2020 in Facts and Figures

I already posted my main 2020 in Review and Looking Ahead to 2021 posts a while ago — only on my new blog (separate post to come) –, but I held back on my 2020 reading statistics until the year was well and truly over.  And for all my good intentions when posting my mid-year summary back in early July 2020, the second half of the year continued pretty much in the same vein as the first half had begun; i.e., my statistics for the whole year are still a variation on the theme of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, or, 17 charts showing that 2020 was a year of reading Golden Age mysteries written by women (and following other Anglo-/ UK-centric reading proclivities); i.e. comfort reading galore … it was just that kind of year, I guess.

As a result, my Golden Age Mysteries / Detection Club reading project progressed very nicely.  Luckily, as I said in my main 2020 in Review post, I also managed to add a number of new countries to my Around the World challenge, and the gender balance is solidly in favor of women authors: I read almost 2 1/2 books by women for every book written by a man — in fact, I even reread more books by women than the total number of books by men.  So there was at least some progress in other areas, too.  And I liked or even loved most of the books I read in 2020 — including most of the new-to-me books –, which of course was another huge plus; in a year where reading was my go-to source of comfort, at that: most of my ratings were 4 stars or higher and thus, above the rating that marks “average” in my personal scale (3.5 stars).

Still, in 2021 I’m going to make a fresh attempt to refocus on my Around the World reading project, in furtherance of which I’ve also created a Diversity Bingo that I’ll try to get through in the space of this one year (though if it takes longer, it takes longer); and I’ll also try to include more books from my Freedom and Future Library in my yearly reading again.

And now, without any further ado:

Greatest New Author Discoveries of 2020

Classics and LitFic
Bernardine Evaristo
Olivia Manning

Historical Fiction
Dorothy Dunnett
Jean-François Parot
Paul Doherty

Golden and Silver Age Mysteries
Josephine Bell
Moray Dalton
Molly Thynne
Christianna Brand
Anthony Gilbert
Raymond Postgate
Patricia Moyes

My Life in Book Titles

This is a meme I’ve seen on quite a few blogs towards the end of 2020; it was created by Annabel at Annabookbel.  You’re to answer the prompts, using only books you have read in 2020; without, if possible, repeating a book title.  I thought I’d include it in my yearly roundup — and to up the ante a little bit further, I decided to use only books I read for the first time in 2020.

In high school I was Unspeakable (John Bercow)

People might be surprised by (my incarnation as) Lioness Rampant (Tamora Pierce)

I will never be The Horse You Came in On (Martha Grimes), nor Resorting to Murder (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

My life in lockdown was like (a) Tour de Force (Christianna Brand) and (a) Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

My fantasy job is The Thinking Machine at Work (Jacques Futrelle)

At the end of a long day I need to be Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) (to my) Pilgrim’s Rest (Patricia Wentworth)

I hate being (around) Serpents in Eden (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

Wish I had The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)

My family reunions are (often with) Thirteen Guests (J. Jefferson Farjeon)

At a party you’d find me with My Friend Mr. Campion (Margery Allingham), Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Emmuska Orczy), and other Bodies from the Library (Tony Medawar, ed.; Various Authors)

I’ve never been to Goodwood (Holly Throsby), Cherringham (Matthew Costello, Neil Richards), or At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason)

A happy day includes A Small Place (Jamaica Kincaid) (of my own): My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor)

Motto(s) I live by: To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey); and We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

On my bucket list is Shakespeare’s Local (Pete Brown)

In my next life, I want to have The Grand Tour (Matthew Pritchard, ed.; Agatha Christie)

The Stats

Number of books started: 273
Number of books finished: 271
DNF: 2
Average Rating (overall): 3.9
Average Rating w/o Favorite Annual Xmas Rereads: 3.8

Note: The above chart includes my 6 annual Christmas rereads, which have a habit of slightly skewing my overall rating figures upwards; without these books, the number of 5-star books is reduced by 5 and the number of 4.5-star books is reduced by 1.

Note: “F / M (mixed)” refers to anthologies with contributions by both male and female authors, as well as to books jointly written by male and female authors. — “N / A” in the protagonist gender chart refers to Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who is deliberately created as gender-neutral.

Note: “Multi-ethnic” either refers to several persons (authors / protagonists) of different genders, or to one person of mixed ethnicity.

 

The Halloween Creatures Book Tag

Rules:

Answer all prompts.
Answer honestly.
Tag 1-13 people.
Link back to this post. ( For me it was SnoopyDoo!)
Remember to credit the creator. (Anthony @ Keep Reading Forward)<
Have fun!

 

Witch

A Magical Character or Book

Terry Pratchett’s witches, particularly Granny Weatherwax. And DEATH (preferably in his Hogfather incarnation). No contest.

 

 

Werewolf

The Perfect Book to Read at Night

Any- and everything by Agatha Christie.

