Scatterlings: A Novel by Resoketswe Martha Manenzhe

Scatterlings: A Novel by Resoketswe Martha Manenzhe

One of the primary reasons I love reading — and I’m not the first to say this — is the deep empathy reading about others’ experiences develops in ourselves. Scatterlings is such a novel that opens us up to new ways of understanding the past and the present, others and ourselves. This is a novel that will move you in many ways: to sadness, to fear, to loathing, to empowerment, to depression.

This is a novel in the vein of Beast of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala or The Bird Tattoo: A Novel by Dunya Mikhail. It is fiction of the very real, very tangible suffering in our world, albeit in a time now past (though, not gone, forgotten, or fully healed).

The novel is a historical fiction, taking place in South Africa as its racist, anti-black Apartheid policies began to ramp up. It revolves around the enforcement of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, Act No. 55 of 1949, and the very real fall out in people’s lives.

The scattered are the wives, husbands, and children of these mixed-race marriages, suddenly made illegal in the eyes of the law. The novel traces the actions of a family and what they each individually must do to survive this.

The outcomes are tragic, but the reader who chooses this subject matter is one who understands that to witness is a step towards reparation.

After Sappho: A Novel by Selby Wynn Schwartz

After Sappho: A Novel
by Selby Wynn Schwartz

This is a deeply intellectual tale, one woven out of ancient and Italian history, imagination, and philosophies of Womanhood and queerness. The fiction in these pages reads as a reimagined history of real women, whose lives were lost to us because of the threat they posed (just by being) to European and Italian patriarchy. The tale unfolds as a kind of immortal telling of several lives, connected to a single soul. It is multigenerational and historical. There are several “Sapphos”.

As a historian, I deeply appreciated the embedded histories here: legal, social, cultural. There is a historiographical element to the book, an unfolding of a trajectory of thought as the book follows “Sappho” in her various guises and incarnations through time.

This is not an easy read. There is a required pre-existing understanding of Italian and European literature necessary to grasp its nuances. But, that said, the undercurrent of desire, rage, and feminist ambition is hard to miss. For that reason, After Sappho is worth both an initial and several re-reads.

A Woman’s Place: A Novel by Lainie Jones

A Woman’s Place: A Novel
by Lainie Jones

Some context as to how I came across this book. As I have mentioned before in another review, I do not usually gravitate toward independently published novels. But as with that previous review, I happened across the opportunity to do so via a FB group I am in which pairs up authors with reviewers. See here for the details of the May 2023 Book Review.

I am not one to pay attention to those one-word reviews you see plastered all over the covers of mass market books: “Captivating”, “Spell-binding”, “Unputdownable!” What is one woman’s tea is another’s poison (isn’t that the saying?) and so I am hesitant to repeat any of those vague, yet complimentary, descriptions here. But the thing is, A Woman’s Place is truly captivating. The paperback is a substantial read at 317 pages; I found myself lost in several chapters at a sitting, finishing the book in two days. It is, indeed, hard to put down. This historical paranormal mystery is riveting to its last page.

Jones does more than weave a gripping story; her prose is well-crafted and the dialogue is vivid, resulting in the creation of tangible, flawed, and very human characters. Jones holds a PhD in creative writing and possesses an academic and literary portfolio which clearly contributes to the historical and literary robustness of A Woman’s Place. This novel is clearly not a “standalone” work in the sense that it is built upon a foundation of years of research, thought, and analysis. What we read in A Woman’s Place is merely the tip of a very large iceberg.

A Woman’s Place is a novel running along the lines of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing or Melissa Fu’s Peach Blossom Spring as it is a multigenerational tale. It might be appropriate to liken A Woman’s Place to a fictional European settler version of My Place by Sally Morgan, though, of course the latter is biographical and A Woman’s Place is fiction.

The setting of Jones’ novel is rural Australia, in sheep farming country. It revolves around the events at a remote homestead named Barragunyah, a desolate place known by the name given it by its original inhabitants, indigenous aborigines. The novel spans the end of the 19th century through into the late 20th century, capturing the experiences of five generations of women of the family who came to farm the land. There is also another woman who resides on the land, a mysterious presence called only Mary. The novel unfolds the mystery of Mary and the magnetic pull of Barragunyah, as well as revealing how Australia’s and the world’s history comes to affect ordinary Australians, native and settler alike. British imperial history, the tragedy of the World Wars humanity faced in the twentieth century, and changes in women’s rights emerge as central hinges in the novel. There is also a prosopographical aspect to the novel in that the reader is treated to how these large world events actually affect the daily, lived lives of the Barragunyah women.

