Reading has always been my greatest pleasure. In the midst of tumult, at home and abroad, it has kept me sane.
But it takes a strong book to keep my attention when every day feels like a battlefield.
I’ve found three. I commend them to any of you who shares my feelings. They were all new to me, two are debuts, all accidental finds. And I am so grateful.
Reading Amid Tumult – Historical Mystery Crime
I found Evil Things by Katje Ivar back in April. Frankly, I bought it because it was set in northern Finland, a country I was about to visit to say hello to their owls. (Incidentally, that trip renewed my writing energy like nobody’s business, as I have described elsewhere.) It is a debut novel.
Set in 1952, the plot starts with the reported disappearance of a grandfather from a remote northern village on the Russian border. Finland’s first female inspector of police has already been side-lined. (She’s considered unsound, being too “emotional”. Ring bells with anyone?)
But the Big Cheese thinks the disappearance is a minor matter and if she’s prepared to schlepp into the snowbound forest to investigate, she’s welcome. It will get her out of his hair for a while. That is until she finds a body and starts turning up real evidence.
Why I loved Evil Things
It has two fabulous, unexpected virtues. First, the forest landscape that stretches across the border is wonderfully realised. Indeed, I visited one of the northern national parks. A notice made it very clear that the Finnish and Russian guardians of the park worked in harmony with nature and each other. Very cheering in this time of international vituperation.
The book’s second unexpected virtue is the Classic Christie Clue. It is there in plain sight. I could and should have picked it up. But it was so neatly and unobtrusively presented that I didn’t. Profoundly satisfying.
Good to read in times of tumult because
- terrific story, with a great resolution
- the world and characters are brilliantly realised
- main character is awkward and engaged my sympathy at once
- it tells about the alliances we have to make and the conflicts we need to resolve with the people around us
- it reminded me of how much the modern woman has to be grateful for and to whom.
Reading Amid Tumult – Alternative Historical Science Fiction
The narrator is a maths genius, her husband a super engineer. You get to like them before you realise their awesome brain power, which is just as well.
The plot is about, well, survival. And workplace politics. Personal conflicts. Political issues, like people hating and/or disbelieving experts. Not to mention the role of women in the space industry of 1952.
There is a full cast of believable characters, especially a group of lady pilots. Many of them flew in the World War 2. But their male colleagues ignore their skills and forget or disbelieve their adventures.
I found The Calculating Stars because I was looking for speculative fiction, hoping for something to take me out of this universe, to be honest. If I’d read some of the plot descriptions – or if I hadn’t read that breathtaking first chapter – I might well have given it a miss. And, oh boy, I would have missed a corker. Well, two corkers, since there is a sequel, which I read the moment I’d finished Book 1.
Basically Book 1 is How to Go To The Moon. Book 2 is Going To Mars.
And yes, I found the Lady Astronaut Series by doing one of my sideways random searches.
But I could have got there much sooner if I’d googled Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards. The Calculating Stars won Mary Robinette Kawal all three in 2018.
The bibliography and acknowledgements make your eyeballs bubble. The woman does her research!
Why I loved the Lady Astronaut Series
Both are told by the same neurotic, kind, prickly, generous, tactless, humane, work-obsessed, genius mathematician. You get to know more bit by bit, just as you would in real life. She’s also Jewish, fairly observant, spiritually sustained by the old rituals. And then, in Book 2 she finds herself in the same room as Werner Von Braun.
At the same time she’s also got the magnolia manners of the South, nearly faints when she has to say “fucking” for the first time in public and infuses “Bless your heart” with blistering irony. The readers pick up the sarcasm but at least 50% of the people she’s talking to don’t.
Good to read in times of tumult because
- terrific series of challenges and solutions (Some of them work.)
- believable 1950s/1960s world
- great sense of family even though the work world drives most of the plot
- gorgeous science
- even greater awareness of constant racial prejudice, tensions, misunderstandings
- narrator who can endlessly surprise you and, thank God, is not always right
- some great characters
- and, yes, conflicts and alliances.
Reading Amid Tumult – Paranormal
Well, I was after pure escapism when I fell over Silver In the Wood by Emily Tesh. Probably aiming for something with a rescued wizard who could raise storms and wipe out all the bullies with a well-deserved lightning bolt or two. (I started looking after the present Attorney General thundered at the House of Commons as if he were addressing a Nuremberg Rally. Scared the shit out of me, to be honest.)
Another debut, this is a gem. You start off with a solitary man living in a cottage in the wood. Maybe a bit dangerous. He has knives and he’s sharpening them. He invites a stranger in out of the rain.
The young man stays the night and flirts a little. Solitary man only realises it sometime after midnight when his visitor is fast asleep. He snorts with laughter, that it’s been so long since it happened he didn’t “recognise a handsome lad suggesting a bit of mutual entertainment any more.”
So far, so eco-friendly. A little strange, yes. Magical? Not so much. Yet, very, very slowly, a sprig of mistletoe here, an eastward-facing crossed circle of white stones there, you begin to realise: this is not just magical but old magic. And it’s lovely.
Emily Tesh says that her Green Man started as a queer, depressed descendant of Tom Bombadil. And thankfully he doesn’t have Bombadil’s relentless cheeriness.
Tobias is a bit grumpy, very dry, has a good working relationship with an unflappable cat called Pearl, does his bit supporting dryads and the wood and is just a little quiet these days.