 

Vampire – A Book that Sucked the Life Out of You – and Frankenstein – A Book that Truly Shocked You

Joint honors in both categories to two novels chronicling civil war and genocide in two African countries, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria / Biafra) and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (Sierra Leone). Both of them are, in their own way, the literary equivalent of a gut punch that leaves you gasping for air in huge, big gulps. And both are, for that and many other reasons (characters, writing, the whole package) unforgettable in all the right ways.

The Devil

A Dark, Evil Character

Umm … the original blood sucker? (I don’t much go in for the sparkly variety.) And, of course, Tom Riddle aka Voldemort … and the dementors. Those creatures are vile.

 

Zombie

A Book that Made You “Hungry” for More

Dorothy L. Sayers’s Peter Wimsey & Harriet Vane tetralogy, particularly Gaudy Night. While I can totally see that (and why) for Sayers there really was no easy follow-up to Busman’s Honeymoon, I’d still have loved to see how she herself would have framed Peter and Harriet’s married life and continuing investigations … instead of having to rely on another author’s attempts to pick the bones of Sayers’s sketchy drafts.

Gargoyle

A Character that You Would Protect at All Cost

Hmm. This one was difficult, because one of the things that I like about my favorite characters — and pretty much any and all of them, and across all genres — is that they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, even in the face of adversity. But I guess if you’re up against evil incarnate and you’re looking at the one group / fellowship of people who actually stand at least a minute chance of facing up to it, a little extra protection can’t go awray.

Along the same lines, Harry Potter, Dumbledore’s Army, and most of the teachers at Hogwarts.

Ghost

A Book that Still Haunts You

I could easily have used Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love for this category all over again — as well as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (see below) and, to a minimally lesser extent its sequel, The Testaments. I didn’t want to do that, so I decided to go with Clea Koff’s The Bone Woman — not just for its content as such, though, but because I have seen cases related to the very ones that she describes up, close and personal … and short of actually being the victim of human rights violations yourself, there are few things as devastating and haunting as working with victims, or otherwise being involved in the aftermath.

Demon

A Book that Really Scared You

I reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale last year before moving on to The Testaments, and it scared the living daylights out of me; possibly even more than when I read it for the first time many years ago — not least because events in the past couple of years have shown just how realistic Atwood’s dystopia is, and how little it takes for society to slide down that particular slippery slope.

Skeleton

A Character You Have a Bone to Pick With

You mean other than each and every TSTL character ever created?

OK, let’s go with the two protagonists of what I’ve come to dub my fall 2017 headless chicken parade — Giordano Bruno in S.J. Parris’s Heresy (essentially for not bearing any demonstrable likeness to the historical Giordano Bruno, who would probably have sneared at his fictional alter ego in this particular book / series), and Albert Campion in Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse, for losing not only his memory but also the better part of his essential character makeup as a result of being coshed over the head.

Mummy

A Book You Would Preserve Throughout Time

Well, the likes of Hamlet, Pride & Prejudice and Sherlock Holmes have already made their point as far as “timeless” is concerned, so it feels kind of pointless to pick a classic here.

That being said, I hope one day the time will come for people to scratch their heads and wonder what all the fuss was about, but right now — there hasn’t been a book in a long time that challenged stereotypes (gender, race, class, writing styles, younameit) in the way that Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other has. It’s the reality check we all urgently needed, and a book that can’t ever possibly have too many readers … now and for the foreseeable future.

Creepy Doll

A Cover too Scary to Look At

That of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary — because I really do NOT want to think about the possibility of my pets ever turning into zombies, revenants or the like, or otherwise taking on similarly murderous qualities. And that is precisely what this cover makes me do.

 

The Monster Mash

It’s Fun to Be with Friends on Halloween!
Tag Your Friends!

Anyone and everyone who wants to do this, I hope if you are reading this and have not done it you will. It’s fun, and outside of Halloween Bingo, nothing says bookish Halloween like tying a few of your reads to a roundup of Halloween creatures! 🙂

February and Mid-March 2020 Reading Update

I never got around to doing this at the end of February, so what the heck … I might as well include the first two weeks of March, since that month is half over at this point already, too.  But then, February was such a universal suck-fest in RL that I didn’t even make it here for the better part of the month to begin with.  (Don’t even ask.)  So much for my hope back in January that things might be looking up …

So, lots and lots of comfort reading in the past 1 1/2 months; Golden and Silver Age mysteries aplenty, both new and from the reread department — but I also managed to honor Black History Month and advance my Around the World, Women Writers, and 221B Baker Street and Beyond reading projects.  In perhaps the weirdest turnout of the past couple of weeks, I even managed to include two “almost buddy reads” (reading books that others had recently finished or were reading concurrently — Patricia Moyes’s Dead Men Don’t Ski and Freeman Will Crofts’s The Cask) and, before vanishing into my February RL black hole, a real buddy read with BT of John Bercow’s excellent (though somewhat unfortunately-titled) memoir, Unspeakable.

