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  • C. P. Lesley

Books We Loved, Nov. 2021

The nights are getting longer, the days colder, and the holidays fast approaching. All good reasons for stocking up on some great books. Here are our recommendations for this month. Hope you enjoy them!

Laetitia Colombani, The Braid (Atria, 2019)

This easy-to-read novel is composed of three separate narratives. Smita lives in India with her husband and daughter, in abysmal poverty and appalling conditions; Giulia lives in Sicily, where she enjoys the comradeship of working alongside other women in the wig-making business her father, a proper Italian patriarch, owns; and Sarah, in Canada, has dedicated her life to reaching the pinnacle of the legal profession, achieving partner status by sacrificing her free time.

Despite their economic and cultural differences, these women are connected in more ways than Smita’s braid, which ends up with Sarah after a series of events. Sarah is the richest and most powerful of the three, but she’s not immune from misogyny, as she finds out when her status is threatened by her antagonist at the firm, a smirking male lawyer. Giulia, who has earned her father’s trust, still faces opposition when she tries to steer the wig-making business in a new direction. Smita is oppressed and discriminated against, but not only because she was born into the Untouchable caste. A young woman who helps her explains that she had to flee from her deceased husband’s family to escape blame or punishment for her widow status.

Smita, Giulia, and Sarah will be forced to accept miserable situations unless they dare to change their circumstances. Each of them ultimately defies convention and risks a new direction. The Braid chooses not to speculate on the outcome of every decision—surely Smita and her little girl will have the most difficult journey—but instead accompanies these three women as they arrive at significant turning points in their lives.—GM

Andrea Penrose, Murder on Black Swan Lane

(Kensington Books, 2017)

I stumbled onto this book through an Amazon recommendation and decided to give it a whirl (it cost only $0.99 at the time, although it’s since returned to its normal price). I ripped through it in a couple of days and immediately read the rest of the series. I’ll soon explain why, but first, a brief overview.

The series opens with a brutal murder in a London church, ca. 1811, committed over the possession of a book by someone identified only as the “Golden One.” Charlotte Sloane—a young artist who as A.J. Quill, London’s premier satirist, supports herself and the two urchins who live with her—arrives in time to produce a detailed sketch of the body but flees the scene when the Bow Street Runners arrive.

Switch to the next morning, when the Earl of Wrexford roars with outrage to discover, first, that A.J. Quill has ridiculed him yet again over his romantic liaisons and, second, that there’s a Bow Street Runner on the doorstep convinced that the earl has committed murder. Why? Because the victim in the church turns out to be a clergyman who has been conducting an escalating and vitriolic public feud with Wrexford, known throughout the city for his hair-trigger temper and his absolute refusal to tolerate fools gladly.

In Regency England, peers can be tried only in the House of Lords, so Wrexford is not in immediate danger of being hauled off to Newgate Prison. But sufficient evidence will doom even the highest nobleman to conviction and execution. So the hunt is on for the killer, with Wrexford forced to ally with the one person who seems to have his—or is it her?—finger on the pulse of criminal London: A.J. Quill, aka Charlotte Sloan.

In addition to the fast-paced and challenging mystery of the “Golden One’s” identity and reasons for killing the unfortunate clergyman, this series features a group of fascinating, complex, and appealingly flawed characters, starting with Charlotte and Wrexford but extending to their family, servants, and friends. Each book also explores a specific element of Regency science—in this case, the shift from alchemy to chemistry. If you’ve avoided novels set in the Regency because you associate the era with pale and predictable romances, this series will draw you in even as it opens your eyes.—CPL

Richard Powers, Bewilderment (W. W. Norton, 2021)

As an astro-biologist, Theo Byrne’s university-sponsored position requires him to search the universe for planets capable of supporting life, which in turn requires government funding for increasingly more powerful telescopic instruments. Alyssa, the woman he married, two years dead (the result of a car accident) when the novel begins, had been an outspoken and passionate advocate for endangered species. Not surprisingly, their son Robbie, age nine, is keenly aware of right and wrong from an Earth-sustaining perspective. But emotional problems—diagnosed over the years as OCD or possibly autism—prevent him from being able to get along with other kids in the classroom.

Theo rejects the idea that his otherwise brilliant son should be medicated with psychoactive drugs and instead caves to Robbie’s proposal that he be home-schooled. But the result, initially, is that Robbie takes his frustrations out not on other kids but on his father. Then one of Theo’s colleagues at the university intercedes. He and his team are researching a way to alter emotional intelligence by “training” people with “maps” of previously recorded brain waves from other people who scored high in their own emotional intelligence testing, a treatment they call Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef. And so it comes to pass that Theo allows Robbie to be trained on the DecNef recordings of his deceased mother.

Bewilderment is a strange and beautiful story. There are the main characters, all mentioned above, and there are the peripheral ones—meaning every plant and tree and animal that is or ever was a part of our planetary community. Readers of Powers’ previous novel, The Overstory, already know that when it comes to celebrating the beauty of nature, there is no one better qualified. But the antagonists in this story are all too real as well; they are the power-hungry politicians who, lacking any semblance of foresight or understanding of science, cannot be trusted to continue to fund programs focused on the well-being of all sentient beings. (Alyssa’s prayer, which both husband and son repeat nightly in her absence, is, “May all sentient beings be free from needless suffering.”)

Some readers might consider Bewilderment to be science fiction, because the instruments used in surveying both planets and people’s psyches are just beyond (to this reviewer’s knowledge) those actually in use today. Others might easily conclude that Bewilderment is a kind of book-length poem. Indeed, many of the chapters begin with Theo at Robbie’s bedside—often while camping out under the stars—creating fictitious planets that they can—through sheer exertion of imagination—visit, in order to observe the diversity of the life forms that have developed on each. Either way, it is a rich and important read, perhaps a necessary read, about the enduring love of life.—JS

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