Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige (2020) is a transporting read, following a young family who are sailing off on an adventure from Panama. In a time when all of our travel is curtailed, it was delightful to read about warm breezes, clear blue water and colorful foreign marketplaces. The story is told in two voices. Juliet, the wife, is the main narrator. Michael, the husband, is heard via his captain’s log. For me, however, the two voices were so similar in tone, I did not find this technique super helpful. But I read on and was soon entranced with the story. The couple, at the husband’s suggestion, leaves suburbia behind with two young children, ages 7 and 2, in tow. Troubles follow. Financial troubles, boat troubles, weather troubles and marital troubles too. There is a mystery as to what happens that keeps the reader acutely interested until the very end.

The NYT has recently started a book club called “Group Chat.” Readers can follow along from anywhere. Group Chat chose this book and their discussion questions can be found here. The novel reminded me of the real-life story of a family rescued at sea a few years back and the intense public interest in the family’s decision to take young children to sea. Families do indeed choose this wandering lifestyle. I read, with a touch of envy, the Zartman family blog about their cruising lifestyle and I am sure you will too.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham (2019) is a non-fiction book about the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, then the Soviet Union. The book is dense and starts heavy on the science of nuclear reactors. The book moves back and forth on a timeline, with the reader ever conscious of the clock ticking towards, or away from, April 16, 1986. Some chapters are historical, dealing with the building of the reactors and the entire planned city of Chernobyl and of the Soviet Union’s ambitions with nuclear energy. Other chapters read like an action novel, a minute by minute break down of the unfolding crisis. And the final chapters follow up with the individuals, many of whom were truly heroic in the efforts to stop the deadly spread of radiation. The book is extensively researched. When I first picked it up, I worried about the heft of it but then found half of it was research notes.

This summer my daughter has an nuclear engineering internship. Her boss suggested watching the HBO series, which we did and enjoyed. Her librarian mother told her to read this book, which she did and also enjoyed. Another review of the book can be found here.  My daughter also listened a little to my old stories of living in Ukraine in the mid 1990’s and what I saw (statues to the fire-fighters who died and photos of overgrown fruit and veg from that time). I loved living there, such a beautiful interesting place. I would suggest interested readers look at Harvest of Sorrow or Red Famine. The original work on Chernobyl, published in Russian in 1997, is Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich.  This oral history won Alexievich the Nobel Prize and opened the door for increased conversation about the disaster. For something more humorous, try A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Exciting Times (2020) by Naoise Dolan, a young Irish writer’s debut novel, is about an Irish millennial expat, Ava, in Hong Kong and the complicated relationships she soon finds herself in with a British banker and a Chinese lawyer. Neither of the romantic relationships in the book resonated with me perhaps because they were so clearly disconnected from the real world. The characters weren’t worried so much about rent or bills. Hong Kong is a wealthy city and the disregard of money was odd. The banker let Ava, the millennial, stay in his flat rent-free. Neither the banker or Ava was bothered by this but I was. Still, however, I liked Ava and laughed at all of her jokes. As did the banker. Ava texted “are you missing the marxist invective or” and he replied “Home is where there’s a small Irish person calling for you to be guillotined.” (p. 240) The writing is crisp and clean. The humor is both droll and political. I had to try to keep up with the slightly dated Brexit jokes but I wanted to keep up.

I was particularly caught up in the Hong Kong setting as I lived there for five years and loved it all. When the author casually mentioned a coffee chain there or a grocery story or the mid-levels outside escalator, I cheered. Hong Kong has been in the news recently with the democracy protests, China’s imposition of the new security law and of course for covid. Enjoy these recent photos of Hong Kong. Readers who enjoyed Normal People or Trust Exercise would likely want to read this as well.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People (2018) surprised me. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I thought it would be a teenage romance story and it was. (I passed it to teenagers at my house and they read it in a single seating.) But it was more than that. Somehow Rooney really drills down to the essence of the relationship between Marianne and Connell, two Irish young adults, with her precise clean prose. It is a short book with concise sentences but it says a lot about relationships, not just young ones. The central relationship starts in high school, where Connell is the popular athlete and Marianne is the odd kid with no friends. But she is wealthy. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house. Their roles are reversed at Trinity College in Dublin, where she is urbane and magnetic and he struggles to find his way. The novel follows their on and off relationship through college. While their romance is definitely seen via social class, there is more there. Both Marianne and Connell are lonely and that is one of the forces that keeps them in each other’s orbits.