In many ways, this is a fantastic historical fiction written for a historian. Or perhaps I feel that way because I am one, and because Australian colonial and post-colonial history, being adjacent to Southeast Asian history of the same period, is something I have an interest in on both a professional and personal level. I think American audiences will find both novel elements and familiarity in these pages. The bond between mothers and daughters, humans and the land we inhabit and shape (and which shapes us), and our selves and our place in the movement of time and history are universal experiences, but American readers will also find themselves introduced to Australian history and experiences.

The novel also has an intriguing mystery embedded in it. As each generation faces the turbulent events of their age, Barragunyah and Mary are there, watching and waiting — though it is unclear what for. This is where the paranormal element emerges. In this way, A Woman’s Place reminds of me of Simone St James’s supernaturally tinged novels, The Haunting of Maddy Clare or The Sun Down Motel. Like many paranormal mysteries, Jones’ A Woman’s Place revolves around an unspoken crime, one grounded and inescapable in Australian history. Jones does a fantastic job of revealing the root of this crime without giving it away, tantalizingly allowing the reader’s own imagination to make sense of the darkness where Mary resides. On that point, I wish Jones had delved more deeply into the aboriginal perspectives on Barragunyah; I am left wanting a sequel or a prequel or the “other side” of the story, as it were. Barragunyah is haunting; as a reader I feel just as deeply connected to this place as the Larson women.

That is a good thing, to be left wanting more.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of this independently published novel, you can find it on Amazon here. At present, it is priced at $7.49 for the ebook Kindle version and $18.99 for the paperback print.

The Bird Tattoo: A Novel by Dunya Mikhail

The Bird Tattoo: A Novel by Dunya Mikhail

This novel devastated me. From its start to its end, I could not look away, though I wanted to put it down so many times, needed to put it down so many times for my own peace of mind. The pain of the characters was so real and tangible that I felt if I put down the book I was doing them an injustice. If I could — and I did — put down this book, that is proof I am privileged enough as to be able to switch off their suffering. And that really is an important point here because the subjects of this story and their histories is not a thing of the past. Mikhail’s tale is not a fiction, but the reality of a several thousand women in the world today.

The Bird Tattoo is about suffering and war, and what happens to women and children in times and places of war. The main character is a young wife and mother, a Yazidi woman who is kidnapped from her home in Iraq and sold into slavery, to be passed over and over again as an unwilling wife among the Islamic militants who have taken over her country. In her agonizing wait for rescue and her journey to freedom, both she and the reader encounter other women and children who are enslaved — and the men who enslave them. The conflict that the novel is premised is on is not made explicit; it doesn’t need to be. What is important is that it is contemporary and could be one of so many that are happening right now. That is Mikhail’s point in fact.

You are reading the words of someone’s life right now.

Some of the men who rule this cruel war-torn world are as expected: cruel and indifferent. Others are kind, in relative terms. Each are trapped within a terror not of their own making, the terror of states and governments bent on power and hatred. Some of the women are equally as surprising; some have developed Stockholm Syndrome, some are defeated and have given up, others are defiant. They are prisoners all the same. They, like the men, exist at the whims of others — for them, at the whim of their male masters, their new husbands. There are children too, some of the women are not women at all, but are children.

The novel is about the trust and the lack of trust between these individuals. It is gut-wrenchingly sad, but it is also hopeful. It is about resilience of the human soul and the human drive to survive. It is about resilience of humaneness and the power of kindness.

The Bird Tattoo is like so many classic novels (indeed, I think it is destined for that category) in the vein of Elie Wiesel’s Night or Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation: necessarily painful to read. The pain the reader will feel is the liminal ritual, the necessary rite of passage that allows us to recognize hope and the privilege of being alive and safe. Books like these make us thankful for the peace in our lives.

Books like these also inspire us to action. That is the manifestation of hope.

If there is one book you read this year, read this one.

