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Category: reading

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

I bought this when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize but didn’t get around to reading it right away. And then it won! So I put it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. A novel originally written in Arabic by a woman author from Oman, it features multiple female characters and tells the story of social change in a little-understood region of the world. All this ticks a lot of my boxes, and the professional and GR reviews were very respectful, if a little mixed.

I’m glad I read this novel, and I’m still thinking about it, but I can’t say it was a fully satisfying experience. The theme is the social change of the country and the people through the 20thC, with an emphasis on three generations of women in an extended family and kin network. The reviews tend to single out three sisters in one generation (and they appear to be on the cover), but their mothers, grandmothers, daughter, and servants (formerly slaves) play equally important roles. We also read about the lives of the men in this community, most notably Abdallah, who is the father of the sisters and who gets the most POV pages.

The women’s stories focus on feelings and events surrounding marriage, childbirth, and their relationships with their parents, spouses and children. Even London, the daughter/granddaughter who is the youngest of the group and who becomes a doctor, spends more on-page time agonizing over her love interest and potential husband than anything else. Some of the writing about weddings and childbirths is very compelling. There is a description of the bridal and wedding process for one sister that gave me flashbacks, and there is a startling and effective childbirth scene. We spend a fair amount of time with Mayya after she has given birth and gone back to her family home for her post-partum rituals. If you aren’t familiar with extended family and kin networks in religious societies, you’ll learn a lot and even if you are familiar the characters’ stories will draw you in.

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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for July: Below Deck by Dorien Kelly

This month’s prompt is “contemporary,” which offered me a vast range of choices. I went for this one because I still fondly remember a book Kelly wrote for the old Harlequin Flipside series called Do-Over. It was fun and funny and had an endearing romance. The book I just read is very different, though, and it didn’t work nearly as well for me. Rats.

Below Deck is part of the Harlequin series Mediterranean Nights, in which all the stories are set aboard a cruise ship called Alexandra’s Dream. I’m not a cruise ship person; the idea of being cooped up in a floating hotel with higher-than-average chances of catching communicable diseases has never appealed. (As an aside: I sailed on a couple of famous ocean liners as a child, but those were a whole different thing in a different era.) Nevertheless, it’s a great setting for a romance, since the protagonists are thrown together in a confined space, and they also get to get off the boat in beautiful locales.

Our two MCs are Mei Lin Wang, the ship’s massage therapist, and Gideon Dayan, head of security. Lin has taken the job to get away from the Chinese government, who want to question her about her late husband’s activist colleagues, and to protect her baby from personal and political threats. And of course the baby has to be kept a secret (although multiple other ship employees know about him and help her take care of him). And did I mention that Lin is still nursing baby Wei and has no breast pump, so she is constantly worrying about leaking milk and making sure he’s fed in a consistent way? Realistic and in some ways refreshing, but not really adding to the romantic aura of the story.

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Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson just released her fifth Jackson Brodie novel after a years-long hiatus in which she wrote acclaimed general/literary fiction novels. I started and put aside this one years ago, and then I intended to go back after watching and enjoying Jason Isaacs in the TV adaptation but it has languished on my TBR. Discussion of the latest Brodie piqued my interest again, though, so I picked it up and started over from the beginning. This time I was prepared for the discursive, meandering style and the lack of emphasis on the actual investigative procedure aspect, and I enjoyed it a lot. So much, in fact, that I went straight on to start the next installment, One Good Turn.

Jackson Brodie is a 45-year-old PI. He’s an ex-military policeman and an ex-detective, born in Yorkshire but who has lived in Cambridge for the last decade-plus. He is recently divorced and shares custody of his eight-year-old daughter. His ex-wife, who when married to him neither wore a wedding ring nor changed her name, is now living with a Cambridge lecturer and knits, gardens, and generally does the hausfrau things she scorned with Jackson. Jackson doesn’t drink too much, but he has recently gone back to smoking too much and spends a lot of time musing about his life in internal monologues.

