Following on from the first part of my update on books read so far in 2021, let’s move on to the heavy stuff. I am grateful to the blog Reading Under the Olive Tree for the first 2 books in the next group, which I loosely describe as dramas or “people stories”:
- Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (2020): When a novel is picked up for a movie adaptation, produced by and starring Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch, you know it’s a big deal. This book certainly lived up to the hype and I raced through it in just a couple of days. Set in the indeterminate near future in which several species having become extinct, the novel’s protagonist Franny Stone, a young researcher with a troubled past, is determined to track what may be the last group of Arctic terns on their annual migration flight from the North Pole to the South. Having placed tracking devices on three of the birds, she convinces the captain of a small fishing trawler to allow her on board as a passenger, so that she can follow the birds down the length of the Atlantic Ocean. Although the captain initially agrees to her proposal only because of her reasoning that the terns will lead the trawler to schools of fish, he and his crew are eventually won over by her determination and passion. The epic and tumultuous ocean voyage mirrors Franny Stone’s own emotional journey, one in which she ultimately has to come to a reckoning with the demons of her past.
- A Door Between Us by Ehsaneh Sadr (2020): This is a highly enjoyable, fast-paced novel that starts off as a family drama but quickly weaves in the Green Movement protests of 2009 into the narrative and becomes an engrossing thriller.
- Savushun, a.k.a. A Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshvar (1969): I enjoyed A Door Between Us so much, that I quickly started looking for other Iranian novels to read. All the reading lists thrown up by my internet searches included Savushun, one of the most acclaimed modern Persian works, and that’s saying a lot for a culture that has long been famed for the richness and depth of its literature. The book is additionally notable because it is the first ever Persian novel to be written by a woman; Simin Daneshvar was also an accomplished academic – she was chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Tehran during the 70s. Savushun is an engrossing story of a landowning family in Fars Province during the early years of World War II. Seen through the eyes of Zari, a loving mother and wife, the novel charts the fortunes of her family members, while providing commentary about the socio-political dynamics of the region during this tumultuous period. I found Zari to be such a relatable character – she is constantly stressed about the well-being of her family, frequently self-critical of her own ability to protect them from various real and imagined threats, particularly the political and social machinations of relatives, acquaintances and friends. I can’t recommend this novel highly enough, and combined with my reading of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy last year, has created in me a deep appreciation of Middle Eastern/Islamic literature.
- Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979): A January 2021 article in the New York Times, titled The Essential Octavia Butler, kindled my interest in reading a novel by this award-winning author, who I have known of for years, but somehow never got around to reading. I picked the first book recommended by the article and what a good decision that turned out to be. This novel is nearly as searing in its description of slavery as Solomon Northup’s real-life chronicle. Ms. Butler does an outstanding job of exploring the mindset of an African-American woman from the modern day who is mysteriously transported back in time to the Antebellum South, instantaneously losing her liberty and treated as property because of her color.
- Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018): This novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, but it came onto my radar only because of the well-received 2020 TV adaptation by BBC/Hulu. Ms. Rooney’s prose is very easy to read, but the relationships and situations she writes about are frequently painful to process. How sad that falling in love and maintaining a relationship in modern times has to be so entangled with emotional cruelty to your loved one and yourself…there is so much posturing (should I blame social media?) and perhaps, fear of being manipulated or taken advantage of, that people just don’t have the confidence to reveal their true selves including their fears and weaknesses to others. It’s an amazing book, but so heart-wrenching in its own quiet way, that it has put me off wanting to watch the acclaimed TV series.
It shouldn’t be surprising that after reading all the books listed above, I was very much in the mood for some pure entertainment. And I found it in this crime novel:
- Death Around the Bend by T.E. Kinsey (2017): A couple of years ago, I read the first of T.E. Kinsey’s Edwardian-era Lady Hardcastle Mysteries, titled A Quiet Life in the Country, which was published in 2014. The lead characters – Lady Emily Hardcastle and her plucky servant/companion Florence Armstrong – are extremely likeable protagonists, with a relationship based on the trust and mutual affection borne out of their past adventures together. The plot was easy to follow and the entire experience enjoyable enough that I found myself with the next book in the series last year when on a break from “heavy” reading. This third entry is equally breezy; set in 1909, Lady Hardcastle is invited to an old friend’s country estate for the weekend and soon enough there’s a car crash and a death, which initially appears accidental but quickly emerges to be the result of sabotage. Like an Agatha Christie “locked room” mystery, the culprit can only be someone from within the group on the estate. Naturally, Lady Hardcastle and Flo are more effective than the local police in solving the murder. Besides the usual wit and light banter that characterize this series, we also get to know a bit more of the backstory and family of Lady Hardcastle. With five more books written so far, I know I can rely on this series as a guilty pleasure whenever I don’t want to tax my brain too much!
That brings me to the end of my Q1 2021 reading update. As I mentioned in the introduction to Part 1, I followed up this blazing start to the year with a frustrating month and a half during which I started and abandoned a few books. One of them was C.J. Cherryh’s 1994 novel Foreigner, the first book in her highly popular series of 21 books, of which the last two were published last year. I’m sorry to say that I had to abandon it about a fifth of the way in, just unable to deal with the neurotic lead character, whose thoughts and paranoia and doubts filled up a significant proportion of the prose. After the amazing experience of reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred, I tried to get started on her Lilith’s Brood collection by downloading a sample of the first book, Dawn; this too could not hold my attention. I then thought that I surely couldn’t go wrong with John Birmingham, having immensely enjoyed his Axis of Time series (my 2012 review of the trilogy continues to get views to this day), so I started off on Without Warning, the first book in his Disappearance trilogy; I soldiered my way to the one-third point and then just had to admit that I couldn’t get past the cardboard cutout characters and the boring action scenes. I’ve finally settled on 3-4 really good books, so it looks like I will actually have something to write about in three months when I post my Q2 reading update!