Four for Love About Four Books that I liked in 2021

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 28 November 2021

The title of this post "Four for Love", came from a childhood ditty which we sang when we saw any Myna birds in Delhi. "One for sorrow, two for joy, three for letter, four for love ..." the ditty went, and depending upon the number of Myna birds one saw, the words were suppose to be a prediction for the day. It has been some time since I wanted to write about a few books, and now I had four of them to talk about. While writing, I suddenly thought of that childhood rhyme.

The four books I wanted to talk about are - "Away with the Penguins" by Hazel Prior, "Bonnie Jack" by Ian Hamilton, "City of Vengeance" by D. V. Bishop and "The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict" by Trenton Lee Stewart. They are very different books, they belong to different genre but they also had something in common - I finished all of them without leaving them aside for days and without skipping any parts! Unfortunately, as the years pass, I tend to get bored with books very easily and I either leave them halfway or skip parts of them. It happens even with the books of authors whom I used to love till recently.

I wonder if it could be due to an over-consumption of books? I have been reading every day since I was 6-7 years old - without reading, my day seems incomplete. I read mainly in English, Hindi and Italian but at times I have read in French and Portuguese as well. There was a time when I read everything and used to think that if they had printed something on the toilet paper, probably I would have read that too. But lately, I get tired of most books very easily and they need to have something special to keep me going.

Warning - Spoiler alert - If you want to read any of these 4 books, be aware that this post may have some spoilers. If you hate the spoilers, perhaps you will be better off reading these books and then come here to check why I liked them!

Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior

Book coverThe best way to classify this book will be to call it a "feel-good" book. It is an optimistic book in which everything ends well, including an old lady who end up in a scientific laboratory in the North Pole.

It is the story of Veronica McCreedy, a rich old lady, who is disappointed by the meeting with her long-lost weed-smoking and loser-looking grandson, and who then decides to leave her inheritance for the welfare of penguins. However, before making the final decision about her testament, she wants to be sure that penguin research is useful, so she decides to verify it personally by visiting the arctic laboratory involved in doing penguin research.

It is a simple book with some twists. It made me smile and even laugh occasionally, and most important, it kept me engaged. I liked the characters of the old lady as well as that of her grandson.

In some way this book reminded me of the Italian film "Quo Vado?" with the actor Checco Zalone, which I had seen a couple of years ago. I like Checco Zalone and his films. So if you like reading "Away with the Penguins", you might follow it up with watching "Quo Vado?" of Checco Zalone, which does not have penguins and is about the Italian obsession with a permanent job contract in some state office - it was partly located in a scientific laboratory in the Arctic.

Bonnie Jack by Ian Hamilton

Book coverIan Hamilton is a Canadian mystery writer. However "Bonnie Jack" is not a mystery book, instead it is inspired by the real story of his father. It is about a boy called Jack in Dublin Ireland, who is taken one day to a cinema hall by his mother and sister and while he watches the film, his mother and sister go to the toilet and never come back. The abandoned boy is adopted by an American couple and leaves Ireland. Many decades later, when he is a rich man and father of grown-up children, he decides to go back to Ireland to look for his sister and his mother.

Back in Ireland, Jack meets his sister and finds out that their mother is dead. He also finds out that when he was abandoned, his mother was pregnant and later, she had twins. She had run away from an alcoholic and violent husband. He also meets his father, who is still alcoholic and violent.

In the book, he does not like the person his elder sister has grown up to be - she is bitter, lonely and poor. Instead, he becomes good friends with his twin siblings and decides to ignore and not have any contact with that sister. I did not like it that he decides to ignore his sister, who was as much a victim as he was, though in a different way. She also had to live with the guilt of having abandoned her boy brother.

It has been a few months that I had read this book and every time I think of it, I feel a little angry at him, for not trying to build a relationship with that sister or at least be kind to her.

So while I liked this book, it is here in this list because it is struck in my throat like a fish-bone. Every time I think about it, I feel bad about Jack's sister. Since it is based on a real story, I can't seem to let it go.

