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  • Writer's pictureFive Directions Press

Books We Loved, May 2024

The months roll by so fast that sometimes it’s a challenge even for dedicated readers to keep up. Here we are, almost at Memorial Day and the unofficial beginning of summer, and it seems like time has barely budged since we welcomed spring. But no fear, here at Five Directions Press we always have a new list of books we loved. Find out more about this month’s picks below.

A blonde woman in a blue velvet dress and gold-embroidered jacket set against a grimy cityscape; cover of Cara Devlin's Murder at the Seven Dials

Cara Devlin, Murder at the Seven Dials (Author, 2023)

London, 1819. Tipped off by his urchin assistant, known as Sir, Officer Hugh Marsden of Bow Street stumbles onto what appears to be an open-and-shut case: a woman lying dead in a house of ill repute, posed in a compromising position, amid the London slums. Next to her crouches an incoherent man, his clothes soaked blood. A knife, obviously the murder weapon, lies nearby. When questioned, the man mutters, “Audrey,” over and over. Hugh soon realizes his suspect has taken opium—a lot of opium. He also recognizes the apparent murderer as Philip Sinclair, Duke of Fournier—because as we soon discover, Hugh has not spent most of his life in the stews of London or even at Bow Street.

In early nineteenth-century Britain, one cannot treat a duke of the realm like any common criminal. Such high-ranking aristocrats must be tried and sentenced by the House of Lords. However, Hugh hauls the unresisting duke off to Bow Street, where he has Philip confined in a nearby inn while launching an investigation into the murder that drew him to Seven Dials in the first place.

Enter Audrey, Duchess of Fournier and Philip’s wife. In defiance of any protests from Hugh, she decides to prove her husband’s innocence. Audrey does not take kindly to upstart police officers telling her what to do; duchesses, after all, usually give orders, rather than take them. And Audrey has a unique gift: the power to “read” material objects for clues to events occurring in the vicinity of what others regard as insensible things. As the novel—and the series—progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that as little as either of them wants to cooperate, Hugh needs her help as much as she needs his.

Kudos to Cara Devlin for producing a well-plotted mystery with multiple twists, a satisfying solution, and lots of local color to keep the tension high. It’s the complex backgrounds of and the multifaceted interactions among the three main characters, however, that set this series apart.

I read the second book, Death at Fournier Downs, right away, then took a break before starting the third. The series pulled me right back in, though, and I am now tearing through the remaining four.—CPL

Two women in mid-20th-century dress, one carrying a suitcase, shown against a background of a large golden bug, flowers, and a steamship; cover of Rachel Joyce's Miss Benson's Beetle

Rachel Johnson, Miss Benson’s Beetle  (Dial, 2020)

Margery Benson, a 50-something “surplus woman” in Britain in post–World War II London, has been obsessed by the elusive golden beetle for at least thirty-five years. Raised by her silent aunts after her father’s suicide and her mother’s descent into depression following the deaths of all her brothers at once in the First World War, Margery has no intention or hope for any other life than the one she leads.

Her ability to lead that life is terminated when she loses her job as a teacher at a girls’ academy, so she steals a pair of boots from a fellow teacher and takes off to New Caledonia in search of her lifetime passion. She embarks on a poorly planned and more poorly executed adventure in this remote part of the world. She chooses Enid Pretty as an assistant, despite her glaring lack of qualifications, and spurns the assistance of a war-crazed veteran who follows her to New Caledonia with the delusion that he is there to save her. Enid is running from the law and finds herself in an “interesting condition” in the wilds of the island.

This description only begins to touch on the wild complications of the story. The delight is in watching layer upon layer of inventive complication add to Margery and Enid’s plight, as each woman’s strengths are revealed to both the reader and themselves. While the ending is a little unsatisfying, it’s a great read for a long rainy weekend of armchair adventure.—CHL

Against a scarlet background, a woman takes notes while a man plays guitar; beneath them is a city outline, a car, and palm trees; cover of Curtis Sittenfeld's Romantic Comedy

Curtis Sittenfeld, Romantic Comedy (Random House, 2023)

If you’re one of those people who’s ever scrolled through a celebrity gossip website and wondered how former Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson manages to land some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, you’re definitely not alone. In fact, author Curtis Sittenfeld was apparently so perplexed by it that she decided to write a gender-swapped novel about the phenomenon.

Sally Milz is a writer for The Night Owls, a late-night sketch comedy show that boasts big-name hosts and musical guests for their weekly live episodes. When the show books pop star and serial model-dater Noah Brewster, Sally is prepared to write him off as yet another vacuous pretty boy with mediocre talent and an ego as big as his bank account. But the more time she spends with him during the week—writing sketches for him, watching him rehearse his music, and getting to know him—she realizes there’s a lot more to him than what the gossip magazines report, and sparks start to fly. Sparks that Sally extinguishes after Noah’s episode wraps and she mentions his predilection for dating only models at the cast party, right after he almost kisses her.

Two years later, Covid hits and production on The Night Owls shuts down. Sally retreats to her childhood home of St. Louis to care for her widowed stepfather and entertain the idea of doing something else with her life. But when a random email from Noah Brewster lands in her inbox, she realizes that the spark never truly died, that her initial judgment of Noah might have been more unfair than she wants to admit, and that she just might have more to offer than she thinks.—CJH

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