Zig Zag: A Novel by J.D. O’Brien

Zig Zag: A Novel by J.D. O’Brien

Oh my goodness, this was a fun, fun, fun read! It was like reading an indie version of Ocean’s Eleven, but without the attractive people, fabulous clothes, or money$money$money! Ha! This is a Western, Noir, Stoner, Comedy novel rolled into one. There’s drugs, sex, manipulation, and crime in this swift-moving novel of criminal bungling.

The story revolves around a weed dispensary, its employees, and those within its seedy orbit. There is a plot, hatched by an amateur criminal, a woman who works at the dispensary. She ropes in her dimwitted boyfriend who also works there. (You can see where this is going!) They commit the crime and it’s off! There is bounty hunter and a chase to track them down and that’s what the zig zag is all about.

This is a very entertaining read. It leaves you feeling bemused, glad that you’re smarter than most of the characters in the novel, but don’t expect anything earth-shattering. Life most blockbuster films, the thrill is only as good as it lasts, and that’s OK.

What makes this enjoyable — just as it is with most films — is the writing. O’Brien’s prose is witty, humorous. This reads as smoothly as a screenplay, transiting from scene to scene ease. This novel is a perfect Sunday afternoon read; the kind that makes you happy about going to work the next day because where you work isn’t this HAHA!

Cunning Women: A Novel by Elizabeth Lee

Cunning Women: A Novel by Elizabeth Lee

The description states this is a feminist tale, what happens when women are ostracized, “cast out” from their communities. It does not disappoint. The characters and their lives challenge typical narratives of women in this historical era. Despite being several decades past the so-called Women’s History turn in the discipline, popular depictions of European women in the 17th century remain stagnant as powerless, subjects in a patriarchal world, and largely passive. Of course, we have seen and heard of the warrior women (queens), daring women (aristocrats), extraordinary women (those who chose to challenge norms); what we often lack are narratives of truly ordinary women. They remain (largely) relegated to a passive role in society.

Not so in Elizabeth Lee’s Cunning Women.

In this tale women lead the way despite living under a patriarchal yoke. The characters here are not heroines, they do not dismantle patriarchy, they must live within in it (as we all do) but they resist. It is this reality that Lee folds the reader into. Mother and daughters, even the sons of the village are bound within a system not of their own making. What makes Cunning Women feminist is that some characters find ways to resist, even when knowing their reality cannot deliver on desire. They resist anyway. Other characters find ways to resist by scraping by, by working within the system and in these ways — by merely surviving — challenge the patriarchy which binds them. These characters, in their hanging onto life, raise a fist to “the Man” so to speak. Even the characters who bow to the patriarchy find themselves at odds with it when the women in this tale earn their vengeance.

Cunning Women is a complex tale, one which appears deceptively simple in its plot. It is for that reason (I believe) the story moves slowly. Lee allows the reader time to digest and mull over, to reflect as the main character does on the parameters of a woman’s life in an English village in the 17th century. The love story necessarily moves slowly; this is not a rush of lust but an intellectual and emotional growth of love. Note: this is not a romance. No, this is much more realistic than that. Cunning Women is an account of a realistic life with all its banality and uncertainties.

All in all, well worth the read.

The Verifiers: A Novel by Jane Pek

The Verifiers: A Novel by Jane Pek

I was excited to read this! I had seen it in Barnes and Noble and heard the buzz about the book on Reddit subs, so when I saw it at my community library I snapped it up! So, did it live up to the hype?

Yes! And no…

The novel takes place in some near future moment, one that is so social media infused that I wonder at the future aspect of it. The plot hinges on this, this world of internet connections, social media speculation, cell phone immediacy, reality television lives played out in reality. But for me, this is where the novel lost me. I’m a luddite in some ways; I mean, I have social media, I’m on the internet (clearly), but the world of The Verifiers, one in which people investigate potential partners and devolve into internet sleuthing is just a step too far out for me.

This is where the novel lost me. In what privileged world could someone possibly find the time to slink off during work hours to hunt down a potential killer? The gall and arrogance of believing that this is a calling of some kind derails the plot for me, which is unfortunate since that is the sum of the mystery here.

That said, there were aspects of this novel that struck chords with me: the immigrant narrative of the middle child, the striving for perfection and belonging, the need to prove oneself in a foreign world — that was appealing. I am a failed Business major, after all. (I also briefly contemplated a medical career until Organic Chem dissuaded me.)

