Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
I didn’t want to read this book, but I’m glad I did. The wild and lonely beauty of 1820s Iceland stars in this novel based on a true story. Two men are killed, and Agnes Magnusdottir and two others have been convicted of murder. Awaiting word from Denmark of a possible appeal, Agnes is sent to the farm of district commissioner Jon Jonsson to await her fate. Unwelcomed but treated fairly by Jon’s wife Margret and his two daughters, Agnes is put to work on the small farm. Around the hearth at night, and when a young priest, Toti, visits with her, we learn Agnes’ story. Abandoned by her mother, then left homeless when her foster mother dies, Agnes grows up as a pauper sent to work on several small farms. The murders occur at the home of her employer and lover, herbalist and sheep farmer Natan Ketilsson, a charming yet manipulative man. The cold and dark of winter on Iceland’s coast is vividly described, along with the isolation of remote farms. This is the first novel from an Australian writer who first heard of Agnes when she spent a year as an exchange student in a fishing village in Iceland. Definitely not a light or cheerful book, but a haunting, memorable novel.
The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton
In 1942, Helen Easley is desperate for news of her husband John, a war correspondent. He’s not on an official assignment, but may have left Seattle for Alaska. The Japanese occupy the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, and there is a news blackout. Since his brother’s death in the war, John is obsessed with his work, and left after an argument with Helen. Working in a dress shop in Seattle, she moves in with her elderly father Joe. Helen manages to join the USO but feels guilty about leaving her father behind. She heads for Alaska and any word of John, trying to get over her stage fright and talking with pilots and anyone who’s been to the Aleutians. John, meanwhile, has crash landed on remote Attu with young airman Karl. They scavenge coal and live on seafood, often wet and always cold, and even consider surrendering to the Japanese occupying the island. Part adventure, part wartime love story with a very unusual setting, this is an excellent historical novel.
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
Young Isabella, daughter of Sir Daniel Hendemore of Scirland, is fascinated by tiny winged creatures known as sparklings. They are considered insects, but she wonders if they might be related to dragons. Scirland is an alternate version of Victorian era England, a fantasy version with dragons. Also, the industrial revolution is slowed by a lack of sufficient iron deposits. When she’s 17, Isabella’s father very kindly has a matchmaker draw up a list of eligible young men who might share her scholarly interests, normally discouraged in women. Isabella is fortunate in her marriage, but longs to go on an expedition to study dragons, despite the danger and discomforts of a sea voyage to snowy Vystrana. She gets her wish, in order to take notes and make detailed drawings for the expedition; her drawings are scattered throughout the book. Things go badly from the beginning, with a mystery and threats. The book is narrated by an older Isabella, so we know that she makes it back to Scirland, and her adventures are continued in The Tropic of Serpents. This novel really kept my interest, and may appeal to readers of Mary Robinette Kowal, Caroline Stevermer, and Patricia Wrede.
A hot summer day is the perfect time to read about this journey of polar exploration. 135 years ago, the North Pole was the great unknown. A popular theory was that a ring of ice surrounded an open polar sea. After a voyage to Greenland, George De Long became fascinated by the Arctic. Eccentric newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett agreed to fund a polar expedition for the U.S. Navy, and Lt. Commander De Long and a crew of 32 took the USS Jeannette through the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia. The Jeannette had been reinforced for the ice, and they took plenty of provisions, two scientists, and a doctor. Their goal was to explore Wrangel Island and the polar sea. They did discover three uncharted islands far north of Siberia, but were trapped in the ice, drifting for almost two years. Three other ships were sent in search, while the crew of Jeannette finally had to take to the ice, towing three boats in search of open water and then Siberia. Their adventures make for compelling reading. This book will be published in August, and will also be available as an audiobook.
The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh
Lord Peter Wimsey, his wife Harriet, and the faithful Bunter return to Oxford in 1952. This is the fourth mystery featuring the trio that Jill Paton Walsh has written or finished writing, continuing the books written by Dorothy L. Sayers. Peter has unfortunately inherited the title of Duke of Denver, and discovers that it includes the office of Visitor of St. Severin’s, a fictional college in Oxford, and is called upon to referee a dispute. St. Severin’s is far from peaceful; the head of the college is missing, and there have been recent deaths (presumably accidental) and other incidents. Oddly the deaths and two accidents echo Peter’s detective cases and Harriet’s mystery novels. The college’s finances are shaky, and there is an ongoing debate about selling a rare manuscript with connections to King Alfred in order to buy land near Oxford that could be developed.
Oxford itself is a character in the book, full of memories for Peter and Harriet, and instantly recognizable to 21st century visitors. While the atmosphere at St. Severin’s is increasingly unpleasant, reading this mystery was a real pleasure.
World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters
The final book in a completely plausible pre-apocalyptic trilogy, World of Trouble finds former detective Hank Palace and his dog racing against time to find his younger sister Nico, encountering a cast of quirky characters. The asteroid Maya will probably hit Earth soon, but Hank keeps following leads from New England to a deserted police station in Ohio on his bike, and finds both hope and one last case to solve after he arrives. Hank is an appealing protagonist, and this book is just as compulsively readable as The Last Policeman (here’s my review of the first book) and Countdown City. World of Trouble will be available in mid-July.
The Bees by Laline Paull
This is one of the more unusual novels I’ve read, yet one that really kept my interest. Flora 717 is a very young bee when the book opens; a large bee with an unexpectedly good sense of smell for a lowly sanitation worker. As Flora matures, she moves up and down the strict hierarchy of her beehive. The reader experiences a year in the life of a bee colony from a unique inside perspective. The queen bee is revered as the Holy Mother, to whom all the other female bees are devoted. The sexy male drones are fawned over, but may not live out the year. Flora gets to work in the nursery, and even meets the Holy Mother. Later, she gets to gather pollen for the hive, learning the secrets of foraging from an elderly bee. Winter is a scary time, as are encounters with spiders and wasps. The code of the bees is to accept, obey, and serve the needs of the hive, but Flora dares to hope for more.