City of Vengeance by D. V. Bishop

Book coverIt is a historical fiction book set in the renaissance-period Florence. The book is about the 3 men of the Medici family - Alessandro, Lorenzino and Cosimo. The history books say that Alessandro was killed on the day of epiphany, 6 January 1537. When I used to live in Bologna, I had been to Florence numerous times and loved visiting that city. In those days, I had heard the story about Alessandro while visiting the Medici buildings. However, Bishop's book brings to life the Florence of that period through two murder mysteries about a Jewish money-lender and a transvestite young man, who are killed in two separate incidents.

Thus, the book focuses on what it meant to be Jewish and to be gay in medieval Florence. The two murders are connected to the conspiracy for the killing of Alessandro de Medici, but the focus of the story is the investigation by Captain Cesare Aldo, who is charged with finding the killer of the Jew moneylender, while he tries to hide that he is gay and in love with a Jewish doctor.

It was a very interesting read - I finished the second half of this book in one long sitting, staying awake till late night. Knowing the places described in the book and having heard the story of murder of Alessandro de Medici, made it a wonderful history lesson, while enjoying it as a murder mystery.

Looking at Florence and the reign of Alessandro de Medici, under the benevolent hand of the Pope and fears of popular uprising of those who want the republic on one hand, and seeing the city through the eyes of the poor and marginalised including the prostitutes and gays, gives an understanding of the political machinations of that period which is impossible in the dry tomes of history. I am not sure if it is very accurate, but it is certainly interesting.

I wish there was a Hindi writer who could write about the Indian history in the way Bishop has written "City of Vengeance". There were 2 historical books in Hindi, which I had read this year - "Akbar" by Shazi Zaman (translated from English) and "Maurya Samrat" by Rajendra Mohan Bhatnagar, but I didn't find them very engaging.

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart

Book coverThis is a fantasy book for young people. I don't like fantasy books and I don't read books for teenagers, so actually I was not even supposed to open it, much less read it. However, I liked its title very much and started reading it without checking for more information about it. It has a crisp and clean writing style, which caught me straightaway. It is supposed to be the prequel of a series of books, which already have 3-4 books in it. Mr. Nicholas Benedict is shown as an old man in those books while in this book, it shows him as a young boy and is about how he became the venerable Nicholas Benedict of the later books.

I liked the lesson which this book gave against bullying and also about using intellect to fight the bullies. After finishing it, I was tempted to read the other books of this series, but I am not sure if I would do it.

If you have a teenager and you need to buy a gift for him/her, I strongly recommend this book. Try to buy it some days in advance and read it before giving it away. It is a real pleasure.

Conclusions

This year, I had also liked reading a couple of thriller and adventure books, though I can't seem to remember their names or their authors. That happens to me often with thriller and action books - I read them happily, but a few days later, I forget them.

This year, I had heard a lot of praise for the book "Fresh Water for Flowers" by the French author Valerie Perrin. It was all right but I was bored by parts of it and I had skipped them. I had also read about the Icelandic writer Ragnar Jonasson, but I have found his books to be too slow moving for my taste in mystery books. I have to thank our local library in Schio, which gives me an opportunity to read so many new writers and their books.

At the end of 2021, I am looking for suggestions about Hindi writers, that I can try reading in 2022. As I wrote above, I would love to find good historical fiction books, like the books written by Rangey Raghav, Chatursen or even Narendra Kohli. I am keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that this Covid-19 epidemic will not stop me from visiting India in 2022 and buying some Hindi books! While I am happy to order English and Italian books online (if I can't find them in our local library), but somehow I don't like to order Hindi books online - for buying them I like visiting the bookshops!

I like the idea of writing about the books which I liked, as a way of remembering that experience. During my life, I must have read hundreds, if not at least a couple of thousands of them and yet if you ask me, I may be able to tell you only about 30-40 of them.

I like this idea of trying to remember the books I had read decades ago and see what I can come up with - may be I will write a post about it as well.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com