The resolutions to both conundrums escapes me. I can’t remember what happens in the end of the novel, signs surely of a lackluster reading experience on my part. All in all, a decent read for passing the time.

They’re Going to Love You: A Novel by Meg Howrey

They’re Going to Love You: A Novel by Meg Howrey

This one is a quiet burn, the kind of novel that leads to a swell of deep and intense emotion at the end. You’re left, Reader, with a sense of loss at the end, a feeling that you’ve experienced something very intimate, that maybe you shouldn’t have, but you had to — and you did — and now you’re left to think about the memory of the novel. They’re Going to Love You sticks in your mind like taffy to the roof of your mouth, a lingering taste of sweet and salty. Maybe a little sour.

They’re Going to Love You is a story about parenting, being a child, being a child to parents who are human and flawed. It is also a story about the fragility of relationships and the unpredictable strength of them. It’s a story about the trials of family, the values that are assumed in a family unit, assumed because of blood and marriage and birth. It is also a story of betrayal and grief, of not having what we assume we should have or of losing what we felt we should never have been able to lose.

The novel revolves around and is narrated through the eyes of a young girl who becomes a young woman and then a middle aged woman. She is a dancer and the daughter of dancers, ballet dancers in the heady and chaotic New York city scene of the mid-twentieth century. The father is a gay man, openly so, and there is a step-father. Then there is her mother, a former ballerina. The parents expect a lot from the girl. This is a story about expectations and hopes and dreams that are ours and also, not our own.

As the girl grows up there are things she learns about her privileged life and the expectations of her privileged life and the ways in which people look at her from outside her life. She learns about love from her parents and from their divorce and from their forced interactions on her account. She learns about love from her father’s gay friends. She learns about betrayal from her parents and what it means to forgive.

The novel is also about death and the finiteness of this life and of love. It is about realities underlying the fantasy of a ballet-infused, performed life.

Howrey’s prose is stark and cutting. It is dark and yet also childish, implying childhood is in fact a darker space and time than we are often led to believe. The characters are children and adults and you are not sure who is the adult and who is the child sometimes. The dialogue is authentic, sometimes painfully so, too reminiscent of our own familial traumas.

There is an element of this book that prickled me, for as much as I praise it: the characters are insufferably privileged. They are white, wealthy, part of the exclusive milieu of pretentious NYC. The main character is a nepo baby, whether she thinks so or not. So is her father. Intergenerational privilege abounds in this novel. This is a world that exists for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the world’s population. It’s not my world, for sure.

But, that is what novels are for (in part): entries into worlds unknown.

Great Short Books: A Year of Reading Briefly by Kenneth C. Davis

Great Short Books: A Year of Reading Briefly by Kenneth C. Davis

A book about books! I love it! I don’t usually read books that review other books, but I was interested in building up the classics in my TBR (To Be Read) list and thought, sure, why not? I am so glad I did because Davis’s short reviews, not only of the short book he recommends, but also the vignettes of the author and the tidbits about their other novels inspired me to produce a Classics Reading Challenge on my Storygraph page. [You can find it here.]

What I really enjoyed about Great Short Books were the depth of the reviews and discussion around the novel. Davis gave enough information about the novel to intrigue, but not too much as to spoil the desire to read it myself. The authors too, though I’d read many of them already, became more fully fleshed out in my mind as people, more than merely producers of the works I love to read.

If you’re looking to expand and explore new literary choices, Great Short Books delivers the perfect small-bites information you need to fuel your own adventure.

My New Classics Reading Challenge Inspired by Davis’ book:

1. The Woman of Rome by Alberto Moravia 

The glitter and cynicism of Rome under Mussolini provide the background of what is probably Alberto Moravia’s best and best-known novel — The Woman of Rome. It’s the story of Adriana, a simple girl with no fortune but her beauty who models naked for a painter, accepts gifts from men, and could never quite identify the moment when she traded her private dream of home and children for the life of a prostitute.

