Matt’s Weekly Reads, April 8, 2023

Spotlight

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, Shannon Chakraborty (2023)

 

In this first installment of a new series by the author of the amazing Daevabad Trilogy, our titular heroine, a retired pirate, is pulled back into the business after a visit from the matriarch of a wealthy family whose granddaugther — the daughter of a beloved crewmember Amina once tragically failed — has been kidnapped. But what seems at first to be a simple kidnapping case quickly reveals itself to be far more complicated, and to have far greater consequences than Amina could have ever imagined.

Chakraborty had a very tall order in this book. This is part love-letter to the wealthy Medieval maritime civilizations of the Indian Ocean, part rollicking pirate adventure, and part ode to mothers and the heartbreaking times when the best way they can love their children is to leave them behind. And, she also had to do all this in a way that convinced her long-time readers that she was right to leave the beloved world of Daevabad behind. I have to admit that, despite all three volumes of Daevabad being among my favorite books of all time (and the fourth companion book, being really wonderful too!), I was not sure how I’d feel about this. I can’t say piracy, the Indian Ocean, or motherhood or super enthralling themes for me. But, I’m so so glad I picked this up. She set herself a tough task and she more than met it. The characters and their web of relationships are complicated, the setting is exquisite, the plotting is immaculate, and the research that went into this extensive.

Chakraborty has demonstrated yet again that she is absolutely one of the best voices in the historical fantasy genre.

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • Fantasy
  • Legends and Myths
  • Middle East
  • Indian Ocean
  • Pirates

My Rating: Premise 10, Atmosphere 10, Main Character(s) 10, Plot 10, Intrigue 10, Relationships 10, Success 10, Writing 9, Enjoyment 10, Lasting Impact / Meaning 7: TOTAL 96

Weekly Roundup

Thirst, Amélie Nothomb (2019, Translated by Alison Anderson), 86: This novella by the prolific Belgian-French author Amélie Nothomb is a psychological profile of Jesus as he reflects on his life, trial, execution, and all that came after. I have mixed feelings about this one. I don’t mind an unorthodox portrayal of Jesus, but unlike more successful novelizations of his life, there just didn’t seem to be much to fill in the holes created by taking the story out of the traditional framework. (For those with a background in Christian theology, there is for example a critique of the penal substitution model of the atonement, but it’s much like the critique of totalitarianism in 1984; it’s true but it’s the basic, kindergarten critique.) There is some gorgeous writing in this, though, and a lot of legitimate psychological insight, and so it’s well worth reading on both of those counts.  (Jesus, Retelling, Psychological)

Maame, Jessica George (2023), 92: At twenty-five, our heroine Maddie is not living her ‘best twenties life.’ In addition to the common generational issues of ‘good jobs’ with insecure employment and poverty wages, she is the primary caregiver for her dying father — and her mom, who lives mostly in her native Ghana, and her brother are no help at all. Is this all life has for her? This has been called a ‘failure to launch’ book, but I don’t think that’s fair to Maddie. She hasn’t failed to launch; economic realities and family expectations have prevented her from launching, and this story is about how she starts to find her own way. I got bogged down in the first third, as Maddie’s situation grows more and more dire, but the book redeemed itself for me in the second half. (African Diaspora, Twenty-First Century Life, Big Cities, London, Coming of Age)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (1916), 89: This classic is a fictionalized telling of the author’s childhood and coming of age in Ireland around the turn of the twentieth century, focusing on his complicated feelings about his family, country, and religion. This is one of the most important and influential pieces of modernist writing; Joyce pushed the boundaries of what could be written about and how it was written. It’s far from an easy read, but it’s well worth the effort. (Modernism, Ireland, 1900s, Coming of Age)

Flappers and Philosophers, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920), 89: This first collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a great example of the format. The characters are well-drawn, the plots fit perfectly into their limited page counts, and the stories offer an insightful glimpse into American life at the cusp of the 1920s, each with a delicious twist at the end to make the experience worthwhile. I run hot-and-cold on American male twentieth-century authors, but for me at least, Fitzgerald completely deserves his place in the Western literary canon and this collection is a wonderful example of why. (1910s, 1920s, Short Story, Americana)

Ethel & Ernest, Raymond Briggs (1998), 81: This is a graphic novel telling of the story of the author’s parents’ life together, from their courtship in inter-war London, through the tumultuous years of the mid-twentieth century, until their deaths. It’s a touching exploration of just how much the world changed during the twentieth century and the excitement and whiplash the changes caused for those who lived through it. This is a book that simply lays out the content, without much comment or point of view on it all. I think that’s the point, and it’s effective, but it left me wanting a bit more. The real star of the show is the attention to detail in the illustrations, with every brick, leaf, and tile given its due. (20th C History, British History, Relationships, Graphic Novels)

The BFG, Roald Dahl (1984), 74: A young orphan girl is taken by a giant after she sees him skulking around her neighbourhood. But, lucky for her, he’s a friendly giant, and they embark on a plan to save England’s children from his less-friendly compatriots. This is a silly story that delights in silly language. Individual mileage will vary, but for me, the silliness pushed too far in the direction of ‘dumb’ rather than ‘fun.’ (Childrens Fiction, Nonsense, Play)

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818), 72: In this Gothic classic, at the dawn of the scientific revolution, a man discovers how to bring inanimate tissue to life, with disastrous results. There can be no doubt that Frankenstein’s Monster is one of the most important literary creations of the modern era: a new monster that played with the new fears of a new age. But I can also understand why so much of the modern mythology surrounding the character is only loosely adapted from Shelley’s text, which holds up less well (at least for me) than the monster and themes. The double framing device was bizarre — at one point, the text is third-hand , the monster’s story told to Frankenstein as told to the narrator as told to his sister. Oof. And, the prose was often florid and overwrought — not atypical for the Gothic genre, but still ridiculous to the point of being a parody of itself. (Classics, Horror, Gothic, Monsters, Scientific Revolution, Responsibility)

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