Rooney is a young up and coming writer, highlighted in this New Yorker article. Her fresh take on all things from Brexit to relationships is fun to read. This book was recently made into a TV series by the BBC, released in late April on Hulu. The TV series follows the book very closely. There is talk of a second series of Normal People which gives me hope that there is another book too! Rooney reminds me of Naoise Dolan, another young Irish writer coming at her subjects via a Marxist yet millennial lens. I will review Dolan’s novel Exciting Times next.

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken by Tarquin Hall

In these days of travel restrictions, why not be an armchair traveler? The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (2012) by Tarquin Hall will give you the color and culture of Delhi via a fun frolicking mystery. In this book, which is the third in a series, a Punjabi detective, the esteemed Vish Puri, chases down answers to one crime, while stumbling upon a few other related crimes along the way. Written by a British journalist, the crimes in this book are pulled from the headlines; a betting scandal in cricket, the 1947 partition of India, science vs. superstition and forbidden love among castes. The murders are real but the tales really do have a light touch. The crimes are solved by the detective, always hungry and always watching his weight, on his way to family gatherings that involve a huge array of Indian delicacies. The sights and smells of Indian markets, the crowded roadways, and the decadent luncheons at country clubs definitely show without telling a certain slice of Indian life.

For another take on this book, listen to this audio clip and view the attached photographs of Delhi. Try other mysteries set in India as well. These mysteries by Hall are cozy mysteries. Readers who enjoy any of the Alexander McCall Smith series are likely to enjoy these as well.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

photo of two haenyo The Island of Sea Women (2019) by Lisa See is a fascinating dive into the story of haenyo, Korean women who dive, fishing for sea creatures, and the matrifocal society on the Korean island of Jeju. Not being a huge fan of See, it took me awhile to get into this novel. Even though I was not caught up in the book’s main relationship, a friendship between two haenyo Young-sook and Mi-Ja, I read with interest about the Jeju uprising from April 1948 – May 1949, a protest to the government’s division of Korea, in which approximately 10% of the island’s population died. Another large segment of the population immigrated to Japan thereafter. An historical fiction novel based firmly in Korea’s recent history.

My utter lack of knowledge about this April 4 event on Jeju is somewhat like the Armenia genocide or the famine in Soviet Russia, large scale tragedies somewhat downplayed in traditional histories. See’s novels often revolve around a little-known aspect of history or geography and her own books such as The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane are likely the best read-alikes if you enjoy this one. If interested in Korea, try the following authors; Chang-rae Lee, Min Jin Lee and Han Kang. Photos of haenyo are available in this New Yorker article.

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2007) by Jussi Adler-Olsen is the first novel in his Department Q series. Although I love Scandinavian crime stories, I somehow missed this one when it first came out in translation. In this series, Carl Morck, one of Copenhagen’s best detectives, is injured in a case. After a shoot out that kills one of his partners and gravely injures another, Morck returns to active duty, plagued with guilt. He is put in charge of Department Q, a new department, consisting of himself, to solve Denmark’s cold cases. At first, Morck wants to hole up and avoid interaction with the outside world but eventually, with the help of his new assistant, a Syrian refugee, Morck starts in on the cold cases. They start work on the case of a missing liberal politician, presumed dead five years previous. Morck discovers enough holes in the case to investigate and it’s a race to read through to the end.