2. The Conformist by Alberto Moravia 

Secrecy and Silence are second nature to Marcello Clerici, the hero of The Conformist, a book which made Alberto Moravia one of the world’s most read postwar writers. Clerici is a man with everything under control – a wife who loves him, colleagues who respect him, the hidden power that comes with his secret work for the Italian political police during the Mussolini years. But then he is assigned to kill his former professor, now exiled in France, to demonstrate his loyalty to the Fascist state, and falls in love with a strange, compelling woman; his life is torn open – and with it the corrupt heart of Fascism. Moravia equates the rise of Italian Fascism with the psychological needs of his protagonist for whom conformity becomes an obsession in a life that has included parental neglect, an oddly self-conscious desire to engage in cruel acts, and a type of male beauty which, to Clerici’s great distress, other men find attractive.

3. Two Women by Alberto Moravia 

FIRST PUBLISHED in English in 1958, Two Women is a compassionate yet forthright narrative of simple people struggling to survive in war. The two women are Cesira, a widowed Roman shopkeeper, and her daughter Rosetta, a naive teenager of haunting beauty and devout faith. When the German occupation of Rome becomes imminent, Cesira packs a few provisions, sews her life savings into the seams of her dress, and flees with Rosetta to her native province of Ciociara, a poor, mountainous region south of Rome.

Cesira’s currency soon loses its value, and a vicious barter economy, fraught with shifty traffickers and thieves, emerges among the mountain peasants and refugees. Mother and daughter endure nine months of hunger, cold, and filth as they await the arrival of the Allied forces. Cesira scarcely cares who wins the war, so long as victory comes soon and brings with it a return to her quiet shopkeeper’s life.

Instead, the Liberation brings tragedy. While heading back to Rome the pair are attacked by a group of Allied Moroccan soldiers, who rape Rosetta and beat Cesira unconscious. This act of violence and its resulting loss of innocence so embitters Rosetta that she falls numbly into a life of prostitution. Throughout these hardships Moravia offers up an intimate portrayal of the anguish wrought by the devastation of war, both on the battlefield and upon those far from the fray.

4. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

In 1936 George Orwell travelled to Spain to report on the Civil War and instead joined the fight against the Fascists. This famous account describes the war and Orwell’s own experiences. Introduction by Lionel Trilling.

5. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson 

Running into a long-ago friend sets memories from the 1970s in motion for August, transporting her to a time and a place where friendship was everything—until it wasn’t. For August and her girls, sharing confidences as they ambled through neighborhood streets, Brooklyn was a place where they believed that they were beautiful, talented, brilliant—a part of a future that belonged to them.

But beneath the hopeful veneer, there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where ghosts haunted the night, where mothers disappeared. A world where madness was just a sunset away and fathers found hope in religion.

6. At Fault by Kate Chopin 

Widowed at thirty, beautiful, resourceful Therese Lafirme is left alone to run her Louisiana plantation. When Therese falls in love with David Hosmer, a divorced businessman, her strong moral and religious convictions make it impossible for her to accept his marriage proposal. Her determined rejection sets the two on a tumultuous path that involves Hosmer’s troubled former wife, Fanny.

At Fault is set in the Post-Reconstruction rural South against a backdrop of economic devastation and simmering racial tensions. Written at the beginning of her career, it has parallels to Chopin’s own life and contains characters and themes that prefigure her later works, including The Awakening.

7. Bayou Folk by Kate Chopin 

Short fiction by much-more-than-local-color-writer Kate Chopin. Includes Ma’ame Pelagie , a character who shows up again later.

8. Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers 

A powerful and passionate tale is set on a southern army post –a human hell inhabited by a sexually disturbed officer, his animalistic wife, her lover, and the driven young private who forces the drama to its climax…

9. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers 

Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine.

10. Black Boy by Richard Wright 

Black Boy is a classic of American autobiography, a subtly crafted narrative of Richard Wright’s journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. An enduring story of one young man’s coming of age during a particular time and place, Black Boy remains a seminal text in our history about what it means to be a man, black, and Southern in America.

11. Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann (0 books added)

Buddenbrooks, first published in Germany in 1901, when Mann was only twenty-six, has become a classic of modern literature.

It is the story of four generations of a wealthy bourgeois family in northern Germany facing the advent of modernity; in an uncertain new world, the family’s bonds and traditions begin to disintegrate. As Mann charts the Buddenbrooks’ decline from prosperity to bankruptcy, from moral and psychic soundness to sickly piety, artistic decadence, and madness, he ushers the reader into a world of stunning vitality, pieced together from births and funerals, weddings and divorces, recipes, gossip, and earthy humor.

