The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
Cristina Rosati is 18 in 1943 when the war comes to Villa Chimera in the Tuscan hills south of Florence. Her brother Vittore works in Florence, trying to keep Italian antiquities safe and out of Germany. Brother Marco is an engineer with the Italian army in Sicily while his wife Francesca and their two children live with Cristina and her parents at the villa, where she swims, rides horseback, and plays with the children. After the Germans learn that there is an Etruscan tomb at Villa Chimera, they start visiting, and she meets a handsome German lieutenant. Also 18, orphaned Serafina is working with the Italian Resistance and is injured in an explosion. She has a connection to Villa Chimera that she’s forgotten, and is now a detective in 1955 Florence, where a murderer has begun stalking the Rosati women. The Rosatis had no easy choices to make during the war, and they didn’t all survive. Cristina and Serafina don’t know what secrets from the past may be haunting the Rosatis now. The most interesting part of the book for me was descriptions of life in Italy in 1943 and 1944. Some of the characters were more developed than others, such as Cristina’s father and brother Marco. The pace of the story intensifies, as the killer gets closer and the reader learns more of the events of 1944 at Villa Chimera. Beautiful settings, some appealing characters, with a story that kept my interest, but darker in tone and more gruesome than I expected.
Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart
This is an outstanding mystery debut, set in southwest China in 1708. Exiled imperial librarian Li Du visits Dayan, near the Tibetan border, and reports to the local magistrate, his cousin Tulishen. Li Du learns that the emperor is coming to Dayan for a festival to celebrate a solar eclipse, and the preparations are considerable, including building a new pagoda. A few foreign visitors are in Dayan, including two Jesuits and a representative of the East India Company. When an astronomer dies suddenly, Li Du is useful as a translator and wants to investigate the death, although the magistrate would rather cover it up. The mystery is clever, but I especially enjoyed the variety of well-drawn characters, and the richly detailed setting. I hope Li Du will have many more adventures, and I think readers of mysteries or historical fiction will thoroughly enjoy reading this book.
Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger
This debut mystery is set in northern Minnesota, in the winter. The tone is fittingly very dark. Former sheriff Cork O’Connor, one quarter Ashinaabe, is separated from his wife Jo, a lawyer, and worries about his three children. When the local judge dies suddenly, Cork starts investigating, as the new sheriff is inexperienced and the coroner is incompetent. More deaths occur, possibly accidental. With rumors of the mythic beast Windigo, Cork uncovers corruption, embezzlement, and blackmail, possibly involving his wife’s lover and the local Ojibwe casino. The pace and tension intensify as the book progresses, making it hard to put down, even though a happy ending is increasingly unlikely. This first book in an ongoing series won multiple awards, and reminds me of the mysteries of Dana Stabenow and Nevada Barr.
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
Addie Baum, born in 1900, is looking back at her life as her granddaughter interviews her. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Addie is happiest at school. Her mother talks about how life would be better if the family had never left Russia, while Addie’s older sisters Betty and Celia strongly disagree, even though they live in a one-room apartment. Celia is timid and delicate, but steps in so that Addie can attend high school for a year and participate in the Saturday Club at a Boston settlement house. A trip to the seaside Rockport Lodge introduces her to girls who will stay her friends for many years. Celia marries a widower, modern Betty works at a department store, and Addie’s father spends most of his time at the synagogue. Addie becomes a secretary at her brother-in-law’s shirt factory, while attending the occasional night class and keeping up with her Saturday Club. The influenza epidemic causes more suffering and Addie struggles to find happiness, moving to a boarding house, trying to become a newspaper reporter and not having luck with men. Life becomes much better after sister Betty marries, and then Addie finally meets a nice man. Addie’s resilience, rebellious streak, and sense of humor make her an appealing narrator in this novel about working-class Boston girls and immigrant life.
A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders
Sam Clair, 40, is a book editor for Timmins and Ross in London. She lives alone, and likes it. Sam dislikes the frequent meetings with the other editors, and edits mostly women’s fiction. When her star author delivers a very different book than expected and a police inspector interviews her about a missed delivery, life gets more interesting. A break-in at her flat leads to an acquaintance with her reclusive upstairs neighbor, and increased attention from the attractive inspector, Jake Fields. Even Sam’s mother, Helena, a solicitor, gets involved when Sam’s author and friend Kit Lovell goes missing. Kit has just sent Sam his new manuscript, a tell-all about a fashion icon’s death that may be libelous. A fascinating look at the world of London book publishing, where Sam has both too much work and too many parties to attend, and hopes that her newest assistant, Miranda, might stay for longer than a couple of months. A cozy mystery with humor and a touch of romance, I enjoyed the fast pace and the lack of predictability. This is the first novel from a former book editor who writes articles about the arts and books about Victorian life.
The Writing Class by Jincy Willett
Students in Amy Gallup’s new writing class in southern California start getting odd comments or a rude drawing in their writing critiques, and Amy gets a threatening phone call. Amy, who hasn’t written for decades, is cranky and cynical, but seems to be an excellent writing teacher. When the pranks escalate and there’s a suspicious death, the class wants to keep meeting to uncover the culprit. Can Amy analyze their writing samples to help solve the mystery? Will Alphonse, her basset hound, be threatened? While not as funny and witty as the follow up book, Amy Falls Down, this is still an enjoyable novel, with some potentially useful advice for novice writers.
This prequel to the post World War I Ian Rutledge mystery series is a great introduction to the series. Charles Todd and his mother Caroline Todd jointly write all their mystery novels together. On a beautiful June day in 1914, Inspector Ian Rutledge proposes to Jean Gordon at a house party. Jean hopes for a Christmas wedding like her parents, and is frustrated that Ian travels so much investigating homicides for Scotland Yard. Ian is looking into suspicious deaths of men who have nothing in common except that they once lived in Bristol. Possibly related, a few gravestones in different cemeteries have been blackened. The day Ian proposes is the day Archduke Ferdinand is killed, and as Ian struggles to solve his cases and make plans for his future, the situation in Belgium gets worse and worse. Superintendent Bowles wants a quick resolution, and it will take a lot to persuade him that the deaths are connected. Many young men are eager to join the army, convinced that they’ll be home from France and Belgium by Christmas, and Jean urges Ian to consider enlisting, to get his share of the glory. Readers of other books in the series know the Ian will go off to war, and will survive, shell-shocked and haunted, uncertain if he can continue in his work for Scotland Yard and with his other plans for the future uncertain. It was enjoyable to read about the young inspector’s careful investigation, frustrated by the delays in getting information and even finding a telephone, and driving long hours to spend a little time with Jean.