Ellen Larkin longs to write a blockbuster exposé. As Senior Investigative Reporter at the Boston Chronicle, she covers political and business crimes affecting the citizens of Massachusetts—and dreams of winning a Pulitzer Prize.
When the Chronicle lays Ellen off, she is heartbroken. Driven by her near-empty bank account and the needs of her ailing mother, she applies for a job at Gargantua, a lucrative recruitment website headquartered in the Shelton Mill. Before she even gets the job, she stumbles upon clues that link the company to illegal venture capital stolen from Boston’s Big Dig project. Is this the story she’s dreamed of writing?
Boston’s Irish and Italian mobs, looking to cash in on Gargantua’s profits, will stop at nothing to halt Ellen’s investigation. With the help of two unconventional co-workers at Gargantua, can she uncover the truth before the crooks silence her forever?
Silent Water is an engrossing historical mystery that focuses on a series of murders that grips the royal court of Krakow, Poland, in the year 1519. The book’s first-person protagonist is Contessa Caterina Sanseverino, chief Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Bona Sforza of Italy, who two years earlier had married King Zygmunt of Poland and Lithuania. Caterina keeps watchful vigil over the young girls who serve as the queen’s attendants, but she—and the court around her—are roiled by the discovery of a stabbing victim during the Christmas Night banquet.
The murder at first appears random, but as Christmas turns into the New Year, a second murder occurs. Clues point to the inner circle of Queen Bona, who is controversial not only for the agricultural reforms she is implementing, but for her hawkish advice on how to wage war against the kingdom’s Teutonic and Crimean enemies. At Bona’s request, Caterina sets out to investigate. As her investigation takes her from the castle’s rat-infested dungeon to its kitchen storerooms, she is aided by Sebastian Konarski, a junior secretary to King Zygmunt.
I was particularly intrigued by the book’s setting in 16th-century Poland and how it contrasts the customs of the Polish court with those of the Duchy of Bari, Italy, where Caterina grew up. The book touches on so many fascinating themes, including the religious discord fostered by Martin Luther and his edicts. Also, the book illustrates the many limitations on women’s roles during this era in Poland, which makes Caterina’s bravery and willingness to transgress those limitations exciting. Caterina’s intelligence and inquisitiveness mirror the best qualities of the queen she serves and makes her a strong protagonist, one whom I would follow into the twisty depths of any medieval jail.
Fans of historical mysteries, particularly those of the Tudor period in England, will love Silent Water and appreciate its unique setting in the royal court in Krakow. I highly recommend Silent Water and am eager to read future books in the Jagiellon series.
I have fallen in love—with a book, a peninsula in Siberia, and most of all, with its native Even people.
Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips, opens with the abduction of two young white girls from a beach in Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Their fate is compared to an earlier tsunami that wiped out an entire town, while the police’s vigorous search for them is contrasted with the earlier disappearance of a native girl, whom they dismissed as a promiscuous runaway.
Long isolated from Western influences, Kamchatka is reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the currency devaluations that followed. Older people, who still hang pictures of Stalin on their walls, wrestle with existential questions about whether freedom was worth what they perceive as a breakdown in values, while young adults resent their parents’ pensions, paid-for apartments, and free university educations. Simmering underneath, like the fault lines responsible for Kamchatka’s devastating earthquakes, lies a unique urban/ rural divide: Petropavlovsk is largely white, while remote villages, including Esso and its environs, constitute the traditional homes and grazing grounds of the reindeer-herding Even people.
Told through a series of interlocking stories, Disappearing Earth focuses on the lives and relationships of Kamchatka’s women and how the girls’ abduction impacts them. These women struggle with husbands and boyfriends, their roles in life, and most of all, with how they can better themselves in a society that seeks to relegate them to chain-bound roles: dutiful daughter; slut; and housewife/mother. Under these constraints, how does any woman—native or white—manage to live an empowered life free from violence?
Like reindeer on their circuitous annual journeys, over the course of a year we follow the compromises these women make with life. We meet a white housewife who fetishizes impoverished native construction workers, simply to escape the boredom of childcare. A native woman, caught between her traditional family and the sneering snobbery of her university classmates, carries on relationships with both a controlling Russian boyfriend and an intelligent native man who understands the salmon dances of their people.
The woman who lives the freest life is a lesbian who defies Russia’s dangerous homophobia and shares an apartment in St. Petersburg with her lover. After a painful break up, she returns to Kamchatka for a New Year’s Eve party, where she reconciles with a girlhood friend whom she has never forgotten—and to whom she has never before confided her homosexuality. Be careful, the friend whispers. The police can hurt you.
As a writer, reading Disappearing Earth evoked a flitter of despair: I have never hiked volcanoes, fumaroles, or glacier-carved lakes. I have never felt the ground tremble under thousands of reindeer hooves. I have never counted the stars in a Siberian night sky or heard the air hiss with the smoke of active volcanoes. How can my stories compare?
While I struggle to empower myself as a writer, I am so glad Julia Phillips brought me into the world of Kamchatka and its brave, resourceful women.