 

Number of books read since February 1: 27
Of these:

 

Black History Month
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We Should All Be Feminists
Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing
Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)

 

Around the World
— counting only books by non-Caucasian authors and / or set neither in Europe nor in the mainland U.S.:
* The three above-mentioned books, plus
* Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World
* Mia Alvar: In the Country
* Matthew Pritchard (ed.), Agatha Christie: The Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922

 

221B Baker Street and Beyond
Terry Manners: The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes
Keith Frankel: Granada’s Greatest Detective

 

Golden Age Mysteries
4 by Ngaio Marsh (all rereads): Overture to Death, Light Thickens, Dead Water, Death at the Bar
4 by Margery Allingham (2 rereads, 2 new): The Beckoning Lady, Death of a Ghost, Mystery Mile, Black Plumes
1 by Patricia Wentworth (new): The Case of William Smith
2 by J. Jefferson Farjeon (both new): Seven Dead and Thirteen Guests
1 by Raymond Postgate (new): Somebody at the Door
1 by Freeman Wills Crofts (new): The Cask

 

Silver Age and Other Mysteries
Patricia Moyes: Dead Men Don’t Ski (new)
Colin Dexter: Last Bus to Woodstock (reread)
Ellis Peters: The Sanctuary Sparrow (reread)
P.D. James / BBC Radio: 7 dramatizations (Cover Her Face, Devices and Desires, A Certain Justice, A Taste for Death, The Private Patient, The Skull Beneath the Skin, and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman) — all revisits as far as the actual books were concerned, as was the dramatization of The Skull Beneath the Skin; the rest of the audios were new to me)

 

Other Books
John Bercow: Unspeakable (memoir)
Tony Riches: Henry (historical fiction)

 

Of all of these, the standout entries were:

Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)
A short but impactful novel tracing the coming-of-age of the son of a French father and a Burundian Tutsi mother, which coming-of-age is rudely interrupted when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda spills over into Burundi.  What starts out as an endearing but somewhat unremarkable read becomes a tale of unspeakable heartbreak in the final part, in which it only took very few pages for the book to completely skewer me.

Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World
Justice Sotomayor’s memoirs of her upbringing in the New York Puerto Rican community, and her unlikely, but doggedly pursued path to Princeton, Yale Law School, and ultimately, the Federal Bench — fullfilling a dream that had, oddly, started by watching Perry Mason on TV as a child.  I wish Sotomayor hadn’t finisihed her book with her appointment as a judge, though I respect the reasons why she decided to do so; and even so, hers is a truly impressive, inspiring story of overcoming a multitude of crippling conditions (type-1 diabetes, poverty, racism, and teachers discouraging rather than inspiring her, to name but a few) to chart out a path in life that even most of those who didin’t have to overcome any of these odds would not dare to aspire to.  Throughout the narrative, Sotomayor’s genuine empathy with and care for her fellow human beings shines through on many an occasion; not only for her family and friends, and for those disadvantaged by society, but for everybody she encounters — until and unless they rub her the wrong way, in whch case they will find themselves at the receiving end of a tongue lashing or two.  What particularly impressed me was that Sotomayor, though a staunch defender of Affirmative Action, repeatedly chose not to seek positions as a minority candidate but on a more neutral ticket, fearing she might unduly be buttonholed otherwise.  That sort of thing takes great strength and belief in the universality of her message.

Agatha Christie / Matthew Pritchard (ed.): The Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922
Agatha Christie’s letters, photos and postcards from the expedition to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada in which her first husband, Archibald, and she were invited to participate out of the blue shortly after the birth of their daughter Rosamund.  Lovingly edited by her grandson Matthew Pritchard, and amplified by the corresponding excerpts from her autobiography, the letters in particular shed an interesting sidelight onto the thinking and life experience of the then-budding future Queen of Crime (her second novel was published while the tour was under way), and to fans, the book is worth the purchase for her photos alone (she had rather a good eye for visual composition, too) … and for her surfing adventures, reproduced here in their full glory, and in both words and images.

John Bercow: Unspeakable 
An impromptu boddy read with BrokenTune; delivered in Bercow’s trademark style and doubtlessly offering as much fodder to those determined to hate him as to those who regret his stepping down as Speaker.  I commented on the bits up to the Brexit chapter in a status update at the 70% point; the final part of the book contains much that Bercow had already said repeatedly while still in office, be it in interviews or from the Speaker’s chair; yet, while he doesn’t hold back with criticism of those whose stance he considers irresponsible, he is also scrupulously fair to all those who, he genuinely believes, are working hard to realize the political aims they consider in the best interests of theiri constituents.  In fact, the chapter about what, in Bercow’s opinion, makes a “good” politician, was possibly the most surprising inclusion in the book (and the book worth a read for that chapter alone), heaping praise (and in some instances, scorn) on a wide array of politicians of all parties, regardless whether Bercow shares their views or not. —  Even if no longer from inside the Houses of Parliament, I hope and trust Bercow’s voice will remain relevant and weighty in the months and years to come.

