The Dry by Jane Harper
To begin with, three people in a small town in southeast Australia are dead. Not an opening that draws me, but this first mystery novel is on several best books of the year list and I felt challenged to give it a try. Aaron Falk is back in drought stricken Kiewarra for the funeral, and is asked to do a little investigating by his friend Luke’s parents. Falk is a federal agent in Melbourne and soon finds that Kiewarra’s new police sergeant, Greg Raco, also questions the obvious solution. In general, Falk is no more welcome in town now than when he and his father left, suspects after a friend’s drowning. Newcomers to town, including Raco and his wife, school principal Scott Whitlam, and bartender McMurdo, are pleasant enough, as is Luke’s old girlfriend, Gretchen. Mal Deacon, his old nemesis, is as nasty as ever, even though he’s getting old. Short flashbacks to other points of view keep the reader one step ahead of Falk and Raco, but this is not at all a predictable book. The Dry is suspenseful and riveting, very cleverly written, and on my own list of best books of the year. Film rights have been sold, and another book featuring Aaron Falk is being published in February.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Picking up from where we left her in The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya Petrovna, disguised as a boy, makes her way to Moscow with the help of the frost demon Morozko and her faithful horse Solovey. Moscow is her first stop on her quest to see the world, and where she hopes to be reunited with her sister, Olga. However, trouble is never far behind, and Vasya finds herself rescuing a few maidens along the way. Meanwhile, Vasya’s brother, Sasha, urges the Grand Prince Dmitrii to deal with the roving bandits that have been kidnapping girls and burning villages across Russia. Once in Moscow, Vasya enters a world utterly different from village she left. The grandeur of the city is like magic, and yet the magic Vasya knows holds little power there. She is also torn by the admiration she receives while masquerading as a boy, while knowing the fate that awaits her as a young woman: either to marry or enter a convent. On her journey, Vasya learns more about her family and her ties to Morozko, while a new dark power threatens to overtake Moscow.
There are several plot threads woven through The Girl in the Tower — the second book of the Winternight Trilogy — and Arden brings them together beautifully. As in the previous book, Arden’s lush prose transports the reader to medieval Russia, and her strong grasp of history and creative adaptation of folklore again makes for a winning combination. The story unfolds through the eyes of several characters, which enriches our understanding of them and the world they inhabit. Vasya is still as brave and strong-willed as ever but, thanks to the new setting and characters, she continues to grow as a character, too. The development of her relationships with her siblings and Morozko is particularly lovely. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here, and I’m sure readers will be champing at the bit for the next book!
The humorous author of Drop Dead Healthy, The Know-It-All, and The Year of Living Biblically gets interested in genealogy and plans a Global Family Reunion. Jacobs gets an email from a man who says that Jacobs is his wife’s eighth cousin, and he’s off to explore his family tree. There are anecdotes about his ancestors, conversations with his skeptical brother-in-law, and some useful genealogy advice. We are all distantly related to celebrities, and to criminals. DNA testing may turn up some startling information but isn’t comprehensive and may have inaccuracies, along with privacy concerns. Jacobs’ report says that he’s a little bit Scandinavian, not 100% Jewish. Not an event planner, the Global Family Reunion in Queens is challenging to plan. There are several branch parties or satellite reunions planned in several countries, as well. Jacobs gets to meet Donny Osmond and George H.W. and Barbara Bush, and takes his twin sons to a Twins Days Festival. I especially enjoyed the anecdotes about his grandparents and other ancestors, as well as the humor. Want to learn more? Come to the library on Sunday, December 3 at 2 pm to learn about DNA Genealogy Testing: Facts vs. Fiction.
