A Year of Escapist Reading

In the seven weeks or so, I have found myself strangely drawn to two types of books: science fiction (or is it technically fantasy?) and dystopian novels. Clearly a reflection of my current view of the world.

What better way to escape than to immerse myself in another world? Thus far, it’s more magic and dragons, then space ships and lasers, but I’m not adverse to the other. As for dystopian fiction, I’m not sure if it’s an escape or a warning. Nonetheless, when I look back on favorites from the past year, I’m definitely seeing these two types jump out.

The Underground Railroad – This year-end top-10 favorite is really that good. When I first read the reviews, I was intrigued and thought about picking up this re-imagining of the Underground Railroad as an actual, physical railroad that transported runaway slaves between states (both physical and states of being, of a sort). But then Oprah jumped on it, and I thought – bleh. But. It’s good. The book almost defies description. Is it historical fiction? No doubt Cora’s experiences are based on historical fact. But then there’s the fantasy of the railroad that travels under people’s homes and was built by, well, who knows who built it. And there’s the dystopian, sometimes Orwellian touches in how various states have decided to address slavery. Creative concept, beautifully written, searing descriptions and above all, a will to survive and thrive.

The Brotherhood of the Wheel – The Knights Templar of the Middle Ages, Dan Brown page turners and countless other treasure-hunting tales still exist today. They are a collection of truck drivers, bikers, cops and others who protect innocents traveling the roads. The predators? There’s your run of the mill serial killer, maybe some zombies (go with it) and something darker? And then there’s the road itself, and the power that lies beneath. A mish-mash of characters, but each with a good back story, who find themselves in a battle against evil. And if you’re a music fan, know that the author is too, and the songs that come on the radio or jukebox or wherever the characters are, well, that’s an important part of the story, as well. Oh, and there’s a sequel. Out next year.

The Handmaid’s Tale – I know, I can’t believe I never read Margaret Atwood’s classic, either. But in the wake of the election, it felt, necessary. So off it came from one of the back pages of my Kindle library. I can’t believe she wrote this 30 years ago – so much of it seems prescient: democracy ends because of Islamic terror attacks. In an all digital economy, women are easily targeted and cut off. Women are breeders or wives on pedestals or they are “unwomen.” Sound familiar? It’s not a screed though. It’s well-written and sharply descriptive. I’ll admit I’m not quite finished with the novel, but 75% of the way in, I think this certainly qualifies as a top read.

Eligible – In honor of the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen and the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, two groups have commissioned contemporary authors to retell their stories. Eligible, set in modern day Cincinnati, where Jane is a yoga instructor and Lizzie a magazine writer, with Bingley and Darcy as hot shot surgeons and Mrs. Bennett as a devotee to reality TV shows, might take the cake. It’s sharp and clever, and if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll like the modern recastings. If not, you’ll enjoy the read anyhow.

The Secret Chord – King David was the first historical figure to be chronicled from birth through childhood through adulthood and death. But what do we really know about the person? Geraldine Brooks’s David isn’t particularly virtuous or sympathetic, but he feels real and he is really flawed. Hence the tragedy. Downside: she uses traditional Hebrew (?) names so even if you are vaguely familiar with the biblical stories, you won’t necessarily recognize it right away.

Arcadia – A group of writers gather regularly at a pub in the countryside of England to read each other’s stories. Sort of like how Tolkein, C.S. Lewis and others did during WWII … Then the stories the professor writes get intertwined with his life. Is he writing a story of another timeline? The future? The past? Or is that story influencing (writing) his daily life? Add in a storyline that doesn’t seem connected until further into the book, and you have Arcadia. The threads eventually come together and yes, there is a conclusion.

Queen of the Night – This books is long and lush, with the main character moving between worlds and realities the way an opera singer moves through sets. Who is she? Well, that’s a secret that only 4 people know – a friend, a lover, the love of her life and her deadliest enemy. She’s poverty-stricken, she’s a kept woman, she’s Empress Eugenie’s servant, she’s an opera singer, she’s at the Commune – you get the picture. You become entangled in the story she’s written for herself. Can she escape it? Operatic in scope and feel.

And two nonfiction books make my list as well:

Black Flags The Rise of ISIS – Because you can’t escape reality all the time …. Black Flags is a good, informative read on the founding of ISIS. It’s terrifying, and timely. You can vaguely remember many of the events chronicled in the book, and the stories echo in what you read in today’s news. Warrick is a good storyteller with excellent sources, particularly among the Jordanian services, who (naturally) have their own POV.

Valiant Ambition – This book about George Washington and Benedict Arnold tells the stories of the two famous Revolutionary War figures, before their places in history are set, as they are barreling toward their fates. I wish I had read a physical book, so I could follow the detailed maps and drawings, but I muddled along as best I could. It’s a reminder that we control our own destinies and that long game is the one that’s worth winning.

What were your notable reads of the year? I’m always looking for book recs!

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