Patricia Moyes: Dead Men Don’t Ski
A huge shout-out to Moonlight Reader for favorably reviewing this book earlier this year and thus bringing it to my attention.  Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy are a joy to be with, and like MR and Tigus (who has also read the book in the interim), I’ll definitely be spending more time in their company in the future.  What I particularly appreciated in addition to the delightful characters created by Ms. Moyes (and the rather cleverly-constructed locked-room mystery at the heart of this book) was the understanding she brought to the book’s setting in the German-speaking part of the Italian Alps, which is not only one of the most naturally stunning parts of the entire Alps but also a region fraught with a complicated history, which might have caused a lesser writer to glide off into easy cliché, but which Moyes uses rather skillfully in crafting her story’s background.

 Ngaio Marsh: Light Thickens
The final book of the Roderick Alleyn series and perhaps not everybody’s cup of tea, set, as it is, in Marsh’s “main” professional domain — the world of the theatre — and featuring a plot in which the murder only occurs at the halfway point, almost as an afterthought: and yet, upon revisiting the book, I instantly realized all over again why this (the first mystery by Marsh I’d ever read) was the one book that irresistibly drew me into the series and made me an instant fan.  This isn’t so much a mystery as a Shakespearean stage director’s love letter to the Bard, and to his “Scottish play” in all of its permutations; as well as to the Shakespearean theatre, and more generally, the world of the stage as such.  Roderick Alleyn (rather far advanced in his career and definitely not having aged in real time) eventually shows up to solve the inevitable murder, faithful sidekick Inspector (“Br’er”) Fox in tow and quoting Shakespeare with the best of them, but the stars of the show remain the actors themselves, the play’s director (whom those who read the series in order will, at this point, already have encountered in a prior installment), and ultimately, Shakespeare himself.  This may not be everybody’s cup of tea in a mystery … to me, it proved irresistible, the first time around as much as upon revisiting the book now.

Margery Allingham: Death of a Ghost
Unlike my reading experience with Allingham’s fellow Golden Age Queens of Crime Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, that with Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion series is a rather checkered one, where instances of true mystery reader’s delight repeatedly follow hot on the heels of groan-inducing forays into clichéd, implausible plots populated by cardboard characters, and vice versa.  That said, even upon my first read I considered Death of a Ghost one of the series’s absolutely standout entries, and that impression has only been confirmed and reinforced by revisiting the book.  Set in the art world and populated by a cast of fully drawn, quirky characters (some likeable, some decidedly less so), the book lives off Allingham’s acerbic wit, which is brought out to great advantage here; and although Campion tumbles to the probable identity of the murderer when we’re barely halfway into the book, Allingham easily maintains the reader’s interest by keeping the “how” a puzzle, and by tying in a further puzzle whose solution will eventually provide the motive for the murder.  If there is any letdown in the book at all, it’s in the murderer’s ultimate fate, but by and large, this is a superlative effort.

As a side note, I’ve also concluded that the audio versions of Allingham’s novels work decidedly better for me if read by Francis Matthews rather than David Thorpe.  I have no problem with Thorpe as a narrator of other books, but he takes a rather literal approach to Allingham’s description of Campion’s voice, making it come across almost as a falsetto, which in combination with his overly expressive narration as a whole tends to drive me clean up the wall.  Matthews’s delivery, by contrast, while hinting at Campion’s vocal patterns, is a bit more matter of fact overall (even though it still leaves plenty of room for characterization, both of people and of plot elements) — an impression that was swiftly confirmed when a search for further Allingham titles recorded by Matthews threw up a non-Campion mystery of hers, Black Plumes, which in turn also confirmed my impression that some of Allingham’s best writing is contained in books other than her Campion mysteries.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Overall, the past six (or so) weeks contained a lot of great books, regardless whether rereads or new to me.  The two most-hyped entries in the selection — Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Mia Alvar’s In the Country — proved, almost predictably (for me, anyway), those that I was least impressed with: they were both still solid 4-star reads, but both episodic in nature, with only some of those episodes engaging me as fully (and consequently, blowing me away as much) as, if I’d have believed the hype, I’d have expected the entire books to do.  (I know, I know.  4 stars is still a very respectable showing, and I wouldn’t give either book less than that … and considering that I’ve been known to one-star overly hyped books when called for, 4 stars is even more pretty darned decent.  Still … they both, but particularly so Homegoing, would have had so much more potential if they’d been allowed to spread their wings to the full.) — Of the Golden Age mysteries new to me, the standout was J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Thirteen Guests. Tony Riches’s Henry provides a well-executed conclusion to his series about the three first significant Tudors (Owen, Jasper, and Henry VII) — neatly complementing Samantha Wilcoxson’s novel about Henry VII’s wife Elizabeth of York, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen — and the two books focusing on Jeremy Brett and the Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series starring him as Holmes have given me the idea for a Holmes-related special project, which I will, however, probably only get around to later this year (if I get around to it at all, my RL outlook being what it is at the moment).

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/2083073/february-and-mid-march-2020-reading-update

Books With a Difference

Responding to Moonlight Reader’s “call for papers (= titles / authors)” — there are quite a number of excellent lists out there already; anyway, here’s my contribution … or a first draft, at least.  Links go to my reviews (or status updates / summary blog posts / author pages) to the extent I’ve posted any.

