2021 Reading: April update, Part 1

I’ve made a good start to 2021, finishing 13 books in two months (…and then I went through the past 7 weeks without completing another one!). The first dozen represent a healthy mix of genres – 4 sci-fi (including a trilogy), 3 non-fiction (including a famous biography), 1 crime novel (part of a series that’s become a guilty pleasure) and 5 dramas. In the first part of this update, I’ll cover off the sci-fi and non-fiction books.

Historically, the sci-fi genre has been dominated by male authors, with R.M. Meluch perhaps the only female sci-fi writer whose work I have read and enjoyed previously. However, in the past few years, there have been many more works published by female sci-fi authors and I’ve read books of Becky Chambers, Jennifer Wells, Cherie Priest, Emma Newman, Sue Burke and Kameron Hurley. I can now add Nancy Kress and Mary Robinette Kowal to that ever-growing list:-

  • The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal (2018): In my year-end book update, I mentioned reading the first novel in the Lady Astronaut series, titled The Calculating Stars, which won both Hugo and Nebula awards for best sci-fi novel. The sequel, The Fated Sky, starts off in 1961, with Dr. Elma York now a seasoned astronaut, regularly ferrying cargo and passengers to the Lunar base. Meanwhile, there are new challenges to the rapidly accelerating global space program managed by The International Aerospace Coalition; racial politics raises its ugly head (specifically South Africa’s objection to an Asian leading the first mission to Mars) and there are attacks on IAC assets by an extremist organization which believes that governments should be focused on improving conditions on Earth rather than reaching for the stars. Not surprisingly, Dr. York as the popular public face of the space program is in the spotlight, having to chose between her conscience and the realities of work politics…and she doesn’t always make the right decisions. Nevertheless, she now finds herself commanding the inaugural mission to Mars, on board one of three ships that set off in October 1962 on a 320-day voyage to the red planet. The second half of the book deals with the events of this journey, ranging from the mundane (a blocked toilet) to the life threatening (a crew-wide infection resulting from contaminated food). The end of the book sets up the exploration and colonization of Mars. With the novelty of the alternate history of space travel having worn off in this second book, I found it less enjoyable and Dr. York’s character flaws a tad irritating. That probably explains why I haven’t rushed out to read the third book in the series, The Relentless Moon, which was published last year. But I’m sure I’ll get around to it soon.
  • Tomorrow’s Kin (2017), If Tomorrow Comes (2018) and Terran Tomorrow (2018) by Nancy Kress: Collectively referred to as the Yesterday’s Kin trilogy and based off veteran author Kress’ Nebula-award-winning 2014 novella, the first book kicks off as a first-contact novel with a twist – the ‘aliens’ are biologically human (mostly), whose ancestors were taken from Earth centuries ago and settled on another planet. They have now arrived on Earth seeking help from our scientists to avert a catastrophe on their home planet. The three novels chronicle the experiences of biologist Dr. Marianne Jenner over a period of decades, with the plot including family politics, xenophobia, terrorism, interstellar travel, a pandemic, a megalomaniac billionaire and socio-cultural conflict! Collectively, the three books present an epic multi-generational story that I devoured in just 6 days. Highly recommended and currently available on Amazon at an amazing bundled offer of $2.54 for Kindle.

The 3 non-fiction books covered very different topics:

  • First Women by Kate Andersen Brower (2017): The author is a journalist who has created a niche for herself as an expert on the private lives of White House denizens. I had read Ms. Brower’s first publication, The Residence (2015) and found it reasonably interesting, feeding my curiosity about the goings-on in that famous building. This second book, as the title indicates, describes the personalities and experiences of Presidential spouses, starting with Jackie Kennedy through to Michelle Obama. While the book does cover interesting historical ground and provides insightful glimpses into the stressful lives of First Ladies living in the public eye, its narrative structure was not particularly intuitive for me and I struggled to read more than half a chapter at one sitting.
  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853): It was not an easy decision to start reading this book, considering I had already watched the award-winning 2013 film and knew that the subject matter would not be pleasant. Nevertheless, I’m glad I did, because it’s important to keep reminding oneself of this scourge of humanity, one that almost every culture in the world has practiced or condoned at some point of time or the other. One can only marvel at the bravery and fortitude of Mr. Northup in surviving his ordeal and shudder at the thought of the millions of other slaves who weren’t fortunate enough to be liberated.
  • Dirt: Adventures with the Family, in the Kitchens of Lyon, Looking for the Origins of French Cooking by Bill Buford (2020): It took a couple of chapters for me to settle into the author’s somewhat disorganized (to my mind) approach to life, specifically his initial attempts to set up a high-end cooking assignment for himself in France. But what a fascinating journey Bill Buford takes us on in his five years in Lyon…observing, learning and experiencing its gastronomical sub-culture at close quarters. No doubt, Mr. Buford’s time as an editor at The New Yorker and his close association with the leading French chefs of New York opened the doors for him to connect with famed Lyonnaise restaurateurs like Paul Bocuse, Mathieu Viannay and Jean-Paul Lacombe. But ultimately, it is his talent and dedication (and the commitment and support of his wife Jessica Green) that led him to securing kitchen stints at some of the most famous restaurants (and a bakery) in the city. I already had some insight into the brutal and uncompromising world of American kitchens from my reading of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, but French restaurants appear to be much harsher. Frankly, it’s impossible to condone the snobbishness, xenophobia, racism and bullying in the kitchens of high-end restaurants, and to justify these in the name of gastronomic excellence. This book has been an eye-opener, and while the descriptions of the food preparation are mouth-watering, it has robbed me of any desire to actually dine at these types of Michelin-star restaurants.

In part 2 of my April reading update, I’ll cover off the 5 really intense social dramas and 1 enjoyable crime novel.

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