The plot itself comprises three crime threads, all of which we see from the characters’ POVs. The first thread involves the disappearance 35 years ago of a young child, Olivia, who is beloved by her sisters and her mother (the father, a self-described brilliant mathematician academic, is barely involved with his family). Her now middle-aged sisters discover her favorite stuffed animal among her fathers’ things after his death, which leaves them stunned and looking for answers. The second thread is about the senseless, unsolved killing of an 18-year-old young woman named Laura ten years previously and her father’s inability to stop looking for the killer. The third thread concerns a young family in which the wife was convicted of her husband’s brutal murder and their baby daughter Tanya was given to her paternal grandparents, but who as a teenager has disappeared. There is also a fourth character, Binky Rain, a very old woman who has dozens of cats and who calls Jackson every time one of them goes missing.

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20 Books of Summer: Books 1-3

It’s almost July and I’ve only finished three of my 20 books. Ack! Oh well, better than zero I suppose. One was for the Romance TBR Challenge and two others were on my list.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr.

So many people have raved about this book, including Barb and Liz, that I was sure I’d love it, and when I found a gently used copy in my local used bookstore I snapped it up. It has sat on my shelf for quite a while, though, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to dive it. It is a short book, more of a novella, and it was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1980.

I don’t know why I expected this to be a relatively spare, unemotional book because it’s quite the opposite. The language is lush and the reader is immediately enmeshed in the atmosphere of a Yorkshire village just after WW1. The narrator, Tom Birkin, is a veteran who has come to this village to uncover a mural buried under coats of whitewash in a village church. He is separated from his wife, suffering the aftereffects of battle, and generally at a not-great place. As he works on the mural he slowly makes connections with villagers and with another veteran who is working there and comes to a more peaceful place. The novel has been described as elegant and poetic, and it is that.

It took me a while for the book to work its magic on me, perhaps because I was (for no good reason) expecting a different style. I didn’t warm immediately to Tom himself, but when he started to interact with the villagers and become part of the community, it came to life. There are some sad scenes and some quite funny scenes (e.g. when Tom substitutes for Mr. Ellerbeck at a church meeting). Overall, though, it felt like a book written in mid-century, not the late 1970s. Reading Carr’s biography it is clear he was an unusual person, so that might account for the tone. Anyway, it was excellent, even if I appreciated it more than was captivated by it. I imagine if I read it a second time I will start raving about it too, though.


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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for June: Lady Polly

I read this in time for the June 19 deadline but I didn’t get it written up before we left for Wales and then I was occupied with walking and writing about walking. But it’s still June, so at least I made the month.

The prompt challenge for June was historical, of which I have many in the TBR. As usual I chose from my Harlequin TBR and I decided to go with a favorite author. Cornick wrote a bunch of trads before she switched to single-title historicals and I’ve been reading through the new-to-me ones over the last couple of years. They are in the vein of the old Signet Regencies and she knows her historical material so they hit my comfort-read sweet spot. Lady Polly is no different; while I didn’t love every aspect of it, I found it an enjoyable read with a wonderful hero.

The book is part of a series, but while there are clearly characters who starred in an earlier installment, you don’t need to have read it for this story to make sense (I know I’ve read the previous one but I didn’t remember much about it and it didn’t matter).

Lady Polly Seagrave and Lord Henry Marchnight were in love with each other but he became embroiled in a scandal and was considered off-limits by her family. When Lord Henry asked Lady Polly to flout convention and elope, she hesitated and Lord Henry told her that was the end of them forever. Five years later, Polly is still single, refusing every eligible offer she gets. Lord Henry returns from wherever he’s been (somewhere debauching, everyone thinks) and resumes contact with her. Slowly they reestablish trust and admit they still have feelings for each other. But Henry is considered to be too dissolute etc. to be a proper match for Polly. What to do.

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