Not necessarily in this (or any particular) order:

Dorothy L. Sayers: Are Women Human?
Sayers didn’t like to be called a feminist, because she was adverse to ideology for ideology’s sake, but nobody makes the case for equality and for the notion that a person’s qualification for a job depends not (at all) on their sex but solely — gasp — on their qualifications and experience more eloquently than she did in these two speeches.  (I gave up on the attempt to review this little book when I realized that I was basically fawn-quoting half its contents, but the BL book page lists two very good reviews by others.)  Sayers’s crime fiction is legendary, of course, but she’d totally be short-changed if she were ever reduced to that … even to a brilliant book like Gaudy Night (which transforms into fiction much of what she addresses here).  This should be taught and listed right alongside Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Moderata Fonte: The Worth of Women
If you thought women in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance didn’t know how to speak up for themselves, think again.  There’s Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Christine de Pizan … and then, there is 16th century Venetian Moderata Fonte.  The Worth of Women is, essentially, a witty, pithy conversation among several women preparing one of them (the daughter of another one of their number) for her wedding, and it covers everything from women’s daily life and struggle (as such, but in particular vis-à-vis the stupidity and inferiority of the other sex, which without any justification whatsoever has been declared “superior”), their wishes, desires, etc.  The young bride, who actually doesn’t much feel like marrying to begin with, is consoled over the fact that she really has to (the only alternative being the cloister) by the assurance that every effort has gone into finding her a good husband (i.e., the best specimen from an inherently inferior selection), and receives manifold advice on how to get around him.  The whole text reads refreshingly contemporary, very much to the point — and in part, it is just laugh-out-loud funny.  (“Moderata Fonte” was, incidentally, the pen name of a lady actually named Modesta Pozzo, which means … exactly the same thing: Modest Fountain.  [Or Fountain of Modesty.]  And yes, I probably should review this book at some point, too — God knows, I added enough quotes from it on Goodreads back in the day …)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun
One of my highlights of 2018 and the book that (in large parts) inspired my personal “Around the World in 80 Books” challenge; an insightful, heartbreaking, unflinching, and just all around amazingly written look at the 1960s’ Biafra war, post-independence Nigerian society and the human condition as such, by one of today’s most brilliant writers, period.  Eye-opening in so many ways.  (And yes, admittedly this one is on several of those published “must read” lists, too, but in this one instance I don’t care.  This really is a book that everybody should read.)

Aminatta Forna: The Memory of Love
My Half of a Yellow Sun of 2019; the book which alone would have made that “Around the World” challenge a winner even if I’d hate every other book I’ve so far read for it (which I don’t).  Trauma, fractured lives and society, love, betrayal, war and peace in post-independence Sierra Leone (1960s-70s and present day).  Forna is Adichie’s equal in every respect and then some.  For a bonus experience, get the audio version narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith: He transforms a book that is extraordinary already in its own right from a deeply atmospheric and emotional experience into visceral goosebumps material.

Xinran: The Good Women of China
Before she emigrated to the UK, Xinran was a radio presenter in Nanjing: Inspired by the letters she received by women listeners, she started a broadcast series dedicated to their stories, some of which she tells in this book.  Her broadcasts gave Chinese women — firmly under the big collective male thumb for centuries and still considered beings of a lower order today — a voice that they hadn’t had until then; now her books give non-Chinese readers a pespective on an aspect of Chinese society that most definitely doesn’t figure in the pretty picture of a modern high-tech society that China would love to present to the world.

Astrid Lindgren: Pippi Longstocking and Lindgren’s Wartime Diaries (“A World Gone Mad”)
Pippi Longstocking taught me, when I had barely learned to read, that girls can go anywhere and do anything they set their minds to. — Lindgren’s wartime diaries are tinged with the same sense of humor and profound humanity as her children’s books, in addition to containing a spot-on analysis of the political situation in the years between 1939 and 1945 and many insights into her daily life.

Lion Feuchtwanger: Die Jüdin von Toledo (Raquel, the Jewess of Toledo, aka A Spanish Ballad)
A bit hard to come by in translation, but absolutely worthwhile checking out (and an indisputable evergreen classic in the original German): Set during the medieval Spanish Reconquista (the era when Christian princes and armies were wresting the Spanish peninsula back from the Muslims), in Toledo, during a phase when Christians, Jews and Muslims were living together peacefully in Castile; the true-life story of — married — (Christian) King Alfonso of Castile and his love for a young woman of Jewish faith.  Lots of food for thought on multicultural societies, tolerance, broadmindedness and responsible choices that applies today just as much as it did then.  I first read this decades ago and it has stayed with me ever since.

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio
More on multicultural societies, tolerance, conscience and choices; set in the Avignon area of Provence during three distinct historical periods: the end / breakdown of the Roman empire, the medieval schism of the Catholic church (when the popes were residing in Avignon), and the Nazi occupation of France.  All three periods are linked by a mysterious manuscript, and in all three periods the (male) protagonists are guided by a woman who is their superior in wisdom and who becomes their inspiration.  Another one of those books that have stayed with me for years and years.

