Reading List: February 2017
This month we have a whopping twelve books on the reading list which range in time, place and plot. Two books are set in the era of World War II: one in England and the other in Nazi Germany. Two are set in Korea in the 1900s and in the 1970s. This month’s only short fiction collection takes us to Vietnam and San Francisco addressing the immigrant experience as does a longer piece of fiction set in rural America and India. My recently discovered Nigerian female author writes about two cantankerous women in South Africa. Another new African voice takes us to post-independent Kenya. Then we are in a post-Brexit United Kingdom for the first in a quartet on the seasons. In present-day America, we have one book set in Cape Cod in which family dysfunction takes center stage and another set in Indiana which confronts the topic of self-seeking. We end in Istanbul with flashbacks to a different time in Oxford.
All very promising reads. I wish I could devour all of them but life means that I have to choose and choose wisely.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan. In this piece of historical fiction set in England during World War II. While the men are away fighting, the women of Chilbury village forge an uncommon bond. They defy the Vicar’s edict to close the choir and instead “carry on singing,” resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. The story, which centers around five choir members, is narrated through letters and journals unfolds the struggles, affairs, deceptions and triumphs. [Penguin Random House]
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Following one Korean family through generations, the story starts in the early 1900s with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. When Sunja is betrayed by her wealthy lover, she finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life. So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in a different arc of history. [Hachette Book Group]
Autumn by Ali Smith. It is Autumn of 2016. Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer. Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever. Autumn is a meditation on a world growing, ever bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. It is the first installment of her Seasonal quartet – four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are)- and it casts an eye over our own time.[Penguin Books UK, Amazon.com]
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso. Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, one white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have been recently widowed. And both are sworn enemies, sharing hedge and hostility which they prune with a zeal that belies the fact that they are both over eighty. But one day an unforeseen event forces the women together. And gradually the bickering and sniping softens into lively debate, and from there into memories shared. [goodreads]
The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff. A powerful story of friendship and sacrifice set in a traveling circus during World War II. Seventeen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier during the occupation of her native Holland. Heartbroken over the loss of her baby, whom she is forced to give up for adoption, she lives above a small German rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep. When she discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants, unknown children ripped from their parents and headed for a concentration camp, she is reminded of her own baby. In a moment that will change the course of her life, she steals one of the babies and flees into the snowy night, where she is rescued by a German circus. [Barnes & Noble]
Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wertz. In 1978, at South Korea’s top university, the nation’s best and brightest compete to join the professional elite of an authoritarian regime. Success means a life of rarefied privilege and wealth; failure means being left irrevocably behind. For childhood friends, Jisun and Namin, the stakes couldn’t be more different. Jisun is the daughter of a powerful businessman, growing up on a mountainside estate with lush gardens and a dedicated chauffeur. Namin’s parents run a tented food cart from dawn to curfew; her sister works in a shoe factory. Jisun wants nothing to do with her father’s world while Namin studies tirelessly, her sole focus: to extract herself and her family out of poverty. They both meet the ambitious and charming Sunam who is being mentored by Juno, a manipulative social climber. These four intertwined lives are rife with turmoil and desire, private anxieties and public betrayals, dashed hopes and broken dreams – while a nation hurtles toward prosperity at any cost. [Penguin Random House].
Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani. The novel traces the lives and loves of three men: preacher Richard Turnbull, the colonial administrator Ian McDonald, and Indian technician Babu Salim – whose lives intersected when they are implicated in the controversial birth of a child. Years later, when Babu’s grandson Rajan accidentally kisses a mysterious stranger in a dark nightclub, the encounter provides the spark to illuminate the three men’s shared, murky past. [Amazon.com]
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The only short story collection on this month’s list. A beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives. A young Vietnamese refugee suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco. A man suffering from dementia starts to confuse his wife for a former lover. A girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will. The stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration. [goodreads]
The News from the End of the World by Emily Jeanne Miller. Vance Lake is broke, jobless, and recently dumped. He takes refuge at his twin brother Craig’s house on Cape Cod and unwittingly finds himself smack in the middle of a crisis that would test the bonds of even the most cohesive family. Told in alternating points of view by each member of a colorful New England clan and infused with the quiet charm of the Cape in the off-season, the novel, follows one family into a crucible of pent-up resentments, old and new secrets, and memories long buried. [goodreads]
No Other World by Rahul Mehta. In a rural community in Western New York, twelve-year-old Kiran Shah, the American-born son of Indian immigrants, longingly observes his American neighbors, the Bells. He attends school with Kelly, but he is powerfully drawn to her charismatic father, Chris. Kiran’s yearnings echo his parents’ bewilderment as they try to adjust to a new world. His father is haunted by the thoughts of the brother he left behind. His mother struggles to accept a life with a man she did not choose and her growing attachment to an American man. Kiran is close to his sister, Preeti – until an unexpected threat and an unfathomable betrayal drive a wedge between them will reverberate through their lives. As he leaves childhood behind, Kiran finds himself perpetually on the outside – as an Indian American torn between two cultures and and as a gay man in a homophobic society. [Harper Collins]
The Evening Road by Laird Hunt. One evening in August 1920, two equally strong – and scarred – women cross paths in Indiana. Ottie Lee Henshaw is at work when her boss reports that townspeople in nearby Marvel are planning to lynch several black youths accused of crimes against whites. Elated, he gathers Ottie Lee and her husband Dale, and the three (all of whom are white) set off for the “rope party”. Black teenager Calla Destry goes to the river near Marvel to meet her ambitious white lover who calls himself Leander. When he doesn’t show, she takes her foster father’s car and rides off to escape Marvel’s angry mob. As her mind shifts between past and present, Calla’s journey reveals the secrets she hides. [Publishers Weekly]
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak. Peri, a wealthy Turkish housewife, is on her way to a dinner party at a seaside mansion in Istanbul when a beggar snatches her handbag. As she wrestles to get it back, a photograph falls to the ground – an old polaroid of three young women and their university professor. A relic from the past – and a love – Peri had tried desperately to forget. The photograph takes Peri back to Oxford University, as an eighteen-year-old sent abroad for the first time. To her dazzling, rebellious Professor and his life-changing course on God. To her home with her two best friends, Shirin and Mona, and their arguments about Islam and femininity. And finally, to the scandal that tore them apart. [Penguin Books UK]