I've just finished up another month of the Around the World in 80 Books challenge. The idea of the challenge is to read books set in 80 different countries, effectively exploring the world from the comfort of your armchair. Since my last update, I've read books set in five more countries – Afghanistan, Armenia, Paraguay, Sri Lanka and Turkey.
That makes a total of 50 books since I started the challenge - only 30 more to go!
You can read more about the challenge here, as well as check out Update #1, Update #2, Update #3, Update #4, Update #5, Update #6, Update #7, Update #8 and Update #9.
FEAR OF BEAUTY by Susan Froetschel | Afghanistan
Fear of Beauty is an engaging mystery novel set in present day rural Afghanistan When a young boy is found dead at the bottom of a cliff, most people assume he fell accidentally to his death, while others believe American soldiers camped nearby might be responsible. The story is presented from two perspectives - that of the boy's mother and that of one of the Army Rangers. It's an interesting take on life in rural Afghanistan and the tensions between the villagers, Taliban and the US forces. I especially enjoyed the insights into what life is like for Afghani women. For example, mirrors aren't commonplace so the women aren't aware of their own youthful beauty and the toll that a hard life takes on them over time. Imagine rarely seeing yourself in a mirror, or not at all. Is it better to not know what you look like? I wonder how Kim Khardasian would cope with that?
How she dreaded a marriage that would take away her helper and friend. During times like this she was thankful the village had no mirrors. Her oldest daughter had a haunting beauty, long, dark waves framing sweet green eyes against skin that was softer than an almond blossom. Mari had last seen a mirror some years ago, and suspected after bearing children and working years in the field that she would no longer recognize herself. Though there were some, like Sofi, who still moved like a young girl and gained a certain grace with age. But Sofi didn't know, and it was better that women did not know their beauty.You can find out more about Fear of Beauty on Goodreads and get a copy on Amazon.
THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS by Chris Bohjalian | Armenia
Although The Sandcastle Girls is set in Aleppo, Syria in the early 1900s and present day New York, I'm using it to tick off Armenia as the story focuses on the plight of Armenian refugees trying to escape genocide in their homeland and Armenian immigrants and their descendants in the States. I have to confess, I was completely unaware of the Armenian Genocide, during which 1.5 million Otto-Armenians were exterminated by the Ottoman government starting in 1915.
One of the main characters in the book refers to it as the slaughter you know next to nothing about. She's right, I knew nothing about it, perhaps because I didn't pay attention in history class or perhaps because it was glossed over. In any event, one of the things I enjoy about historical fiction is learning about events in a more enjoyable way than reading dry history books.
Not only did I learn about the Armenian Genocide, I also learned a bit about what life was like for Armenian immigrants. I found the views on how we stereotype various immigrant groups fascinating - some we label as nice, honest and hardworking (like Armenians), others we label as dangerous and threatening.
When I was growing up and when I was a young woman, I might meet someone for the first time, and he or she would understand instantly that I was Armenian because my last name is Petrosian: it ends in "ian." Then, almost invariably, this person would say, "You people are so nice. I knew an Armenian family once in Ridgewood, New Jersey." Or, "You people are so industrious. You always work hard and make money. I knew an Armenian family once in Rockwood, Illinois. They were very wealthy." Or - and this might be my absolute favorite - "You people are so artistic. There is a wonderful carpet store in Concord, Massachusetts, and I think the rugs are made by Armenians."...Nevertheless, no one introduced to someone named "Alvarez" would ever dare begin a sentence, "You people." Same when meeting a "Svensson." Or a "Yamada." But we Armenians represent well. We are exotic without being threatening, foreign without being dangerous. We are domestic, we make rugs.
You can find out more about The Sandcastle Girls on Goodreads and get a copy on Amazon.
INVISIBLE COUNTRY by Annamaria Alfieri (aka Patricia King) | Paraguay
Invisible Country is another one of the many mystery novels I read during the past month and another one of the books I read which taught me something about history. Invisible Country is set in Paraguay in 1868 during the War of the Triple Alliance between Paraguay and its neighbors, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Paraguay was defeated, losing 70% of its male population during the war and having to cede territory to the victors. Again, something I knew nothing about. I must have been asleep the entire time during world history class in high school.
