Here’s a look at some of the books I’ve read over the past couple of months. My reading tastes are widely eclectic but I mainly enjoy historical fiction and non-fiction, and the occasional gripping fiction work.
The Mirrored World by Debra Dean
I had previously read another of Dean’s works (The Madonnas of Leningrad) so I was interested in checking out Dean’s second novel The Mirrored World, as this is also set in Russia (a country whose history pre-World War II I don’t really know too much about). The novel takes place during the reign of Catherine the Great, and through the voice of the main character, Dasha, Dean brings to life the story of St. Xenia (Dasha’s cousin), one of Russia’s most revered and mysterious holy figures. As most saints were, St. Xenia was born into a life of privilege but gave all of that up following a personal tragedy. While the story was certainly interesting and informative, (I had never heard of Xenia, a saint in the Eastern Orthodox church, before), I most enjoyed Dean’s vivid and illuminating descriptions of 18th century life in St. Petersburg, Russia. Quite the contrast to Dean’s first work which is set during the horrific siege of St. Petersburg during World War II.
The Ladies of Managua by Eleni Gage
While I only spent four nights in Nicaragua back during my semester abroad in Costa Rica, they were pretty special and certainly memorable even almost 11 years later. After I returned home, I was still mildly obsessed with the Central American region and read works by the novelist Gioconda Belli, as well as poems by the famous Ernesto Cardenal, but I never found too much fiction set in Nicaragua (that and I probably didn’t look too hard either). Fast forward to the brilliant and amusing The Ladies of Managua by Eleni Gage (the daughter of another famous writer, Nicholas Gage, whose best known work is Eleni). The Ladies of Managua is told through the voices of three ladies, Bella (grandmother), Ninexin (daughter), and Maria (granddaughter), each chapter being the voice of one of the characters. Everything from love, lies, scandal, and even some history can be found in The Ladies of Managua. I really enjoyed reading an inter-generational novel, especially one that featured three women, all strong in their own unique ways. And the scenes that take place in the colonial city of Granada brought back lovely memories for me.
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Yes, I read an almost 500 page work of non-fiction about polar exploration. And you know what? It was incredibly fascinating. In the Kingdom of Ice tells the story of the ill-fated expedition of the U.S.S. Jeannette. It set sail in 1879 from San Francisco with the crew hoping to become the first American ship to reach the North Pole (polar exploration gripped the Western world in the mid to late 19th century) and was never seen again. Two years into its voyage, the hull of the ship was broken by a stretch of pack ice which forced the crew to abandon the ship a thousand miles north of Siberia, where they would then begin a trek across the Siberian landscape with just about nothing salvageable from the vessel. As the reader, it was saddening and even horrifying at times to read about one bad decision made after the next, the calamities that never stopped befalling the crew. In many ways it reminded me of the Mt. Everest disaster of 1996 that’s detailed in Into Thin Air. While it is long and perhaps a tad slow getting started initially (Sides provides background on how the expedition came to be), it is an utterly worthy read to see what these brave men were willing to try and do in the 19th century, more than a hundred years before any true modern navigational equipment existed.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
I saw the screen adaptation of Brooklyn three times in the theater, so needless to say I was anxious to read the book. Well, this is one of those rare instances where at least for me, I much preferred the film version. Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis, a young woman who immigrates to America in the 1950s as there are no opportunities for her in either the work or romance departments in her small Irish town. While initially overcome with intense homesickness in her new home in Brooklyn, she eventually starts to carve a life for herself there thanks to Tony, a young man she falls in love with. But tragedy back home in Ireland forces her to return there and she enters into a period of limbo, torn between her new life in America and the one she left behind in Ireland that is quite different now. My reasons for preferring the film version had to do with the fact that I found the cinematic character of Eilis to be confident of herself and her decisions, unlike in the book. Not to mention I found Eilis in the book to not be entirely kind towards Tony and at times too indifferent to him as well.
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
While the screen adaptation of Child 44 tanked at the box office in 2015 I really enjoyed it and was curious about the book. Child 44 is set in 1950s Soviet Union where the main character of Leo is a rising star in the MGB, the State Security Force, and is assigned to look into the death of a child whose parents believe was murdered. But this cannot be. In Stalinist Russia murder doesn’t exist because the only criminals are those who are enemies of the state. Due to his wife’s being suspected of being an Anglo-American sympathizer and his refusal to denounce her, they’re exiled to a remote corner of the Soviet Union, where Leo uncovers the deaths of other children who had been murdered and all signs point to the first case he learned about back in Russia. I started reading Child 44 before the holidays and I’ll admit, it took me a while to get going with it. I know some of this had to do with the hectic nature of the holidays, but unlike in the movie which had to condense a lot, I thought too much was spent on the whole Soviet Union system of things. However, once the actual “mystery solving” started I really enjoyed Child 44 and found it quite gripping, although there is a huge difference between the film and book versions.
Have you read any of these books? Any would like to read?