top of page
  • cplesley

Bookshelf, Summer 2023

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

A shorter bookshelf list than usual this quarter—not because I’ve consumed any fewer books but because I’m testing out a bunch of new series on Kindle Unlimited, which I signed up for last month. As I get ready to complete the (very) rough draft of Song of the Steadfast, the sixth of my Songs of Steppe & Forest novels, and begin to think about the next one, I’m also re-reading earlier books in the series (the first is now four years old) to ensure that I build on rather than contradict old plot points. You can assume I like those, or I wouldn’t have published them, so there is little point in listing them here. But if you’re wondering where the series may go after Yuri and Anna, the last entry below will give you a hint.

Three open books with a man sitting on one and a woman on another; cover for The Book of Silver Linings

Nan Fischer, The Book of Silver Linings (Berkley, 2023)

Constance Sparks hides her past from everyone. Even her name is a lie. So when she falls for a Scrabble-loving public-school teacher, she struggles to find the courage to reveal that her father’s criminal past. Suppose baring her soul drives away the perfect man?

Or is he so perfect? Her best friend doesn’t trust him, and when he gives Constance a pricey engagement ring, she too starts to wonder where he got the money. Her research into the history of the ring leads her to James and Anna, a World War I soldier and nurse whose love story reveals possibilities Constance has never dared imagine for herself. On impulse, she writes a letter and leaves it in James’s book. But it’s when she gets a reply—from the past?—that her life really takes a new turn. I hope to host a blog Q&A with the author of this entertaining and thought-provoking novel in mid-August, around the time of the book’s release.

A raven speckled with stars flies over a forest hut. The patterns invoke Russian folk art. Cover of The Witch and the Tsar.

Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, The Witch and the Tsar (Ace Books, 2022)

Any novel set in Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533–1584) is an instant draw for me; that is, after all, the setting for most of my own fiction. Throw in Baba Yaga, the wicked witch of Russian folklore, and give her a makeover, and I am hooked. That’s what Olesya Salnikova Gilmore has done in this novel, which I read in January but am now rereading in preparation for an interview with the author to coincide with the paperback release in late August.

This historical fantasy chronicles one stage in an ongoing duel between Yaga, a noted healer and half-immortal, and her frenemy, Koshey (known in Russian folklore as Koshchei) the Deathless, who for reasons explained in the novel is pushing Tsar Ivan the Terrible along his path of suspicion and terror. The first victim is Tsaritsa Anastasia, a friend of Yaga’s before Anastasia’s selection as Ivan’s first royal bride (the subject of my own recent Song of the Storyteller). It’s all very well done, and there is the fun, for those in the know, of watching the author play with familiar (Little Hen, the hut on chicken feet) and new (Yaga’s immortal helpers, the wolf Dyen and the owl Noch, named for Day and Night, respectively) tropes from this set of ancient myths.

A biracial female singer holds an old-fashioned microphone. Beneath her, another woman lies prone in front of a New York City skyline. Cover of Harlem after Midnight.

Louise Hare, Harlem after Midnight (Berkley, 2023)

In this followup to last year’s Miss Aldridge Regrets, Lena Aldridge has reached New York City, having learned midway that the Broadway show she was supposed to star in will not run. While waiting to board a ship home, she accepts an invitation to stay with the Linfields, longtime friends of Will Goodman, a musician she met on the Queen Mary and hopes to learn more about. She also seeks more information about her own recently deceased father, who originally hailed from New York—or so he told Lena.

The story gains tension from the first chapter, set eight days after Lena’s arrival, when we learn that a woman clutching a passport identifying her as Miss E. Aldridge has fallen from a third-story window in Harlem. Is it Lena? It must be, it seems. But if so, what happened? By the time we reach the end, all the loose threads have been tied up, and we’re eager for the next installment.

I’ll be talking with this author in September for the New Books Network.

A giant gold key against a background of Art Deco flowers. Cover of The Housekeepers

Alex Hay, The Housekeepers (Graydon House, 2023)

This fast-moving heist story opens in 1905 with a housekeeper, Mrs. King, being dismissed from her post. The tycoon Wilhelm de Vries has just died, and his not-exactly-grieving daughter is firing the members of his staff so she can replace them with workers loyal to herself. Mrs. King, though, doesn’t take her dismissal lying down. She started life as a pickpocket, and she rallies her old friends as well as other former servants of the de Vries household to rob the mansion of every single item it contains, from attic to cellar.

As the novel follows the planning, preparations, and performance of the heist, we gradually discover how all these women’s lives intersect and overlap, with one another and with the de Vries family, often in surprising ways. It’s a difficult book to review, precisely because so many secrets come to light, so it’s best just to relax, not ask too many questions, and enjoy the roller-coaster ride.

Gold-embroidered scarlet silk, perhaps the interior of a multi-colored woven robe. Cover of Silk and Cotton: Textiles of the Central Asia That Was

This gorgeous exploration of the traditional hand-produced silks of Central Asia is research for my next Songs of Steppe & Forest novel. Rich in illustrations of elaborate woven and embroidered clothing, horse tack, and bales of fabric, this reference book offers a window onto every aspect of cloth production before and after the Bolshevik revolution. It’s a joy just to page through, and although I am mildly miffed at Amazon for halving the price and running a Kindle Rewards promotion the very day after I purchased the e-book, I don’t regret my purchase for a moment. It’s exactly what I need to help me imagine what life might have been like long ago for a young woman engaged in this business.


bottom of page