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.
The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood
In California in 1919, Vivian leads a remarkable life, but one that has been marked by grief since the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. Her best friend is now raising a family in Napa Valley, while Vivian accidentally becomes a writer of obituaries that give families closure. Having lost her lover David in the earthquake, she continues to hope that he is still alive somewhere.
In a parallel story in 1960s Virginia, Claire, a former flight attendant, feels trapped in bland suburbia. Her husband Peter is distant and demanding, her toddler daughter and housework fill her days. Volunteering for Kennedy’s presidential campaign provides a much needed outlet for Claire, and leads to an affair, which doesn’t end well. Claire’s pregnancy complicates an already strained marriage. On the eve of Kennedy’s inauguration, Peter and Claire travel to Rhode Island in a snowstorm for his mother Birdy’s 80th birthday celebration, where learning about Birdy’s past gives Claire needed perspective.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Three generations of Sinclairs spend every summer on their private island near Martha’s Vineyard, until last year. In this hard to put down young adult novel, Cadence is now 17 and has been struggling with migraine headaches and memory loss. She can’t remember what happened on the island two years ago, and no one, not even her younger cousins, will talk about it. Her mother and aunts are drinking a lot and arguing, her wealthy, aging grandfather is trying to start over without his late wife, and her cousins and their friend Gat are acting strangely. Cadence, teen cousins Mirren and Johnny and Gat (her aunt’s boyfriend’s nephew) are the liars of the title, and with her amnesia, Cady is an unreliable narrator. The island setting, with four family homes, two docks, one beach, and a building for staff, seems idyllic, but Cady finally learns the dark secrets everyone’s been trying to hide, leaving the reader stunned. And that’s really all I can safely say about this book. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, suspenseful read with a gorgeous island setting, and don’t need any of the book’s characters to be completely likeable, then read We Were Liars.