting), he is empty-handed; he has no charred wood to show for his efforts. And he’s not his usual cheerful self on the ride home either. Adding to the mystery of what exactly happened inside the building, Kacey calls Alene that same morning, on Kofi’s behalf, to ask her not to mention their trip to the burn site to Frank, a homicide detective who also happens to be Alene’s boyfriend. When the first of two dead bodies is discovered in the building, with a Whipped and Sipped take-out bag in her pocket, it begins to look like the ensuing mystery may have something to do with the Whipped and Sipped Café.
Author G.P. Gottlieb begins Charred with a Cast of Characters listing, which is good, because there are a lot of characters in the novel, and that can be intimidating for some readers. However, it’s probably not necessary. Gottlieb has a special talent for rendering her characters memorable with just a few brush strokes. Charred is a murder mystery, so of course there are some thugs in the pages. But most of the people, especially those who work for Alene, are companionable; they’re not perfect; they have their share of foibles, but they’re all unique and interesting, and it doesn’t take long for the reader to become genuinely concerned not only about the burn site murders, but also about how each character will work out his or her individual challenges.
With its great characters and fast-paced plot, Charred is a genuinely engaging novel. And who doesn’t love books that center around food? Gottlieb’s characters can often be found chopping vegetables or making cookies while they simultaneously gossip, argue, share secrets, and solve mysteries. The ending of the book is satisfying in and of itself, but Gottlieb follows it with a post-ending treat, a dessert if you will. Dishes that are mentioned within the story have their recipes listed, replete with the kind of well-explained problem-anticipating instructions that serious foodies love, just after the acknowledgments. In every way, Charred, third in the Whipped and Sipped Café mystery series, is a delicious read.—JS
Molly Greeley, Marvelous (William Morrow, 2023)
Once in a while, a novel comes along that is both different and special. Marvelous is such a book. Retellings of fairy tales are not unusual, and some of them are quite good. But here Molly Greeley explores the real-life story that gave rise to one of the best-loved tales, Beauty and the Beast. In doing so, she raises issues of inclusion, trust, acceptance, the effects of trauma, and basic humanity—all in a gentle, non-preachy way.
Pedro Gonzales, later known as Petrus Gonsalvus or Pierre Sauvage (Pierre the Savage, which itself says a great deal about other people’s views of him), was born on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, around 1537. We know from early on that he was abandoned by his mother as an infant, presumably because he was born covered in hair—a rare genetic condition that was seen at the time as evidence that a child was the spawn of a devil. His adoptive mother, Isabel, belongs to the indigenous people of Tenerife, the Guanche, whose culture and religion have been all but obliterated by the conquering Spaniards. So she and her son, Manuel, are also, in a sense, outcasts.
When Pedro is around ten, pirates kidnap him, and he winds up at the court of the French King Henri II and Henri’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici. Henri, charmed by Pedro’s combination of strangeness and acumen, takes the child under his wing and gives him a royal education, as well as financial support. But the effects of Pedro’s abandonment, early mistreatment, and capture—heightened by the suspicion and disrespect of his fellow nobles, most of whom see him as little better than a trained monkey—leave him feeling perennially unsure of himself.
When Catherine de’ Medici arranges his marriage to her namesake, the beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter of a merchant who has fallen on hard times, Pedro has no idea how to talk to this girl who is half his age. Her discomfort—how many teenage girls want to marry, sight unseen, a taciturn man in his mid-thirties who looks like a Wookie?—plays into Petrus’s fears, and the newlywed couple struggles to find a connection. But when fate deals Catherine a hand she has both anticipated and feared, she rises to the challenge, and Pedro begins to realize that she is nothing like the mother he lost.
Greeley does a great job in conveying the sensory experience of her two leads and, by alternating Pedro’s view with Catherine’s, charting their individual growth, which in turn creates a credible portrayal of their developing relationship. If you love books focused on family and identity, as well as stories set just a little off the beaten path, this is definitely a novel for you.
You can hear an interview with the author on New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL
Joanna Lowell, Artfully Yours (Berkley, 2023)
Nina Finch is a talented artist, but late nineteenth-century English society has little use for women painters, especially those of limited means and reduced social standing. Her brother Jack also has artistic aspirations, but after a series of misfortunes, he has turned his talents to forging the great masters and lured—not to say forced—Nina into helping him. As a result, Nina has redirected her aspirations toward baking Victoria sponges and gooseberry tarts to sell from a shop of her own.
But she can’t turn her back on the brother who raised her, and when it becomes clear that London’s foremost art critic, a duke’s son who goes by the name of Mr. Alan De’ath (yes, the pun on “death” is deliberate, and he is in reality Lord Alan), has Jack’s forgeries in his gunsights, Nina agrees to accept the position of De’ath’s amanuensis so she can keep track of his investigation and save Jack’s neck—and her own. With her pet marmoset, Fritz, she infiltrates De’ath’s household, where she runs into a cast of eccentric characters, including a group of woman painters led by a cross-dressing firebrand determined to bend the artistic elite of London to her will.
It’s all delightfully tongue-in-cheek, and although we can predict that Nina and De’ath are meant for each other, how they will cross the vast divide that separates them remains far from clear well into the book. So too does the family secret, hinted at early on, behind De’ath’s ongoing conflict with his aristocratic relatives. And if that’s not enough to draw you in, the antics of Fritz and the many humans desperate to wring a good review out of De’ath will keep you flipping pages right to the end.
I interviewed this author on my blog a few weeks ago, when the book came out.—CPL