Wallace Stegner: Remembering Laughter
MR mentioned Angle of Repose, and I’d agree that is Stegner’s best novel (it’s also far and away my favorite book by him); but I do also have a soft spot for his very first novella, written as his (winning) entry in a writing competition, in which all of the hallmarks of his fiction are already present, most importantly the backdrop of his beloved Western Plains and the topic of people’s isolation from each other (even when they’re ostensibly in company).

Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)
100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera may be the books by García Márquez that the creators of those “must read” lists tell you to read (and I don’t exactly disagree), but this brief novella set in a small Columbian seaside town is every bit as worthwhile of notice: A deconstruction, in a mere 100 pages and in reverse chronology, of an honor killing and the society that has allowed it to happen.  Completely and utterly spine-chilling.

Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton
Actually, any nonfiction by Rushdie (for my money, most of his fiction writing as well, but part of that is on “those lists” anyway, and I know Rushdie’s style of fiction writing isn’t everybody’s cup of tea).  I’ve read some of his essays, but not enough of them yet to make for a full collection, so I’ll go with the one nonfiction book of his that I actually have read cover to cover: His memoir of the fatwā years.  Unapologetically personal and subjective, even if oddly — and to me, jarringly — written in the third instead of the first person; but definitely one of my must-read books of the recent years and one that I have every expectation will stand the test of time.

For completion’s sake: His essays are collected in two volumes entitled Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 and  Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002.  I’m hoping to complete both of them, too, some day soon.

Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana and John Le Carré: The Tailor of Panama
Two takes on essentially the same topic — corruption, Western espionage and military shenanigans in Central America –, both redolent with satire and featuring a bumbling spy against his own will as their MC.  I’m not a fan of either author’s entire body of work, but I find both of their takes on this particular topic equally irresistible … and unfortunately, they seem to have regained consiiderable topicality in recent years.

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens
By which I do not mean the recent TV adaptation but the actual book, as well as (by way of a companion piece) the full cast BBC audio adaptation.  Armageddon will never again be as much fun — but Pratchett and Gaiman wouldn’t be Pratchett and Gaiman if there weren’t a sharp-edged undercurrent, too: Unlike the TV adaptation with its squeaky-clean looks, the book does not shy away from taking an uncomfortably close look at religion and society.  And then, of course, there’s Crowley and Aziraphale …

(Honorary entry from Pratchett’s Discworld series: Hogfather.  Just because.)

Michael Connelly: Harry Bosch Series
One of the two ongoing crime fiction series that I’m still following religiously and have been, from very early on.  Connelly nails L.A., to the point that it becomes a character in its own right in his novels rather than merely a backdrop.  Harry Bosch is a Vietnam vet, your quintessential curmudgeonly loner with a big heart, fiercely loyal (motto: “Everybody counts or nobody counts”) and hates corruption, grift and nepotism in the LAPD more than anything else.  One of my all-time early favorite entries in the series is book no. 6, Angels Flight (which deals with the Rodney King riots and their fallout), but really, Connelly just keeps getting better and better.  The TV series starring Titus Welliver as Harry makes for great companion material, but to me the books will always come first.  (Even more so now that some of them are actually narrated by Mr. Welliver in the audio versions.)

Ian Rankin: Inspector Rebus Series
The other long-lasting crime fiction series that I’ve been following since pretty much forever; for similar reasons as Connelly’s Harry Bosh series: Edinburgh is a character of its own rather than mere backdrop; John Rebus (ex-S.A.S.) is Harry Bosch’s brother in spirit in virtually every respect — except that Bosch has a daughter, whereas Rebus has (or had, until recently) his booze — and like Connelly, Rankin does not shy away from addressing the social and political topics of the day in his novels.  For me, Rankin had found his Rebus legs, oddly enough, also in book 6 of the series, Mortal Causes (which deals with the “white supremacy” /  neofascist brand of Scottish nationalism), but he, too, just keeps getting better and better.

P.D. James: Inspector Dalgliesh Series
From the waning years of the Silver Age of detective fiction (post-WWII through the 1960s) all the way to the New Millennium, James was the reigning queen of British mystery writers, and for a reason.  Her friend (and rival for those honors) Ruth Rendell may have been more prolific, but every so often gave in to populism and cliché — not so James.  She was unequaled at setting a scene and creating a suspenseful atmosphere, and in the best tradition of the Golden Age masters, her mysteries always turned on psychology first and foremost.  Means and opportunity were important, but it was humans and their relationshp that she was chiefly interested in.   I have no doubt that her books will stand the test of time just as well as those of Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayers and their generation of mystery writers.

Joy Ellis: Their Lost Daughters
The second book in Ellis’s Jackman and Evans series; an absolute stunner in every single way.  Mike Finn and Jennifer(‘s Books) weren’t that enchanted with Ellis’s other series (Nikki Galena), and I have only read one other book by her so far (Jackman & Evans no. 1), but be that as it may, this one is completely worth it and then some.  Set in the Fen Country, dripping with dark atmosphere, with a likeable and fully rounded pair of detectives as MCs — and a veritable jaw-dropper of a finale.  Oh, and the audio version (of the entire series) is narrated by Richard Armitage.

