In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
About a year ago, a friend turned me onto Deanna Raybourn’s historical fiction, which blends feminist lead characters with historical British settings. Think Jane Austen but with more sexual freedom and murder. I have torn through about everything she’s written and recommended the books to everyone from my mom to total strangers. While her first series—the Lady Julia novels—seems to have petered out, she’s kicked off a whole new fairly frivolous but smart and well-written series centered around free-loving butterfly collector Veronica Speedwell. If that sounds dumb, you’ll just have to trust me when I say it’s not. Speedwell is sharp, witty, and self-determined and—together with scarred, disgraced former explorer Revelstoke Templeton-Vane—is off to investigate some of London society’s most dastardly doings. The stories are packed with innuendo, lush description, and plenty of intrigue and are such page-turners that I find myself tearing through them in just a few days. So far, there are only two Speedwell novels—A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking—but Raybourn is apparently almost finished with a third, with more, hopefully, to come. I, for one, can’t wait.
A few years ago, I was visiting friends in New York, where I caught a live reading by poet, lecturer, and editor R.A. Villanueva. Actually, “reading” might be too restrictive a phrase; Villanueva dropped his lines like rhymes, switching between a staccato rhythm and one that rushed almost breathlessly to the end. He was performing a few selections from his collection Reliquaria, which I’m embarrassed to admit I only recently picked up. This debut collection won the 2013 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in poetry; the title is Spanish for “reliquary,” which can be a shrine or some other container for relics. It’s a syncretic work, fusing references to ancient Greek heroes with Catholic dogma. “In Memory Of Xiong Huang,” which centers on the unusual reunion of two brothers, is as much about the afterlife as the invisible laborers that have built nations.
Reliquaria is both a technical and thematic feat: The Filipino-American Villanueva uses imagery that’s precise and evocative to traverse religion, geography, and politics. It’s a short but potent read, a paperback of verses that dance on the tongue even if you’re not reading aloud. Well, short is relative; poetry is rarely ever a breezy read—it’s the protein of text—but Villanueva’s works stand on their own, so you can take them in doses.
Geraldine Brooks’ Year Of Wonders is one of the books I return to year after year. The story goes that, on a break from the taxing life as a war reporter, Brooks took a vacation in England, where she stumbled on the story of Eyam, a village that voluntarily quarantined itself during the plague in 1666. This year of plague and quarantine—the eponymous “year of wonders”—is told from the perspective of Anna, a housemaid who survives the plague while many of her family members and friends die. It’s well-researched without descending into dry historical fact listing; Brooks deftly imparts the culture of this rural village, its residents’ understanding of how disease travels (“plague seed”), and how outsider women were blamed when bad things happened. A lot of dark shit happens in Year Of Wonders, but it remains optimistic thanks to Anna’s character and Brooks’ gift for lush scene setting and ability to spin a fascinating, moving story out of history.