Rick’s Recent Reads for February

A quick break from shoveling snow (and writing) to tell you what I’ve been reading. It’s quite a mix of titles.

Adult historical fiction. (Very adult) After enjoying Faber’s most recent novel, The Book of Strange New Things, I decided to try this — his earlier novel set in 1870s England. I have to admire someone who can evoke science fiction worlds and Victorian London with equal aplomb. The surety with which Faber resurrects the world of the 1870s is astounding. You will feel like you are there — gritty streets, coal-blackened slums, high society balls and all. This is basically the story of a young prostitute Sugar and how an encounter with the young heir of a perfume empire changes both their lives in unexpected ways. The story is Dickensian in its scope and its deft juggling of many colorful characters, but its narrative sensibility is modern. The unnamed narrator speaks directly to the reader in second person at the beginning, and at the end . . . well, the ending is infuriatingly open-ended (Something I have been accused of myself) but after reflection, I’ve come to appreciate why the author chose to end the story as he did. It’s definitely a tale that will stay with you long after you finish.

Adult urban fantasy/cyberpunk. I picked this up because I loved the Ms. Marvel comics written by G. Willow Wilson, and while this is very, very different stuff, it was a fabulous read. Somehow I went into this thinking it was a middle grade or young adult novel. It’s not. The content is quite dark and adult. It’s the story of a twenty-something hacker living in an Arabic city state simply called The City. Alif is secretly in love with the daughter of a high-ranking family, and (SPOILER) when she becomes engaged to a government official — an official who is in charge of finding hackers like Alif, things become very complicated. (END SPOILER.) That in itself would be an intriguing story, but Wilson also blends in the world of the fire spirit jinn, mixing computer magic with ancient magic. Alif finds himself in possession of an ancient book that may be the secret to reprogramming the entire world. His enemies, both human and jinn, will do anything to obtain it. It’s rare to find a novel set in the Middle East that is both accessible to a Western audience and sympathetically well-informed. The City is beautifully evoked. The descriptions of life in a dictatorial society are grimly and unflinchingly portrayed. You see both the beauty of Islamic society and folklore, and the desperate, fearful, and claustrophobic conditions in which the citizens of The City live. If you’re looking for an adventure unlike anything you’ve probably read, give this a try!

Adult contemporary fiction. The Goldfinch was the book to read last year, so I didn’t read it. Happily I corrected that over the last few weeks! It’s the story of young Theo whose mother dies in a terrorist explosion at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In the ensuing chaos, Theo escapes with his mother’s favorite painting, The Goldfinch, a priceless Dutch masterpiece that becomes Theo’s secret treasure and also the albatross around his neck. The story follows Theo into adulthood, through a series of tragedies and misadventures, until at last, he must face the music in regards to the missing painting. The novel is part coming-of-age story, part mystery, part rumination on the value of a human life versus the value of art. The writing is evocative yet accessible. The characters are wonderfully evoked. Tartt knows how to keep readers engaged with a compelling plot, yet the story is about much more than what happens to Theo and the painting. It’s about loss and grief and loyalty. It’s a remarkable read. I almost had to stop reading the book when Theo’s ne’er-do-well father came on the scene because he was such an ass I wanted to strangle him, but later in the book, Tartt made even that character seem understandable, if not sympathetic. And Boris . . . what a creation! If nothing else, read this book to meet Boris.

Middle grade/young adult graphic novel. In comic book form, Cece Bell tells the story of a young girl (rabbit?) growing up with a severe hearing impairment. She does a great job tackling the subject with humor and pathos, letting us see the world through the narrator’s eyes (and hear through her super Phonic Ear). Along the way, we meet pushy friends, clueless peers, helpful teachers, not-so-helpful siblings, and a whole cast of other characters that any kid can relate to. A great novel for raising awareness and promoting understanding, because not everyone hears the world the same way, whether we have a super-powerful Phonic Ear or not!

Rick Riordan