And then he falls in love. Quite slowly. Almost elegiacally. He is conscious of being very, very old. Henry Silver, with his curls and his enthusiasms, is his young landlord, researching into a history that Tobias remembers seeing unfold. And then…
Why I loved Silver in the Wood
It lives and breathes the woods. There are four main embodied characters, two dryads and one soulless villain but the wood helps and heals and has equal life with all of them.
The dryads are dangerous, even when loving and protective. Maybe especially when loving and protective.
Emily Tesh writes beautifully – her writing is often poetic, yet also spare and down-to earth and wry, like Tobias. Silver, seeing red stains on the stones, thinks blood sacrifice: “Or blackberry juice,” said Tobias, hiding a smile. “Stains everything, that does.”
And it made me cry twice. Once at sacrifice and loss. Once at an unexpected gift. And I felt the better for both.
Good to read in times of tumult:
- truthful about trees and plants and animals and values them
- it is kind (so is Tobias)
- a perspective of the cycle of the seasons, death and regrowth
- sweet and believable love story
- it exalts forgiveness
- will make you laugh
- has you on the edge your seat at least once
- several conflicts, one surprising and life-enhancing alliance, quite apart from the love story
- it may make you cry – but in the best way
May you enjoy these books as much as I have.Sophie
Thank you so much for these suggestions, Jenny. When I have a gap in my reading schedule I will refer to these. They sound interesting and uplifting. What a good idea to have a reading list – books are the place to live at the moment!
I don’t know what I’d do without books at the moment, Katie. I have never felt so worried and helpless about the state of the world. These really took me somewhere else for a bit.
It’s frightening how angry I feel at the moment. A Finnish forest sounds like the perfect escape.
Last time I had my blood pressure taken it was too high. Doctor said relax – better but still too high, Then he said visualise – so I imagined I was back in the Finnish forest I’d just been visiting, with the trunk of a birch tree supporting me and raindrops plunking down on my hood. And the doctor pretty much fell off his chair – perfect low middle bp. So try it!
Fascinating choices. Didn’t know you were such an eclectic reader. I am too. Quite into dystopia but that’s a bit near the bone at the moment.
However must tell you when I read the title of this piece, I had one of those strange aberrative moments of misreading, asking myself, “Who is Amid Tumult? Never heard of him!” And then the penny dropped.
Oh, there’s definitely a character called Amid Tumult, Liz. Can feel I’m getting to know him already.
I do actually look to read books out of my own genres, especially when I’m editing, as I am at the moment. But yes, I’ve always read pretty widely. Or greedily, some might say.
These sound amazing read. I love a great crime novel and used to read a lot of SF. Definitely feel the need to stretch my reading and could certainly do with some magic at the moment. Thank you.
I pinned several birdwatchers to the wall in Finland, after we went to the national park that crossed the border, and said, “You gotta read Katje Ivar’s book. It’s about places like we went to today.” Got some very odd looks. But birdwatchers are basically too polite to complain.
Your recommendations are always perfect. And yes – the whole kaboosh frightens the hell out of me, too. Tried to avoid while I was away, but a friend and I huddled over the laptop every morning just in case WW3 had broken out. Most of the time, I READ. By the pool, on the boat, in my room, on my own, surrounded by people. I wish I’d known about at least two of these before I went away.
Interesting piece on Radio 4 this morning, pointing out that the most troubled are people who are naturally anxious. I must say, I’ve never thought I was before. And to begin with, I thought there were arguments and evidence on both sides and my vote was a “better-on-balance” decision. But I never foresaw the sheer hatred that seems to coming down now.
These stories really did help readjust my perspective back to “Normal.” Or normal for me, anyway. Going to try to hang onto that.
Never heard of any of these, but putting them on my Reading List. I have mostly been re-reading old books recently, partly for the escapism, but also because reading them takes me back to when I read them the first (or second, or third) time around, when the world was a saner, kinder, more manageable place. It frightens me enormously these days.
I know what you mean, Jan. I’ve been doing a lot of reassurance reading of old favourites, too. Thank God for Heyer and Stewart, also Diana Wynne Jones. And PGW, of course. Just thinking what he would have done with the Johnson cheers me up.
Completely with you there, Jan, and for all the same reasons. And I started reading Evil Things last night.
Oooo, excited. Fingers crossed that you enjoy it, Lesley! (I’m going to want to know if you picked up the clue I missed, too. After all, you’re the pro.)
Hi Jenny, something here for a few of the people on my Christmas goody-bag lists. Thank you. Amid tumult sounds like a great character. anne stenhouse
Glad to help, Anne! (I think Amid might find himself in a story soon.)
Such tempting descriptions, Sophie. Thank you. I shall follow up but possibly not until I’ve finished the current wip. I find I can’t read anything but non-fiction while I’m writing.
I’m switching to non-fiction for the foreseeable – but that’s WW2 mainly. Research for the Book in Waiting, I suppose. But also it’s what I feel like. Maybe because that did, finally, end.
Loved your post, Sophie, and good to find quite different types of books for a change. I love being taken out of the present by C.J. Sansom’s Tudor crime mysteries and can’t wait for the latest to be in paperback.
Glad you enjoyed it, Ros. Shardlake is fabulous, I agree.
Great post, Sophie. I enjoy reading all kinds of fiction except horror, and love it when someone recommends a book to me with such whole-hearted enthusiasm. Agree completely with you that a good novel is a brilliant way to escape anxiety. In fact, life without a book to keep me company is unimaginable!
Thank you Gail. I’m pretty much up for any sort of fiction – except stuff that will mess with my head and give me seriously bad dreams. So horror is out and so is quite a lot of so-called “psychological thrillers”. I approach any book bearing that label with extreme suspicion.