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Barbara Demick, Mark Waddell, Adriana Anders: The Pajiba October 2023 Book Recommendations Superpost!

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | October 30, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | October 30, 2023 |


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Eat the Budda: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by Barbara Demick

Ngawa is a town in Tibet eleven thousand feet above sea level that is one of the most difficult places in the world for foreigners to visit. For decades, it has been a hub of sorts for the political strife of the Tibetan cause. In recent years, Ngawa has become known as the self-immolation capital of the world, as dozens of people set themselves on fire as an act of protest against the Chinese government.

Barbara Demick’s previous work, Nothing to Envy, which happens to be one of my favourite pieces of non-fiction, examined the history of North Korea through the stories of several defectors. In a similar fashion, Eat the Buddha offers a rich history of an oft-misunderstood and contentious part of our planet through the eyes of those who lived it. This includes a princess whose entire family was wiped out during the Cultural Revolution, a Tibetan schoolgirl forced to choose between tradition and China-approved modernity, and a young Tibetan nomad who becomes radicalized in the face of endless oppression.

All are bound by the same questions: how do you maintain your identity as a Tibetan and a Buddhist when your opposition seeks to crush you at every turn? How do you adhere to nonviolent teachings while protesting a powerful government? Demick does a good job of providing layers to the history of a people who are often infantilized by the West, turned into silent idols rather than 21st-century human beings fighting for their culture. Details of the self-immolations are expectedly bleak, but never lurid. If history is best experienced through the people who lived it, Demick’s work is one of the strongest modern examples we have of how to convey that.

Speakers of the Dead by J. Aaron Sanders

The year is 1843. In New York City, a woman has been hanged for the murder of her husband, who had been accused of killing his mistress. She maintains her innocence, and her good friend, a journalist with aspirations to be a poet, is determined to exonerate her. Oh, and said friend is Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass, my ass.

I tend to be apprehensive with novels featuring real-life people. They’re super hard to pull off and the bad ones are extremely bad (hello, The Other Boleyn Girl.) I can’t say I’m particularly attached to Walt Whitman or have any preconceptions about his character, but I did worry that turning him into a detective for this sort of story would be an ill fit. No worries, because Speakers of the Dead exceeded my expectations thanks to its strong research, bleak historical vision, and insight into an oft-ignored part of America’s past. The victim is a doctor, one of a handful of women in the field who also teaches women her skills, and the demand for cadavers has come up against a growing religious movement that sees any desecration of the human body as a sin. To acquire bodies, one must go through less than legal routes, and the corruption required to maintain this business is an open secret to all.

Our version of Whitman is hardened yet optimistic about the truth’s ability to prevail above all else. His demands for justice face intense pushback, and his own desires are unashamed, if justifiably kept secret (there is a tragic romance here.) There was much to appreciate in Speakers of the Dead, which is why I’m sad that there’s only one book in what seems to be a set-up for a longer series. Check it out if you fancy a one-off historical crime novel with a gruesome strain throughout.

The Body in the Back Garden by Mark Waddell

My hunger for cozy crime fiction has only grown over the past month, and I’ve been keen to check out books with leads who aren’t white and/or cishet. The Body in the Back Garden seems to be an uncommon example of a cozy crime-solving hero who is a gay man, so of course I had to read it. Luke Tremblay has been called back to Crescent Cove, Vancouver Island, after the death of his estranged aunt. He’s inherited her entire estate, including her seaside cottage and the antiques shop she ran for forty years, but wants to sell it all and return to Toronto. Crescent Cove, however, has other ideas, which involve a dead body in his late aunt’s garden, a mysterious antique, and a hell of a lot of secrets.

The Body in the Back Garden definitely sticks to the subgenre’s formula, but benefits from an intriguing hero who has a troubled relationship with the town he’s forced to stay in and all the pent-up frustration that comes with being a freelance journalist who just wants people to leave him alone. There’s a sexy Mountie with a grudge, some quirky locals, and a murder you’ll be able to solve pretty quickly. The last detail was a bit of a disappointment for me. Sure, cozy mysteries aren’t aiming for labyrinthine drama, but it would have been nice if the reveal weren’t that obvious. Still, this was a short and sweet read that scratched a cozy itch well.

Uncharted by Adriana Anders

In the wilds of Alaska, pilot Leo Eddowes is tasked with evacuating a man from the middle of nowhere. What should have been a quick job falls apart spectacularly when her rickety plane is shot down by a shadowy organization also hunting for her target. Bruised, dizzy, and stuck in an inhospitable tundra, Leo is saved by Elias Thorne, a fugitive who has spent more than a decade in one of the most remote places on earth, guarding a dangerous secret. Together, they must fight to survive man, nature, and a conspiracy that could destroy the whole planet.

I don’t read a massive amount of romantic suspense despite being a lover of both romance and crime fiction. I tend to find the balance between the two a tough tightrope for many authors to walk, with the central relationship either being an obvious add-on or engulfing the tension demanded of a suspense narrative. So, I was delighted to discover that Adriana Anders, oft-recommended to me as one of the best writers in this subgenre, knew how to fine-tune this formula. Uncharted is truly tense and pulls off a romance of feverish intensity in the midst of unbearable circumstances. It’s propulsive in terms of pacing, full of vividly detailed characters, and a true sense of danger. Romance offers a guaranteed happy-ever-after, but even with that, I worried for the future of this pair. This is the second part of an ongoing series of interconnected stories with an overarching story, so I’m keen to read the first one and then wait impatiently for the rest of them.



Header Image Source: PRAKASH MATHEMA // AFP via Getty Images