Books We Loved, Aug. 2023
Updated: Sep 10
Hard to believe summer is winding down already, with Labor Day just around the corner! These aren’t exactly beach reads, because they will make you think, but these are books we loved in August. And each of them, in its own way, asks important questions relevant to our current times.
Stephanie Cowell, The Boy in the Rain (Regal House, 2023)
Robert Stillman, an eighteen-year-old Londoner, has few expectations when he travels to Nottingham to study with the Reverend George Langstaff. Life has not treated Robbie well recently: his mother’s death has left him in the custody of an uncle who has neither the patience to deal with nor the ability to appreciate a young man whose greatest pleasure in life is to sketch whatever he sees.
The Reverend Langstaff, however, turns out to be exactly the kind of mentor Robbie needs: a wise and tolerant country parson on the brink of retirement, well able to foster his newest pupil’s strengths. When Robbie meets and falls madly in love with their neighbor, Anton Harrington, it would seem that his life is complete.
But this is Edwardian England, and men who love men live in danger of arrest and harsh imprisonment. Anton, who is older by more than a decade, knows this all too well. Although he loves Robbie in return, Anton has spent years covering up both his dangerous romantic inclinations and his socialist political views. And the emotional cost of concealing his self and his past inhibit his ability to sustain any intimate relationship.
Cowell explores the ways in which Robbie and Anton negotiate their way past these emotional and societal pitfalls with warmth, understanding, and respect. And although she surprises us with her conclusion, her ending feels exactly right.—CPL
Fonda Lee, Jade City (Orbit, 2018)
Jade City is a fantasy book, in the sense that it takes place in alternate world, and involves a set of clearly defined magical powers, but it is also very much focused on family dynamics and character development, making it an engrossing read on many levels.
In the Jade City, on the island of Kekon, clan alliances dominate all aspects of life. Position within the clan is determined by family status, as well as the amount of magical jade one can safely manage. Through schooling at one of the clan schools, the chosen students can learn how to manage the four powers conferred by jade: Perception, Strength, Deflection, and Lightness. Only Kekonese have the inborn ability to wear jade and profit from its magical powers, with proper training. Other countries covet jade for military uses, but their soldiers can tolerate it only by taking a dangerous drug called Shine.
Fonda Lee has built a complex and fascinating world around this concept. The island of Kekon seems to be loosely inspired by Japan. We follow the lives of four protagonists in the No Peak clan; Lan, the thoughtful and caring leader; Hilo, his passionate younger brother, who heads up the clan muscle; Shae, the youngest sibling, who tried to escape clan strictures by studying abroad; and their adopted cousin, young Anden, an orphan of mixed heritage.
No Peak clan worked together in the past with the Mountain Clan to expel foreign invaders. With the war now decades in the past, the Mountain Clan has decided to consolidate competing clans under their leadership. Mountain Clan is led by a ruthless and cunning woman. Only the laws of honor, which determine clan behavior and are culturally embedded, moderate her aggression. She’s a cunning and determined adversary, and to hold her in check, the siblings must set their differences aside and dedicate themselves to the survival of No Peak. The losses they suffer, and the personal accommodations they make to grow into their new roles, evoke sympathy, even if their ethos of structured violence is reminiscent of the Mafia.—GM
Andrew Miller, The Slowworm’s Song (Europa Editions, 2022)
We have to be careful not to get trapped in our own stories.
Stephen Rose is a troubled former British soldier and a recovering alcoholic, who in this short and profound book by prize-winning novelist Andrew Miller is living a quiet, solitary life in the Somerset home (and sometimes garden) he inherited from his peace-loving Quaker father, while working in a garden center.
The slowworm is Stephen’s guilt. At the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland in 1982, during a heated incident, the young, terrified soldier shot and killed an innocent, unarmed young man he mistook for a terrorist. There are echoes of Bloody Sunday in how the army covered up the incident, excused the killing as an accident, and quietly sent Stephen back to England. He has been tormented by that awful day ever since, the guilt and shame a rot at the center of his life.
Thirty years later, Stephen receives a letter inviting him to Belfast to report to The Commission, a body set up to investigate those dark times. Will Stephen go back to Belfast to relive that day, or will he hide the letter in a drawer? The Slowworm’s Song takes the form of a letter Stephen writes to his somewhat estranged adult daughter Maggie, whose entire life he has been missing from, telling her his story for the first time.
The tension, the shame, the darkness, is deep in this beautifully written, taut book and we can’t help but hope for some form of redemption for Stephen.—DS