Peter Grainger: An Accidental Death
New Fen Country crime fiction series no. 2, and every bit as atmospheric and well-written as Ellis’s Their Lost Daughters.  This is the first book in the DC Smith series, which centers on a formerly higher-ranking policeman who has chosen to stay on the job as a detective sergeant (rather than go into retirement), so as to be able to actually do hands-on crime solving work instead of being shackled to his desk dealing with police administration.  Again, highly recommended, and I am very much looking forward to continue reading the series. — With this series and those by Ellis, I’m also really, really happy to have found not one but several new series set in a part of Britain that has not yet been written to death.

Donna Andrews: Meg Langslow Series
I am not anywhere near a reader of modern cozies (and though Golden Age mysteries are often lumped into that category, to my mind few of them really belong there) — I quickly get bored by trademark kinks and similar forms of repetitive humor, and I often find their plotlines, characters and settings unconvincing, shallow and overly sugarcoated.  Donna Andrews is the exception to the rule: I probably still wouldn’t read too many of her books back to back, but visits to the crazy but comfortable world of her small-town Virginia have become a Christmas reading tradition in the last couple of years that I’ve really come to look forward to.  Favorite entries to date: Duck the Halls, The Nightingale Before Christmas, and Six Geese A’Slayin’.

Jennifer Worth: Call the Midwife
Midwifery in London’s East End, in the mid-20th century.  I’m not even a mother myself, but man, I’ve never been more grateful for the advances in modern medicine than after reading this book.  Well, and other social advances obviously.  Gotta love the Sisters, though …

 

Jared Diamond: Collapse and The World Until Yesterday
Diamond won a Pulitzer for Guns, Germs and Steel, but these two books (particularly: Collapse) are, to my mind, much more relevant to the world in which we’re living today; in analyzing both the state of our modern, globalized world (and its chances for a sustainable future) and the lessons to be learned from past societies: those whose choices led them to failure as much as those whose choices led to success and long-term survival.  Diamond is anything but a prophet of disaster, but being a scientist, he cannot and of course does not shrink from simple, indisputable facts and realities.  At no time have voices like his needed to be listened to and taken seriously as much as today.

  Full disclosure: I know Jared Diamond personally; he’s a longtime friend of my mother’s.  That doesn’t however impact my belief that his voice, and those of scientists like him, need to be heard now more than ever.

Stanley Wells, James Shapiro, Tarnya Cooper and Marcia Pointon: Searching for Shakespeare
Hard to believe this started life as a National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue, but it did: A lavishly, gorgeously illustrated, supersized, book-length (240 p.) showcasing of Shakespeare’s life and times; companion to the 2006 exhibition on the NPG’s examination of the authenticity of six portraits then believed to be of the Bard (of which only one, the Chandos Portrait, in addition to the famous First Folio cover of Shakespeare’s works and the statue in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church survived that scrutiny).  More informative in both text and images than many a Shakesperean biography or a book on the history of the 16th / 17th century.

Stanley Wells: Shakespeare and Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Johnson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story
The world of Elizabethan theatre, by the grand master of British Shakespearean scholars and long-time chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  Equally engaging, informative and entertaining — and I’m pretty sure the Bard would have appreciated Wells’s not just occasionally pithy turn of phrase.

Antony Sher and Gregory Doran: Woza Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus in South Africa
The future artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of Britain’s greatest contemporary Shakespearean actors (himself born in South Africa) — off stage, a couple — take the Bard’s most controversial and violent play to Sher’s home country … in the middle of Apartheid.  Judging by their tour diaries (in essence, this book), it must have been quite a trip.

Final note, for those who are wondering: Golden Age mysteries have been covered by several other list creators here on BL already, so I decided not to replicate that (obviously, otherwise the better part of the entire canons of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and others would have shown up on my list, too).  Similarly, while Jane Austen, the Brontës, and several other 19th century writers are unquestionably part of my personal canon, they’re also on just about every published “must read” list out there, so there hardly seemed any point in including them here.  Ditto Greek mythology.  Ditto William Shakespeare (the plays themselves, that is).  Ditto Oscar Wilde.  Ditto John Steinbeck.  Etc. …

And now that I’m finally about to hit “post”, I’m probably going to think of a whole other list of books that I really ought to have included here!

 

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ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1903597/for-moonlight-reader-books-with-a-difference

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Biafra: The World Was Silent When We Died

Half of a Yellow Sun is named for the centerpiece of the Biafran flag:

* Red for the blood of those massacred in northern Nigeria after the country’s 1960 independence; in the time period leading up to the Nigeria-Biafra war, and in that war itself;
* Black for mourning them and in remembrance;
* Green for prosperity;
* And half of a yellow / golden sun for a glorious future: The sun has eleven rays, representing the eleven provinces of Biafra.