The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper
I have read and enjoyed several of Louisa May Alcott’s novels, beginning with Little Women. When she was 28, May Alcott became known as frivolous Amy March when her sister Louisa’s book became a bestseller. May’s illustrations for Little Women were criticized as amateurish. Stung, May began to focus on her art, taking classes in Boston and travelling to Europe to study, funded by Louisa, who supported the whole family. The sisters clashed frequently, especially over who would take care of their parents and widowed sister. Both women faced the challenge of making money or making art. May sold copies of J.W.S. Turner watercolor paintings, but longed to do more. Louisa didn’t want to keep writing children’s books, but they were very successful. Not nearly as much is known about May’s life, so the author, a debut novelist, had more leeway to write about her life as an artist in Europe, and to imagine the letters exchanged between the sisters, which seem real. Mary Cassatt became a friend to May as well as a famous artist, but it was never easy for Victorian era women artists, especially after they married. May especially struggled with knowing when she was a real artist, even after she had a painting exhibited at the Salon in Paris. When she found love in Europe, more conflicts arose, especially with sister Louisa. In the end, May leaves Louisa her best creation, and leaves the reader wanting to learn more. Louisa May Alcott fans will enjoy this book, as well as historical fiction readers, and readers of Susan Vreeland’s novels.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
In a fantastical version of medieval Russia, Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna inherits her grandmother’s ability to see and commune with the household spirits and mystical creatures that live side by side with the people of her village. Free-spirited Vasya would rather run wild in the woods than perform her duties as a rich boyar’s daughter. When Vasya’s stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, comes to the household, things begin to change. Anna can also see the spirits, though she fears them and believes them to be demons. Making matters worse, the zealous, handsome Konstantin comes to serve as the village priest, and he encourages the villagers to turn from the old ways. The spirits weaken, and an unnaturally harsh winter brings death, hunger, and fear to the village. Aided by the fabled frost demon Morozko, Vasya must embrace her gift to save both her family and the village (and maybe the world) before it’s too late.
Katherine Arden’s debut is part historical fiction, part fantasy, and completely gorgeous. Lush prose and fully formed characters make for a compelling read, and Vasya is a worthy heroine. This is the first in a planned trilogy, and readers will be anxious for the next installment. Highly recommended for historical or literary fiction readers who don’t mind a dash of the fantastic. Fantasy readers who liked Uprooted by Naomi Novik will also enjoy this. This book would also be a great pick for teens.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Essun’s daughter is missing, her son is dead, and the world may be ending, again. The Stillness is a volcanic world, with a fifth season occurring every so often that affects many of the small communities on the continent. It may be earthquakes, volcanoes, or plagues, but everyone has a stash of supplies handy if they need to travel to safety. Damaya is a young girl on her way to the Fulcrum, where she will be trained to safely use her talents as an orogene, one who can harness the powers of the earth. Syenite is a four ring orogene, sent to clear a harbor with her new mentor, ten ring Alabaster. With the women, a variety of small communities are explored, and some of the land’s history is explained. Gradually, we learn how the characters are connected, and the pages turn faster and faster to see what geologic calamity will happen next, and when Essun will find her daughter. The award-winning first novel in a fantasy trilogy, this may be a television series. The writing is lovely, the tone is dark and gritty, the creativity of the world building is stunning, the world itself is depressing, and I really cared about the main characters. Fantasy fans will appreciate the quality, but I’m ready for a fun, light read next, probably a cozy mystery. The second book in the trilogy is The Obelisk Gate.
To Be Where You Are by Jan Karon
It’s always enjoyable to visit Mitford, North Carolina, home of Father Tim and his artist wife, Cynthia. This time around, readers get to catch up on most of the town’s residents, and visit young veterinarian Dooley and his wife at their busy animal clinic a few miles outside Mitford. In town, everyone seems to have a big life event, from writing a book, riding in a parade, buying an RV, adopting a pet, to having a baby. Retired Father Tim helps out at the local grocery store when the owner gets sick, and puts off taking Cynthia on a big road trip. So, no real plot, just a very pleasant visit with the folks in Mitford. The first book in the long cozy series is At Home in Mitford.