In its immensity of scope, richness of detail, and fullness of humanity, buddenbrooks surpasses all other modern family chronicles. With remarkable fidelity to the original German text, this superb translation emphasizes the magnificent scale of Mann’s achievement in this riveting, tragic novel.

12. The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg

The Dry Heart begins and ends with the matter-of-fact pronouncement: “I shot him between the eyes.” As the tale—a plunge into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation, and bitterness—proceeds, the narrator’s murder of her flighty husband takes on a certain logical inevitability. Stripped of any preciousness or sentimentality, Natalia Ginzburg’s writing here is white-hot, tempered by rage. She transforms the unhappy tale of an ordinary dull marriage into a rich psychological thriller that seems to beg the question: why don’t more wives kill their husbands?

13. The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Today F. Scott Fitzgerald is better known for his novels, but in his own time, his fame rested squarely on his prolific achievement as one of America’s most gifted writers of stories and novellas. Now, a half-century after the author’s death, the premier Fitzgerald scholar and biographer, Matthew J. Bruccoli, has assembled in one volume the full scope of Fitzgerald’s best short fiction: forty-three sparkling masterpieces, ranging from such classic novellas as “The Rich Boy,” “May Day,” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” to his commercial work for the Saturday Evening Post and its sister “slicks.”
For the reader, these stories will underscore the depth and extraordinary range of Fitzgerald’s literary talents. Furthermore, Professor Bruccoli’s illuminating preface and introductory headnotes establish the literary and biographical settings in which these stories now shine anew with brighter luster than ever.

14. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (0 books added)

Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.

Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous–it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.

15. Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros 

Every year, Ceyala “Lala” Reyes’ family–aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, and Lala’s six older brothers–packs up three cars and, in a wild ride, drive from Chicago to the Little Grandfather and Awful Grandmother’s house in Mexico City for the summer. Struggling to find a voice above the boom of her brothers and to understand her place on this side of the border and that, Lala is a shrewd observer of family life. But when she starts telling the Awful Grandmother’s life story, seeking clues to how she got to be so awful, grandmother accuses Lala of exaggerating. Soon, a multigenerational family narrative turns into a whirlwind exploration of storytelling, lies, and life. Like the cherished rebozo, or shawl, that has been passed down through generations of Reyes women, Caramelo is alive with the vibrations of history, family, and love.

16. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin 

Set in the contemporary Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds  himself caught between desire and conventional  morality. James Baldwin’s brilliant narrative delves  into the mystery of loving with a sharp, probing  imagination, and he creates a moving, highly  controversial story of death and passion that reveals the  unspoken complexities of the heart.

17. If This Is A Man by Primo Levi 

Primo Michele Levi was a chemist and writer, the author of books, novels, short stories, essays, and poems. His unique 1975 work, The Periodic Table, linked to qualities of the elements, was named by the Royal Institution of Great Britain as the best science book ever written.

Levi spent eleven months imprisoned at Monowitz, one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex (record number: 174,517) before the camp was liberated by the Red Army on 18 January 1945. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport, Levi was one of only twenty who left the camps alive.

The Primo Levi Center, dedicated “to studying the history and culture of Italian Jewry,” was named in his honor.

18. July’s People by Nadine Gordimer 

For years, it had been what is called a “deteriorating situation.” Now all over South Africa the cities are battlegrounds. The members of the Smales family—liberal whites—are rescued from the terror by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his village. What happens to the Smaleses and to July—the shifts in character and relationships—gives us an unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites.

19. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer 

Mehring is rich. He has all the privileges and possessions that South Africa has to offer, but his possessions refuse to remain objects. His wife, son, and mistress leave him; his foreman and workers become increasingly indifferent to his stewarsship; even the land rises up, as drought, then flood, destroy his farm.

20. The Inheritors by William Golding (1 book added)

When the spring came the people – what was left of them – moved back by the old paths from the sea. But this year strange things were happening, terrifying things that had never happened before. Inexplicable sounds and smells; new, unimaginable creatures half glimpsed through the leaves. What the people didn’t, and perhaps never would, know, was that the day of their people was already over.

