Summer reading recs: English court intrigue, Papal court intrigue, dragons meet Napoleon in Russia and literary noir close to home

[gallery type="slideshow" ids="1552,1550,1555,1551"] Four novels, all set to be published this summer. All four are probably not to most people's reading taste but they all were to mine.

Queen's Gambit is the story of Katherine Parr, the final and surviving wife of Henry VIII. She's got an interesting story and it's told well both from her perspective and that of a servant, Dot, whom she brings from her own household to serve her when Katherine (reluctantly) becomes Queen. Even if you think you've read or watched everything you need to about the Tudors, this is worth a read, especially since it covers a relatively unexamined person and part of the story. Its perspective on Elizabeth is especially interesting, both from Katherine's view and from Dot's. As everyone who knows anything about Elizabeth knows, she and her final stepmother were close -- until Katherine caught her last husband, the ambitious, vain Thomas Seymour, playing some sort of naughty bed game with the young adolescent Elizabeth. While Katherine was pregnant with his child. I was dreading that part of the story even though I knew it was coming -- but Fremantle handles it with an interesting approach. A debut novel by Elizabeth Fremantle, who appears to be a worthy addition to the Tudor-writing historical fiction ranks. The book is scheduled for release on Aug. 6.

Blood & Beauty is about the Borgias, another telegenic Renaissance-era family (also the subject of a pay-cable drama from the same folks who brought us The Tudors). Sarah Dunant sets her books in medieval and Renaissance Italy and the Borgias offer incredible scope. I knew little about them, beyond their historical reputation as a bunch of depraved poisoners -- this book provided a much better rounded portrait especially of Lucrezia, daughter of the ambitious Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI). Even her ruthless brother Cesare is understandable, if not necessarily sympathetic. I enjoyed it thoroughly and look forward to the next installment -- though it led me to some confusion over the dramatic choices in the Showtime series. But hey, I knew from watching the Tudors that the guy behind those shows is not all that concerned with historical accuracy so I'm going to assume Sarah Dunant's sticking closer to the record until I learn otherwise. Dunant is probably best known for In the Company of the Courtesan; she may go stratospheric (into Philippa Gregory-like sales levels) with this one. Blood & Beauty publishes July 16.

Blood of Tyrants is speculative/alternative/fantastic historical fiction -- the latest and apparently penultimate volume in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. I've blogged about this series before -- the previous entry, Crucible of Gold was one of my favorite books from last year -- and this is a worthy successor. As it opens, our hero Will Laurence has been shipwrecked on the shores of Japan and has amnesia. So even though most of his shipmates and fellow aviators think he's dead and "his" dragon, Temeraire, desperately wants to find him, Laurence thinks he's still an officer in the British Navy and has no memory of the last eight years, ie. the time he's spent with Temeraire and learned a hell of a lot about dragons (and encountered Napoleon personally, and been court-martialed, and been made a prince in China and nearly died in both Africa and Australia and ...  well these are adventure books, OK?). The series is often described as Patrick O'Brian with dragons and that works -- it's set in the British military during the Napoleonic wars. And it is cool to imagine military aviation coming into play a few centuries before it actually did, and how that might have altered things and worked in the culture of the time (few know it outside of the aviation corps, but there are a number of female officers because one particularly valuable breed of dragon, the poison-fanged Longwings, will only abide women as their captains). But the true appeal of the series, for me, is the way it fulfills an animal lover's fantasy of bonding with intelligent, emotional beings who can, in this world, speak and express their opinons, sometimes irrational as they may seem (all dragons covet treasure and want to see their humans kitted covered in the Regency-era equivalent of bling whenever possible). I found myself, when reading this book, thinking of the relationship I've had with dogs and horses and how it often feels like you are holding conversations with them -- and how you feel a responsibility for their care and happiness that goes far beyond mere ownership. It will be interesting to see how Novik winds up the series -- this book ends with Napoleon on the march in Russia but she has previously shown no problem with materially altering history (Napoleon is currently married to an Incan princess) and kudos to her for the last line, which I won't spoil here but which has to be a nod to that other dragon-loving fantasy writer, George R.R. Martin. Blood of Tyrants publishes on Aug. 13 -- if you haven't read the previous seven entries in the series, that would make an excellent --and fun! -- summer reading project. I will be sorry to see this series end but will try to view it as I do my favorite TV shows when they go away after a few seasons -- better to go out with quality than trail on forever just because someone is willing to pay you to do so.

One of these books is not like the others, as the old Sesame Street ditty goes. Men in Miami Hotels is a contemporary noir, set in Key West but it's a wholly different creature from the usual subtropical mystery/detective novel -- it has more in common with the work of Thomas McGuane than Carl Hiaasen or James Hall. Cot Sims is a journeyman gangster for a Miami crime lord. He returns to his hometown of Key West to help his mother, who has been kicked out of her hurricane-damaged home by code enforcers and is camped out underneath. It is recognizably Key West in a lot of keenly observed ways, though a smaller less transient -- and more violent -- island than the real one (it appears to be a Key West inhabited entirely by Conchs and visiting Miami gangsters). Sims quickly gets himself into serious trouble by stealing a bunch of emeralds from his Miami crime boss and is basically on the lam from then on, throughout Key West, mainland South Florida and eventually Havana. I particularly liked the action in the cemetery, where Cot spends some time hiding out in a friend's family crypt. I'll admit that I admired this book but didn't find it captivating the way some crime fiction that is considered genre can captivate me (most recently, Lyndsay Faye's Gods of Gotham). But for those who prefer their crime with a more literary approach, or who read in order to admire language, this is a great read and I hope it finds its audience. It deserves to. Men in Miami Hotels will be released July 2.