 

In this novel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the inside story of the Nigeria-Biafra war, of the anti-Igbo massacres preceding it, and of the short-lived Republic of Biafra roughly corresponding with the area chiefly inhabited by the Igbo (as well as the Ibibio, and Ijaw) and, in colonial times, known as Eastern Region of Nigeria: to this day, the political period most haunting Nigeria and its people.

Though the novel is not autobiographical (Adichie was born several years after the war ended), it is inspired by the experience of Adichie’s parents, as well as numerous other eyewitnesses, who individually and collectively informed her protagonists: middle class twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, their lovers — university professor and political activist Odenigbo, and English journalist and would-be novelist Richard Churchill (a distant relative of Winston) –, and last but not least Odenigbo and Olanna’s houseboy Ugwu.  Through their eyes, and chiefly through those of Ugwu, Olanna and Richard, Adichie conveys a fragmented and multi-faceted image of the events, from the search for an authentic post-colonial (national? Igbo? pan-African?) identity to the shock and sheer terror of the anti-Igbo massacres — primarily in Northern Nigeria –, the euphoria accompanying the foundation of the Republic of Biafra, and finally the unspeakable horror of a war conducted, on the Nigerian side, by way of a systematic campaign of starvation, shutting off Biafra’s access to necessary food products and producing the images which have come to define the word “Biafra” once and for all to this day.

Although these images were front page news all over the world, and relief organizations such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders (which in fact owes its very existence to the Nigeria-Biafra war) did the best they could to battle the impossible odds, most of the First World stood by and let events take their course, out of a mixture of political self-interest, ignorance, sheer disbelief, and helpless apathy in the face of the enormity of the genocide.

In the novel, it is initially Richard, who has come to identify with the Igbo at least as much, or even more than with his English roots, who tries to convey a sense of what is happening inside Biafra to the outside world, through newspaper articles published in England and North America.  But his big project, a book about the Igbo (initially about their history and art; later on, about the war), keeps getting thwarted, and he ultimately abandons it:

“Ugwu fumbled, awkwardly, for something to say. ‘Are you still writing your book, sah?’
‘No.’
‘”The World Was Silent When We Died”.  It is a good title.’
‘Yes, it is.  It came from something Colonel Madu said once.’
Richard paused.  ‘The war isn’t my story to tell, really.’
Ugwu nodded.  He had never thought that it was.”

And in fact, it will end up being Ugwu himself who writes that very book.  As it should be — the story of Biafra, and the Nigeria-Biafra war, is for the Igbo and the Nigerians themselves to tell, first and foremost.  That obviously doesn’t mean the rest of the world should ever stand by and keep silent in the face of war and genocide; but Adichie’s point here (and I agree with her) is about authenticity, both cultural and emotional:

“I taught an introductory creative writing class at Princeton last year and, in addition to the classic ‘show don’t tell’, I often told my students that their fiction needed to have ’emotional truth’ […]: a quality different from honesty and more resilient than fact, a quality that existed not in the kind of fiction that explains but in the kind of fiction that shows.  All the novels I love, the ones I remember, the ones I re-read, have this empathetic human quality.  And because I write the kind of fiction I like to read, when I started Half of a Yellow Sun […], I hoped that emotional truth would be its major recognizable trait. […]

Successful fiction does not need to be validated by ‘real life’; I cringe whenever a writer is asked how much of a novel is ‘real’.  Yet, […] to write realistic fiction about war, especially one central to the history of one’s own country, is to be constantly aware of a responsibility to something larger than art.  While writing Half of a Yellow Sun, I enjoyed playing with minor things [such as inventing a train station in a town that has none].  Yet I did not play with the central events of that time.  I could not let a character be changed by anything that had not actually happened.  If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally keen to be true to the spirit of the time as well as to artistic vision of it.

The writing itself was a bruising experience. […] But there were also moments of extravagant joy when I recognized, in a character or moment or scene, that quality of emotional truth.”

(Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, In the Shadow of Biafra — essay included in the 2007 Harper Perennial edition of Half of a Yellow Sun).

Half of a Yellow Sun has been called everything from “stunning” and “a landmark novel” to “heartbreaking”, “exquisitely written, “a literary masterpiece” and “a classic” (the last four of these, in one and the same sentence of a Daily Mail review blurbed on the front cover of my edition).  The novel is probably all of these things, and yet, let’s face it, all of these terms are nothing so much as well-worn reviewer’s clichésSince they’re the coinage by which professional reviewers the world over operate, I’m sure Ms. Adichie still preferred getting plenty of this sort of accolades over being ripped apart by these same professional reviewers’ mercilessly acidic tongues, which the same time-honored traditions of the trade reserve for books not considered worth the respective reviewer’s precious time. — Being a mere amateur, I’m going to content myself with saying that this novel is precisely what Ms. Adichie hoped it would be: an emotionally brutally honest book; a fragment of Nigerian history told through the eyes of a small, diverse, and devastatingly flawed group of people.

(And of course I’m going to count this towards the letter “A” of the Women Writers Bingo … never mind that I’ve already read another book qualifying for that particular square.)

 

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