We have a special treat for you today, Savvy Readers! We’ve been sitting on this one for a little bit now, and we’re so excited to finally share that Janie Chang, author of this week’s My Book Pledge Featured Read The Library of Legends and the author that’s kicking off Historical Fiction Month for us here at the Savvy Reader, popped by to give us a self-quarantine reading list, curated specially for you! Let’s see what Janie suggests!
If you had asked me a few weeks ago what books to read while self-quarantined, I’m not sure what the list would’ve looked like. When chatting to other authors, they all said the same thing: that it was hard to focus and and the only books they felt up to reading were the sort that offered reassuring, short term distraction. Children’s books for example. Agatha Christie. We joked that even Little Women seemed too harrowing, what with Beth dying and all that. I only wanted what was familiar, certain knowledge of the ending a comfort during this time of uncertainty.
Now that I feel ready to read for pleasure again, the books I turn to provide an escape. No wars, no pandemics. They cover a range of genres, but they’re all immersive reads that transport you to worlds unlike our own, whether in culture or era, with problems that are relatable but not always exactly like our own. Some so thoughtful you want to stay and play with ideas. Some so beautifully written their words alone could hold you inside the pages. All so interesting you can’t leave until you’ve read the last word.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008): Translated from the French. In modern-day Paris, a frumpy 50-something building concierge named Renée deliberately (and sometimes literally) hides her intellect and refined tastes under shopping bags of turnips and tripe. 12 year-old Paloma’s wealthy family lives in one of the building’s expensive apartments. She’s fiercely intelligent, adores Japanese culture, and has decided that since life is futile she will commit suicide on her 13th birthday. When a new tenant, a Japanese businessman, moves in to the building, he befriends Paloma and together they discern Renée’s true, and elegant nature. I have no idea what genre this would be called, but it’s a charming, wholly original story that dishes out philosophy while skewering the hypocrisy of the class-conscious.
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo (2019). I loved this murder mystery-ghost story set in colonial 1930s Malaysia. Ru, an orphaned houseboy, sets out on a quest to find his dead master’s severed finger. His quest intertwines with that of Ji Lin, a young dressmaker who moonlights as a dance hall girl and with Dr. Acton, an English doctor who becomes Ren’s new master. There are mysterious deaths attributed to a were-tiger, the missing finger weaves its way through the story, and every addictive page pulls you through hot, steamy, landscapes and the complex culture that is pre-war Malaysia.
Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev (2019). What do you get when Bollywood meets Jane Austen? The blurb for this book goes something like: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that only in an overachieving Indian-American family can a genius neurosurgeon daughter be considered a black sheep’. Trisha Raje’s wealthy first-generation Indian-American family hires chef DJ Caine to cater an event and things heat up. Yes, there is the expected initial hostility when Trisha, DJ, and their strong wills collide, and of course love will out, but this story offers far more than romance in its intricate examination of family, culture, and class.
The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier (2010). Set in 19th century Edo (Tokyo) this is one of my top 10 favourite novels. Oei is the daughter of the artist Hokusai, whose woodblock print ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ is one of the world’s most iconic works of art. There is some evidence that Oei ran his studio and painted the works attributed to her father during his final years. Their domain is the ‘floating world’ of the Yoshiwara, a licensed pleasure district of brothels, bars, and restaurants. Oei is an unforgettable creation, a stubborn, talented woman who refuses to conform and spends her life trying to paint her way out from her father’s shadow. Govier’s writing is dense with vivid, sensory detail.
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay (2019). When GGK launched his poetry collection, right then and there it explained why his use of language is so otherworldly: he is also a poet. In a fantasy world that calls to mind Renaissance Italy, the main characters in this novel are not outsize heroes on a quest to save the universe. These are smaller players who occupy the sidelines in the events of this fictional world. There’s a healer, a female assassin, a tailor’s son. And they just want to fix a few corners of their world. When I finished the last page of this book, I knew it had become my favourite of all GGK’s novels.
Circe by Madeline Miller (2019). This novel takes the sorceress Circe out of the canon of Greek mythology and gives her the starring role in a feminist tale of family (a family of gods), exile (to a deserted island), power (magical and political), and love (both romantic and maternal). There are appearances by familiar characters such as Daedalus and Icarus, Ariadne and the Minotaur, Hermes, and of course Odysseus. Circe may be a sorceress but she is also a woman who is forced to use her powers in self-defence (men, pigs, remember?). This is a supremely satisfying read on so many levels, I can’t recommend it enough. Also, I bow at Madeline Miller’s feet.
The Lost History of Dreams by Kris Waldherr (2019). In 19th century England, Robert Highstead spends more time with the dead than the living. He works as a post-mortem photographer, taking portraits of the dead. Then he goes home and waits for his wife’s ghost to appear. But when his cousin, the famous poet Hugh de Bonne dies, Robert must bring the poet’s body back to the estate of Weald Hall for burial in the chapel beside Hugh’s wife Ada. Except that Ada’s niece has the key to the chapel and refuses to allow Hugh’s body inside. If you love the Gothic and the ghostly, this novel serves up tons of atmosphere and a story that just keeps peeling its layers to reveal different underpinnings to what you thought was going on.
There you have it, Savvy Readers! If you’re looking for some amazing reads to get you through this period of self-isolation, Janie Chang‘s got you covered with a reading list that has a little something for every type of reader! Oh, and we would be remiss if we didn’t also say that The Library of Legends is SO good, and it should round out all of your reading lists for the year. It’s that good!
Happy reading, and be sure to keep an eye out for more Historical Fiction Month content coming your way soon!