6 Contemporary Novels To Check Out During The Quarantine
From plucky heroines, to royalty and a gorgeous European backdrop, check out these new books
We began the quarantine with a lot more enthusiasm—listing albums to listen to, hobbies to revisit, work-from-home productivity tricks to try. If you've had enough of the endless news cycle about COVID-19, why not explore different realities and travel vicariously through books? Here are six of our recommendations:
Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann
Kehlmann is best known for authoring Measuring the World, which has been translated into more than forty languages; and he’s won several literary prizes, including the Thomas Mann, the Candide, the Welt, and the Kleist. In his latest, he sets his sights on the 17th century and utilizes the legendary vagabond performer and trickster Tyll Ulenspeigel, to be the voice of the rootless, the disenfranchised, the frustrated populace, and the cynical observer of the powers that be.
It’s a period of plague, of famine, of war, and extreme poverty for the vast majority; and in this maelstrom of a situation, royals obliviously jostle for power and riches, exploiting the people and lands. Via adventure and a European brand of magical realism, Kehlmann uses the travels and exploits of Tyll to cast a critical eye at Europe then, and now. In Tyll, Kehlmann has found a most effective avatar.
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Things is a wonderful mystery story, led by a female sleuth who delves into the world of criminals and exotic collectors, to recover a whispered-about special and remarkable waif. Weaving fantasy, folklore, and history, Kidd conjures up her own delicious spin on the world of Charles Dickens and other renowned writers of the Victorian era. It flits between historical fact and fairy tale in an impressive manner.
Birdie Devine, a red-haired, pipe-smoking private detective is at the center of this tale. Her game's afoot pursuing the whereabouts of Christabel Berwick, the ‘secret’ daughter of Sir Edmund Berwick. The cast of characters include a seven-foot tall housemaid, ready to protect Birdie at all costs, a tattoo-covered ghost who’s melancholic, and a apothecary who’s keeping too many secrets close to his chest. It’s a foggy underworld, both macabre and illuminating in equal measures. Trippy read.
Pretty As A Picture by Elizabeth Little
Marissa Dahl is a noted, up and coming film editor for indie films, when she gets a call to replace the film editor who’s left the Delaware island set of the noted mainstream director Tony Rees. By all accounts, it should be a simple in and out, a nice add on to her resume. And an opportunity to work with Rees, a legendary director, but known also for being legendary as a demanding, dictatorial, imperious presence on his sets. He’s taking a real life, decades old, unsolved murder of a young girl named Caitlyn, the set is the actual small island where the crime occurred.
Of course, in the words of Elizabeth Little, this becomes more than just a mystery thriller, as it is also a cinephile’s delight—like you’re a fly on the wall of a movie set. And Little uses the true crime premise to explore our cultural fascination with tales of murder, with twists and turns as suspects and all sort of strange doings happen on the island, and to Marissa, in particular. With a colorful cast of characters, this is one captivating read.
Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing by Maryla Szymiczkowa
Cracow, Poland in 1893 is the setting for this very first book about the most improbable of detectives—Zofia Turbotyńska, a bourgeois, middle-aged wife of a university professor. Authored by a writing pair of men, one an award-winning author, the other a translator and historian; the two possess a precious sense of time and place. And they’ve come up trumps with the creation of Zofia, our intrepid detective who’s aided by her cook, and one reluctant, rotund nun. Zofia is bestowed with so many quirks and social ‘faux pas’, we’re delighted to follow her on her intrepid chase to solve crimes, before hurrying home to dinner with her unsuspecting husband.
The ‘case’ has to do with the residents of a glorious local nursing home run by nuns. The top floor is occupied by retiring royalty, and widows of substantial means; and the lower floors are charity cases. The trouble starts when one resident goes missing, and it’s only Zofia who suspects foul play. How she deduces where the body has gone, and her dogged determination to solve the subsequent murders are a sheer delight to follow. A great start to what one hopes will be a series of Zofia tales.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
From the author of The Good Lord Bird, comes this brilliant novel, that’s set in the Brooklyn projects in 1969, and reveals to us a world of delicate race relations, of the struggles of a community. The storyline is sparked by an outrageous incident, as the perpetually soused 71-year old deacon of the community church for the African-American and Latino communities, nonchalantly saunters in mid-day at the most public of local areas, and at point blank range, fires his pistol at the 19-year old hometown drug dealer, clipping off the youth’s ear.
From this set-up, a vivid and often humorous, examination of race, religion, drug-dealing, crime bosses, police enforcement, and potent social commentary is weaved. The cast of characters is so colorful, and you’ll appreciate the nexus of relationships that McBride unearths for us to better understand the social fabric. Like how the Deacon used to be the baseball coach of the drug dealer, who was his finest prospect to make it to the majors. And the King Kong is what they call the hooch or moonshine that keeps the deacon on his wobbly toes. Think of this novel as McBride being a modern-day Dickens, with 1969 Brooklyn taking the place of Victorian London.
The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips
If you’ve read the previous novels of Phillips such as Prague and The Egyptologist, you’ll already know the special gift of the author in making any subject matter doubly interesting via his dissection of the human dynamic. This latest is no different, and he’s chosen a very intriguing subject matter—the last days of the reign of Elizabeth I; and how given she was childless, the consternation over who would succeed her.
The most likely candidate then was King James of Scotland. But while professing to be Protestant, he had a Catholic wife, and delegations from Spain and the Vatican were a constant presence in his Edinburgh court. This novel conjures up a story revolving around the extreme lengths advisers of the Queen would take, via subterfuge, to find out where James’ true religious sentiments lay. And the wonderful surprise here is how a Muslim physician, originally having arrived in England a decade ago as part of an Ottoman delegation, becomes a crucial pivot in allowing James to eventually ascend to the throne, unifying England and Scotland.
Lead photos from Amazon