For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday
March 27: Books That Take Place In Another Country
Since I’ve read a lot of books set in other countries I had to narrow this one down a bit. So I’m looking at books that I read in the past year:
1. The Lives of Shadows by Barbara Hodgson – Syria
This “Illustrated Novel” sounded really interesting. In 1914 a young British man goes traveling and falls in love with Damascus. He buys a house there but WWI leaves him wounded, and a war in Syria causes further damage. He finally returns to the house years later and discovers that someone else might be living there too. We also follow the journey of Asilah, the house’s previous (and maybe still current?) inhabitant. However, I felt like the author didn’t explore these stories as much as I would have liked because she was more interested in the illustrations and photographs that she included.
2. Hummingbirds Fly Backwards by Amy Cheung– China
To be honest, I decided to read this book because it was free on kindle. It wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t great either. It follows Chow Jeoi, a twenty-nine-year-old lingerie saleswoman in Hong Kong. She’s in love with Sam, a married man, and is willing to wait for him. Her friend, Chui Yuk, is willing to do anything to support her boyfriend’s writing career. Meanwhile, Yau Ying has been with her boyfriend for seven years and feels that their relationship is missing something. The biggest problem with this book for me was the fact that I didn’t like any of these women. Chow Jeoi is asked, late in the book, if she ever worries about hurting Sam’s wife. She’s honestly surprised. Like it might never have occurred to her that his wife had feelings otherwise! That made it hard for me to really feel anything for her. So while it was well written, I’m hesitant to recommend it.
I just finished reading this actually, and my overall impression was positive. It tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a real woman who was executed for murder in Iceland in 1829. While awaiting her execution she was sent to a farm to stay. The family who owns the farm is (understandably) horrified and worried for their safety. But as Agnes spends her time on the farm, the family learns that she’s not the psycho that they’d been expecting. She tells them the story of her life, including what really happened the night that her boss/lover and his friend were killed. The Icelandic setting is really vivid here. I read it’s going to be made into a film soon, and I’m sure that it will look beautiful onscreen. Jennifer Lawrence is going to star in it, which doesn’t thrill me because I think she’s not quite right for the role.
4. The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth- Germany
I read this for a few reasons. One is that I love Kate Forsyth. The other is that it’s a WWII story inspired by Beauty and the Beast. That sort of made me curious. Actually, it’s inspired by the Grimm’s brothers version of the tale, The Singing Springing Lark. But despite the source material, it’s not fantasy. It’s historical fiction, using a lot of real-life people, and the “beasts” are metaphorical. To save her family, Ava must marry Leo, a young Nazi officer. Ava hates the Nazi regime and is a member of an underground resistance movement. So she hides her activities from Leo even though she’s falling in love with him. But she gradually realizes that there’s more to Leo than meets the eye. He may wear a Nazi uniform, but he’s as opposed to what they’re doing as Ava is, and he’s using his position in the military to try to save who he can, and help the allies. Eventually, things reach a point where Ava and Leo are separated, and Ava must save Leo from deadly consequences.
5. Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo– Finland
This is a weird book. It follows Angel, a young photographer, who encounters a group of teens harassing a wounded young troll. In the world of the book, trolls are real, but they’re an extremely rare species. He takes the troll in and does his best to care for it, despite the fact that there’s not much information about troll care that he can find. The troll releases Angel’s own animal instincts. It’s a wild animal and as it grows, it becomes more and more unmanageable, leading Angel to make a difficult, and disturbing choice. I felt like this book was strange. I appreciated the way the writer tied Finnish folklore in with the question of animalistic tendencies manifest themselves in “civilized” people. There were parts that definitely made me go “ick” but I think that is intentional.
Even though this book is set in a Paris apartment building I think it could take place almost anywhere. Renee is the concierge of an upscale apartment building. She’s short, cranky, and overweight. Unknown to the building’s tenants, she’s also extremely intelligent, well-read, curious, and passionate about art. Paloma is a twelve-year-old girl who lives in the building. She’s also super smart, but she’s disgusted by what seems like the futility of life. She plans to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday unless she comes across a good reason not to. To put people off she pretends to be an average pre-teen. When Paloma and Renee get to know each other they form an unexpected friendship. The book is really about the unexpected connections that unite people. It’s about how hope can change someone’s life. It’s not an easy read. Both narrators spend a lot of time thinking and philosophizing. But I found it worth the effort.
7. The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan– Italy
I normally like Ian McEwan but this book disappointed me. It follows a couple, Colin and Mary, on vacation in Italy. Their relationship has problems. When they meet another couple, Robert and Caroline, they’re happy. It takes their focus off their relationship and each other. But things between the couples start to become uncomfortable, and when Colin and Mary want to leave, they encounter resistance. There’s a pervasive sense of dread in this book, and it plays out in the horrifying conclusion. The problem is that there’s very little context for anything. We don’t know enough about Colin and Mary to care about them, and we don’t know enough about Robert and Caroline to understand why they behave the way that they do.
8. Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala– India
Olivia is the wife of a British civil servant in India in the 1920s. She’s bored. She finds herself intrigued by Nawab, a minor Indian prince who is involved in some shady goings-on. Olivia’s attraction to Nawab results in an affair and a scandal that humiliates her husband and shocks everyone. Years later, Olivia’s granddaughter goes to India looking for information about her grandmother. How did Olivia’s affair happen in a society that was so segregated? What happened after the scandal? As her granddaughter explores letters, journals, and notable places, history begins to repeat itself in strange ways. I liked this book, but something about the writing put me off. There was a distance between the writer, the reader, and both protagonists. That kept me from investing as much as I might have.
9. Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch- The Netherlands– This is another book that takes place in the Netherlands but could really be set anywhere. The main character, M, was once a successful novelist, whose most popular book was based on a real-life disappearance. Now M’s career is declining. But his neighbor seems oddly obsessed with him. We follow these characters and alternate between them and the story that is told in M’s famous novel. Something links the events of the book, the real-life crime, M, and his neighbor. But what? This book is slow going at times, and none of the characters are particularly pleasant. However, if you like the reveal at the end, it’s worth reading. If not, you might resent investing so much time getting there.
10. Too many books to count set in England. I’m just including the ones I liked!