People who enjoy Nordic Noir like Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo will enjoy this police procedural set in Denmark. What is Nordic Noir? Mostly stories of brutal crimes in serene settings. For a better description of the genre and some great suggestions of films, podcasts and books in the genre, read this article. My favorite books of this type are Faceless Killers with Detective Wallander by Mankell and Voices with Detective Erlendur by Arnaldur Indridason. Also to try Raven Black by Ann Cleeves.

Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman

Catherine Steadman’s Something in the Water (2018) is a surprisingly fast paced intricately plotted thriller. Surprising as it is the debut novel from an already accomplished actor, who we last saw in the tv series Downton Abbey as Lady Mabel Lane Fox. The story opens with a grave being dug but it is all unsure- Who? When? Why? The story then progresses with a young British couple, Erin and Mark, who are planning their wedding. Erin is a documentary filmmaker, creating a film which follows three individuals who are being released from jail. Mark, an investment banker, loses his job just before the wedding and the couple is forced to economize. The one splurge they keep is their honeymoon trip to Bora Bora. There they find something in the water; a circle of floating papers. From there, they investigate while the reader is thinking no, don’t do that, stop! Mark and Erin decide to keep what they find and use it to fund their new married life but suspicions creep in. British investigators show up, Erin’s film criminals act oddly, and the Russian mafia makes an appearance. Definitely a page turner!

Reese Witherspoon’s company Hello Sunshine is turning this book into a TV series, so get ready and read it now! Read a bit about Steadman’s idea for the novel’s plot here. In these days of being stuck at home, read about Bora Bora and dream. Finally, try these other high- octane thrillers; Sharp Objects, In a Dark, Dark Wood and Eileen.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

early photo of Hillary RodhamRodham (2020) by Curtis Sittenfeld is the author’s newest offering, a counter factual novel based around the idea that Hillary and Bill Clinton never married. Initially, the book covers Hillary’s early years at Wellesley and Yale. Much of this is known to Americans and not a surprise. I felt uneasy with the first person narrative and whether or not the events were reported accurately. But once Hillary left Bill in Arkansas and the book deviated from reality, the drama noticeably increased for me. Hillary becomes a law professor and Senator (but not from New York), dealing non-stop with double standards for women politicians. All this comes into sharp contrast when Hillary runs against Bill for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential race and wins. As Hillary goes on to become the first woman president of the US, her accomplishments, sacrifices and deal-making, both real and imagined, are on full display. A big book but a fast read after the first third.

Since this is inherently a political tale, enjoy this Washington Post podcast about the book.  People who enjoy this book would also love Sittenfeld’s other novel, American Wife, based loosely on Laura Bush. Listen to this podcast in which Sittenfeld discusses how and why she writes about living political figures. Other counterfactual novels to try include The Man in the High Castle, The Plot Against America, and 11/22/63.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age (2019) by Kiley Reid, her debut novel, is a complicated coming of age story. The plot is full of millennial concerns, childhood joys, racial tensions and feminist challenges. The story centers around two women, a babysitter and the mother of the babysitting charge. Emira, a 25 year old black woman, works as a part-time babysitter and typist, while trying to figure out how to have an adult life, preferably with health benefits. Emira babysits three-year-old Briar, the child of Alix, a white woman who has recently moved to Philadelphia for her husband’s career while putting her own on the back burner. Alix asks Emira to take Briar out of the house late at night while Alix deals with an issue at home. Emira takes the child to a grocery store, where a white customer contacts security about her, a black woman out with a white child late at night. The heart of the book comes next, the reactions and repercussions of this main event. While a lot is going on in this book, it reads smoothly and eloquently with beautifully drawn characters. Really a page turner while the reader considers the double meaning of “such a fun age;” the idyllic early childhood time and the poignant early adult years.

 For more information about this new author, read this interview with her. For a rigorous dive into black authors, here is a possible reading list. Read-alikes for this novel include Little Fires Everywhere, Queenie, That Kind of Mother and Another Brooklyn.  All of these books are contemporary character-driven novels with story lines linked to race, adulthood and motherhood.