The Best Book I Read This Month: Among the Ruins by Ausma Zehanat Khan

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The best book I read this month was the third book in my new favorite mystery series. The series, by Ausma Zehanat Khan, centers on Inspector Esa Khattak of the Toronto police and his junior partner, Rachel Getty. Khattak and Getty make up the Community Policing division, their purpose is to serve as liaisons between the police and Toronto's Muslim community. Khattak, who is Muslim himself, struggles to balance the requirements of his job with his faith. That struggle is part of what makes him such a compelling character.

Each book in the series (so far) has focused on a different aspect of Muslim history or experience. The first book, The Unquiet Dead, builds a mystery around the Bosnia genocide of the 1990s. The second, The Language of Secrets, focuses on the radicalization of Muslims. The third book, Among the Ruins, transplants Khattak to Iran, where he encounters the Green Movement and the nation's oppressive regime as he tries to unravel the truth about the death of an Iranian-Canadian filmmaker.

It's not necessary to read the first two books in order to follow the action of Among the Ruins. The story is self-contained and stands on its own. Most of what the reader needs to know from the previous books, Khan summarizes here. She also shares enough about Iranian history for the reader to understand the socio-political context of the story and historical sites where the action plays out. The mystery, itself, was satisfying, well-plotted with plenty of twists and turns and not quite going where I'd expected it to go.

 The Shah Mosque and Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan, Iran, where Esa Khattak spends most of  Among the Ruins . Photo by Murchundra/iStock / Getty Images   

The Shah Mosque and Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan, Iran, where Esa Khattak spends most of Among the Ruins. Photo by Murchundra/iStock / Getty Images

 

Most of Khattak's part of the story takes place in Esfahan (Isfahan), a beautiful city that is home to Naqsh-e Jahan Square and the Shah Mosque. I very much enjoyed getting to "visit" such a historic city, since I'll likely never be able to visit it in real life.

This whole series, in general, has made me realize how prevalent the trope of "Muslim as villain/terrorist" has infiltrated our entertainment. Nearly every TV show I watch--and those I don't--fall prey to this mindset. It's in our political discourse and our news coverage. And it does a huge disservice to the Muslim community. As Khan's series illustrates, the Muslim community, like any other community, has its share of heroes and victims and bystanders and yes, villains, too. And I think we could do with more works of art--books, films, television shows--that depict this reality instead of falling for the easy stereotype.

 

 

 

 

On Rereading a Childhood Favorite: The Wrinkle in Time Books

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A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books growing up. In anticipation of the new movie, I decided to reread it. In fact, I reread the whole trilogy.* Let me tell you, rereading the series as an adult, and especially as a writer, was a very different experience. There were things that jumped out at me in L'Engle's books now that I never could or would have noticed as a child.

I still enjoyed the stories and, unlike Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, they hold up fairly well. I didn't end up hating any of the characters I once loved, for one thing, which happened when I reread Prydain. (How did I not notice Taran was such a whiner?) But I saw weaknesses in the construction of the stories and finally figured out why the last book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, bothered me so much when I read it as a youngster.

A Wrinkle in Time

 The first line of  A Wrinkle in Time

The first line of A Wrinkle in Time

Let's start at the beginning, literally, with the first line of the first book (see the picture). It's the butt of many a writers' joke, a cliché if ever there was one. I read that line and put the book down because it made me laugh so much.

I also thought the first chapter ended on a perfect note. It left me with just enough questions to entice me to keep reading--exactly what a writer wants a first chapter to do.

Then things got dicey. The whole first half of the book is really set up. The story--the action--doesn't kick in until literally the mid-point. Decades after reading the story, it was the action part that I remembered. That was the part I was eager to relive. And I wish L'Engle had spent more story time there. The Camazotz** scenes were vivid. They've stuck with me for thirty-plus years, but they were a minority of the book. That part of the story felt rushed, and I would have liked some deeper world-building there, too. And then the book ended. It felt very abrupt and key questions felt unanswered. A very disappointing note to end on.

A Wind in the Door

Book Two is the strongest book of the trilogy, structurally speaking. As personal as the stakes were in Wrinkle (rescuing Meg's and Charles Wallace's dad), the stakes here felt higher: Charles Wallace's life. And as with Wrinkle, science formed the foundation of the fantasy in the story. In this case, microbiology rather than quantum physics. The theme of harmony in the universe was a bit heavy-handed, but the story started quickly, moved quickly, and ended well--and unlike Wrinkle, everything was explained but not everything was happily ever after.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

The third book in the trilogy is the one I just didn't get as a kid. Reading it now, I still think it is, to quote the vernacular, a hot mess.

The story takes place nine years after the events of A Wind in the Door. Meg is married to her high school sweetheart and very pregnant. Charles Wallace is in high school. In this story, though, Meg and Charles Wallace seemed to have less agency than in the previous books. In fact, Charles Wallace "disappears" repeatedly. The disappearances are explained in the plot, but they make him seem like a link in a story anthology rather than a character in a cohesive story. And the story itself is a mishmash of vignettes that seem to tell the same tale over and over again. As a kid, I had trouble following it. As an adult, I was able to follow what was going on, but I kept thinking, "WTF is this?"

Planet diverges from the previous books in other ways, too. It is not based in actual science. It is essentially a time travel tale, but one with very little plausibility (not that time travel ever seems truly plausible, but there wasn't even an attempt to connect it to science here). Even the first chapter got on my nerves. (Never a good sign!) So much melodrama!

First published in 1978, Planet was clearly L'Engle's attempt to make a statement about the futility of nuclear weapons. But I can't help thinking her story would have been better served by a less circuitous plot and greater agency for her main characters.

If the Wrinkle movie is as good as it looks in the trailer, maybe we can ask Ava DuVernay to just rewrite this whole last book from the ground up? I mean, just look at this beauty:

 

*Officially, the series is a quartet, but only three of the books center on Meg Murry and her brother Charles Wallace. Those are the books I consider the trilogy.

**Interesting aside: Camazotz is the name of a Mayan god. His name is sometimes translated as "death bat."

The Best Book I Read This Month: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

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Leaving Time is not a book I ever would have picked up on my own. This is one of those cases in which my book club pushed me outside my comfort zone to good result. I did not love this book, but I did enjoy it.

Leaving Time tells the story of 13-year-old Jenna Metcalf's search for her missing mother. It alternates among four narrators: Jenna, Serenity the Psychic, Virgil the Private Detective, and Alice, the missing mother. Of the four narrators, I liked Alice's chapters the best. Alice was a zoologist who studied elephants, and I loved not only her voice but also the elephant stories that she told.

Another plus was the chapter length. The chapters are relatively short. For someone who didn't have a lot of focus, like me this month, that was a blessing.

But what really "made" this book for me was the twist that comes near the end. Picoult plants seeds for the twist starting early on in the book, but the reveal is still something of a surprise and very well done. (I won't say more. I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who might read the book.)

 

Coming to a Bookshelf Near You . . .

I signed the contract today, so I guess it's official: I sold a short story!

My story "Wheels on the Bus" was accepted for inclusion in Smoking Pen Press's anthology A Wink and a Smile, part of SPP's Reading on the Run series. The story is a revised, slightly longer version of my 2017 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge entry.

I don't have a publication date or purchase information for the anthology yet, but you can bet I'll post when I do.

UPDATE (2/3/18): You can read more about the anthology here:  http://smokingpenpress.com/fyi