After one of the most powerful men in the country is found murdered in a village church, the priest and some of the villagers set out to investigate the murder and discover who the killer is. It's a fun mystery, filled with twists and turns, interesting characters and insights into Paraguayan culture and customs of the time. Like this little tidbit regarding intermarriage:
The old dictator Francia - El Supremo - rescued them. Help from the most unlikely place. The decree said that within Paraguay, no penninsulare, or member of the white elite, would be allowed to contract marriage with another member of that same class. They could only marry mestizos or mulattoes or Indians. The called the decree the bando because it was announced to the sound of fife and drum. Salvador's father and those like him were indignant, saying Francia was out to break the power of any family that might challenge his absolute rule. But Salvador and Alivia danced and sang, and drank aguardiente, and made love for two days to celebrate. Then they were married in the church, under the eyes of his bitter father.
You can find out more about Invisible Country on Goodreads and get a copy on Amazon.
ISLAND OF A THOUSAND MIRRORS by Nayomi Munaweera | Sri Lanka
I'll just tell you right off the bat - this is a sad story. A good story, but sad. Island of a Thousand Mirrors is set in Sri Lanka during the civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalas. I was aware of the Sri Lankan Civil War, probably due to the fact that it was a contemporary conflict (1983-2009) and because we had to cancel a planned trip there due to the hostilities. The book tells the story of the conflict from the perspective of the eldest daughters of a Tamil family and a Sinhala family. Having been fortunate to never have lived in a conflict zone, I'm always amazed at how people endure with their hopes and dreams, like wanting to become a school teacher one day and finding a husband:
Miss is training me to take her place in front of the blackboard. When I get my teaching certification, I will live in the small house behind the school, and maybe I will also have someone who looks at me the way he looks at her. In practice for my Maths paper, Miss sets me complicated equations. They take a long time to solve, but I love the long columns of numbers, the need to proceed logically and patiently as the number lead you to the final and inevitable answer. It reminds me of dancing. The way my shoulders, the tilt of my arms, and angles of my knees must stay within precise formations, yet also lead where I want to take them. A sort of freedom that can only be attained within strict rules.
You can find out more about Island of a Thousand Mirrors on Goodreads and get a copy on Amazon.
TEARS OF PEARL by Tasha Alexander | Turkey
Tears of Pearl is a mystery novel in the popular Lady Emily Mysteries series set in Victorian England. Lady Emily is an amateur sleuth who travels to Turkey on her honeymoon. Of course, a murder takes place, which seems to be a regular occurrence for amateur sleuths, and Lady Emily sets out to investigate. Because she is a woman, she is allowed to enter the harem and question the Sultan's wives and try to uncover why one of the harem girls was murdered. Throughout the book, there are wonderful descriptions of what Constantinople (now Istanbul) must have been like at the time:
Constantinople was like an exotic dream full of spice and music and beauty - the scent of cardamon blew through the streets like a fresh wind - but at the same time, it had a distinct and surprising European feel. The cobbled streets, winding at seemingly random angles through the city, teemed with gentlemen, as many wearing top hats as were in dark red fezzes. Stray cats darted in front of us with alarming frequency, slinking confidently in search of their next meal, while brazen shopkeepers called out, inviting us into stores brimming with Eastern treasures. Noise filled every inch of the air: seagulls crying, carts clattering, voices arguing in foreign tongues.
You can find out more about Tears of Pearl on Goodreads and get a copy on Amazon.
If you're participating in the challenge too, I'd love to hear what you've been reading. Even if you're not doing the challenge, let us know what books you've been enjoying lately.
COUNTRIES READ TO DATE: Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, Czech Republic, Djibouti, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Haiti, Iceland, India, Iran, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mali, Mexico, Nigeria, North Korea, Norway, Paraguay, Republic of Kiribati, Russia, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, United States, Vanuatu, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
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