From the author of Lord of the FliesThe Inheritors is a startling recreation of the lost world of the Neanderthals, and a frightening vision of the beginning of a new age.

Books you’ve added to this prompt:

21. Darkness Visible by William Golding 

At the height of the London blitz, a naked child steps out of an all-consuming fire. Miraculously saved yet hideously scarred, tormented at school and at work, Matty becomes a wanderer, a seeker after some unknown redemption. Two more lost children await him: twins as exquisite as they are loveless. Toni dabbles in political violence, Sophy in sexual tyranny. As Golding weaves their destinies together, as he draws them toward a final conflagration, his book lights up both the inner and outer darknesses of our time.

22. The Middle Passage by Charles Johnson 

Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, is lost in the underworld of 1830s New Orleans. Desperate to escape the city’s unscrupulous bill collectors and the pawing hands of a schoolteacher hellbent on marrying him, he jumps aboard the Republic, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri. Thus begins a voyage of metaphysical horror and human atrocity, a journey which challenges our notions of freedom, fate and how we live together. Peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters, nimble in its interplay of comedy and serious ideas, this dazzling modern classic is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative and philosophical allegory.

23. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan 

It is July 1962. Florence is a talented musician who dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, an earnest young history student at University College of London, who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Newly married that morning, both virgins, Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their worries about the wedding night to come. Edward, eager for rapture, frets over Florence’s response to his advances and nurses a private fear of failure, while Florence’s anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by sheer disgust at the idea of physical contact, but dreads disappointing her husband when they finally lie down together in the honeymoon suite.

24. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani 

When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau.

25. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1 book added)

Cain’s first novel – the subject of an obscenity trial in Boston and the inspiration for Camus’s The Stranger – is the fever-pitched tale of a drifter who stumbles into a job, into an erotic obsession, and into a murder.

26. Sula by Toni Morrison (1 book added)

This rich and moving novel traces the lives of two black heroines from their close-knit childhood in a small Ohio town, through their sharply divergent paths of womanhood, to their ultimate confrontation and reconciliation.

Nel Wright has chosen to stay in the place where she was born, to marry, raise a family, and become a pillar of the black community. Sula Peace has rejected the life Nel has embraced, escaping to college, and submerging herself in city life. When she returns to her roots, it is as a rebel and a wanton seductress. Eventually, both women must face the consequences of their choices. Together, they create an unforgettable portrait of what it means and costs to be a black woman in America.

Unnatural Ends: A Novel by Christopher Huang

Unnatural Ends: A Novel
by Christopher Huang

Unnatural Ends reads like a French six-course dinner prepared and delivered by the latest cohort of Top Chef, served in the very classy digs of Downton Abbey, while you and your guests find yourself flung into a live-action Gosford Park; in short, this novel is the quintessential English manor-murder-mystery, updated for the 2022 reader. There is a hint of Mavis Hay’s (1936) Santa Klaus Murder here, a bit of Agatha Christie, and a good strong nod to the immorality of the British Empire (though, nothing quite so dark as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day). This novel is unbelievably English.

I loved it.

It did take me a few chapters to fully dig into the thrill of the case, but the family was so immediately deranged and dysfunctional, I couldn’t look away any more than if I encountered a train accident and found it to be the wreckage of the Orient Express.

The story begins with the death of the patriarch — his ghastly murder — and the strange clause in his will that disproportionately favors any of his adopted children who solves the crime. The novel unfolds from that point on in a predictable fashion for any mystery, but the ending and the twists of blood, family, and the loyalties of genetics kept this reader on her toes. Just when this reader thought she’d solved it, something emerged which threw her off! Between the three siblings, the pathetic mother and widow, the overbearing and sadistic father, and the eye-rolling police, Unnatural Ends delivers a very witty enjoyable read from start to finish.

For the reader who enjoys more than mystery, the novel also possesses several threads of underlying social and historical commentary. Britain’s dark imperial history, rife with its undeniable racism and eugenic standards of morality, are key foundational elements of the plot. Indeed, the cruel history of eugenics and colonialism are integral to the constituency of its characters and the motivations behind the twists and ruts of this mystery. On that note, however, the novel is not pedantic or a history lesson: it is wholly a mystery novel.