When Zulaikha was published in November, I heard from the writers and mentors who had read previous drafts of my book. It has given me tremendous joy that they still remember Zulaikha, the character, after several years. Of course, I hope my novel will be remembered for the social issues or historical events it depicts. But I also wish Zulaikha, the character, to stick in readers' minds for her traits, like her hobbies or the love songs she sings even in her solitary cell in prison.
Some books just stick. Naturally, we forget all the details over the years, but there is something in some of them that we can't forget. Something resonated with us while reading it. Sometimes, a plot is shocking; no one has ever done something like in Then There Were None or Murder in the Orient Express, or sometimes, a character is as unforgettable as Scarlett O'Hara, like her or not. Sometimes, things in the outside world of the book help it to stay in our memory, like when we read a novel and then watch its movie, or we go to a festival and see the author talking about it, or a moderator asks questions we have also been thinking about.
The following books, some were published a few years ago, stuck with me for different reasons.
The Change Room, by Karen Connelly
Connelly was my mentor during the Humber Creative Writing program. Naturally, I was curious about her writing, and when she published The Change Room in 2017, I read the book immediately. It is an erotic literary romance, an affair between two women, one of whom is Shar, a French-Iranian beauty and a fascinating and exotic character impossible to forget.
The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel
The setting of this novel is partly in British Columbia, Canada, which is always a plus for me, a resident of BC. Vincent, the unforgettable character with a unique name for a girl, works as a bartender in a glass hotel on a dreamy BC island where the passengers are wealthy and glamorous. One night, something mysterious happens in this hotel, and the novel becomes like a puzzle, prompting the reader to put together pieces scattered in the backstory and the present time to figure out what happened that night.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid
I read this book the year it came out, 2016, before an event at the Vancouver Writers Festival with Iain Reid, Liz Nugent, and Eileen Cook. From the couple's road trip to the snowstorm to the philosophical conversations between them, I sensed that this story had the recipe for becoming a bestseller. That night, as Reid signed my book, I told him that I liked the horror elements, but that, most of all, it was the philosophical conversations between the couple that really interested me. He said he usually heard this the other way around. A few years later, the book became a movie, a brilliant adaptation.
In Case I Go, by Angie Abdou
The use of ghosts and spirits to depict a story rooted in our land's history is what makes this one a sticky book. Abdou has skilfully connected the beautiful scenery to the world of the dead, creating a haunting atmosphere that is hard to forget.
Secret Lives of Mothers and Daughters, by Anita Kushwaha
Kushwaha's characters live among ordinary Canadians attending the same schools, colleges, and hospitals. They suffer their troubles behind closed doors and make difficult and sometimes wrong choices in order to make their mothers proud and happy. With her poetic and elegant style, Kushwaha leads us to care for her unforgettable characters as we desire to discover their secrets and connections.
Allspice Bath, by Sonia Saikaley
This story was another take on immigration. Adelle, the main character, is the youngest daughter of an old-school Lebanese family, born and raised in Ottawa, Canada. She does not struggle with being a Canadian kid as much as she struggles with her family and with what happens inside her house. The interactions and relationships between characters were stunning and memorable.
Helpmeet, by Naben Ruthnum
I am an avid crime fiction reader and occasionally read horror and gothic fiction, especially if it's by one of my favourite authors. I think because of the nature of including gruesome images in the horror genre, most of these stories can be sticky and unforgettable. This novella's setting and rich prose grant the reader a classic feel, while the modern style and pace intrigue the contemporary reader. Depicting the demise of a sick companion requires some cruelty, a powerful mind and skills that Naben Ruthnum has demonstrated. Reading this book, I felt nostalgic not just because I remembered my youth reading Kafka but also because I felt Sadegh Hedayet. For us, Persians Hedayat and Kafka were both surrealist novelists with similar styles. It gives me hope that writers like Naben Ruthnum will keep them alive.
How to Make a Killing Jar, by Ace Baker
I have recently read this short story collection, but I know the characters and their actions will be lingering in my thoughts for a long time. The setting of each story is in a different country, and with stunning poetic prose, the narrative is authentic with a cast of diverse yet natural and familiar characters displaying human complexity. Each story's ending shocked me, making me curious to see if the next one would be the same, and yes, I remained in awe.
Vancouver Noir, an anthology edited by Sam Wiebe
I can't help not including a special book from Vancouver. Not only do I always remember this book for the location and setting of each story, but it also came the year I felt I should consider moving from Vancouver for better career opportunities. Reading this book awakened a voice telling me I have all this beauty in front of me: the harbour, the fog, the English Bay, Kitsilano, all of it, so scratch that negativity and make it your home. This anthology has short stories by Sheena Kamal, S.G. Wong, Sam Weiebe, Deitrich Kaltens, Nathan Ripley, and many more.
In the winter of 2007, Zulaikha is travelling from Amsterdam to Tehran when she is approached by Kia, a family acquaintance she hasn's seen for many years, who is on the same flight. Kia's father has passed away and she is flying home to attend his funeral. In a shocking twist, Zulaikha suspects that Kia may have had information about her missing brother, Hessam, and their mutual friend, Abbass, who was murdered before Hessam's disappearance during the Iran and Iraq War.
When the flight is suddenly cancelled, and Zulaikha is later taken into custody and questioned about her relationship with Kia by both the European and Iranian authorities, who ultimately confiscate her passport, a tense thriller unfolds revealing the impacts of war and the consequences for one young woman unknowingly caught in the crossfire of greed, power, and international politics.
This sweeping novel explores many timely topics including issues related to gender, class, race, and interracial marriage. It also sheds light on the tumultuous history of Iran from a new perspective. The novel reveals a forty-year period of war and upheaval in the Middle East, and specifically, in Zulaikha's home territory of Khuzestan, which boasts the bulk of Iran's oil reserves, a place of intense tension between Iran and the U.S. still today.
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