The Reluctant Traveler Wants Good Airplane Reads

But first, a little discussion

As it is still winter, and the upcoming trip to sunny Cape Town is two weeks away, all I have is listening and looking for hints of spring. Signs are here, in the garden, and in the birds, but with endless rain and clouds I am still inside with fiction.

When I’m not binging on streamed serials, I am reading several books. The two that have captured me lately have similarities you wouldn’t expect, because they were written approximately 100 years apart.

Up till now, the only novel, or rather novella, by Henry James that I had read is The Turn of the Screw; I was brought around to it through film, of course: The Innocents starring a wonderfully neurotic Deborah Kerr, and a remake some years later with the equally nervous Jodhi May. There have been others, that I’m certain are equally polished and starring a number of accomplished British actors.

I got to The Portrait of a Lady by way of an NPR interview of John Banville, an Irish writer of both mysteries and literature, whom I had never heard of before.

“”It was years ago my wife said to me, ‘Look why don’t you write the second half of The Portrait Of A Lady?’ At the time I thought, ‘No, it would be like feeding on the carcass of a lion,'” Banville says. “But then, I guess, last year I needed a change of direction.””.

It intrigued me. I wanted to know more about Mrs Osmond.

There’s much to be learned in the conversation and style of 19th century writers. Isabel Archer Osmond is a young American girl sent to England to live with wealthy American relatives. The story of how society and expectation lead her to a soft unhappiness, is long and elaborately written, following Isabel from England to Italy. I’ve stayed with the dense prose because Isabel has grabbed me, and I am ever hopeful, as are all modern day readers of fiction focusing on the challenges of being female, that she will triumph in the end. But I haven’t finished the book yet.

The other book I’m into now is also dense, and elaborate, and complex, but the subject matter is entirely different. This one is about spies, always a tasty read. The Soul of Viktor Tronko by David Quammen is a book that’s been lying around our house for years. My husband read it with pleasure. Looking at my pile of what-is-to-be-read-next, nothing would suit except for a good, juicy mystery or spy novel. Written in 1987, by another author I had never heard of and certainly wouldn’t have heard of in 1987 with any interest, this book follows the incidents of several days in 1987, tied to machinations of the CIA and the KGB long after World War II. The central character is a reporter who suffers through and records long, and occasionally perilous interviews with ex-CIA spooks and researchers. Like James, Quammen’s characters are peeled back like onions in long unbroken paragraphs. Both books are rampant with themes of lies and misdirection. For James, it’s the lies characters tell themselves and for Quammen it’s the lies they tell others.

I’ll probably finish both of these before the two 10-hour flights to Cape Town. Any suggestions of a good, juicy, absorbing read?



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


The Reluctant Traveler Wants Good Airplane Reads — 13 Comments

    • Looked at it. Yet another Justinian and Theodora historical novel. No one seems to be aware of the many, many other Byzantine rulers.

      • Aaaactually I”m working on a different book now, not DIRECTLY Byzantine but tangential to it, in an entirely different time period. So yeah, I’m pretty much aware – this is a historical period and location which is something I grew up with, being born in Eastern Europe which was so much a part of the whole ethos.

        SOME readers are bound to dislike EVERY book so although I’m sorry you didn’t find this particular one to your liking I sincerely wish that at least it was THE BOOK that you found wanting for whatever reason rather than dismissing it out of hand as being “yet another Justinian and Theodora historical novel” – because that description is wrong on several counts (it isn’t STRICTLY SPEAKING Justinian and Theodora (my Maxentius is a Justinian with a good dash of Belisarius in him, for instance – and I didn’t straight-retell it, I put it in context of a historical fantasy which meant that the characters were BASED ON J and T and rooted in that patricular time but the protags I wrote about were not exactly the historical characters, and some of the context is very different (by design), it isn’t strictly HISTORICAL (it’s historical fantasy, with all that this implies), and it isn’t “yet another” novel on the tale that formed the roots of this book because there aren’t THAT many of them out there about avatars of Justinian and Theodora that you can think of it as “yet another” of those stories – there’s hardly a glut. But a good story is a good story – and I’m willing to bet that plenty of readers who know the names of Justinian and Theodora don’t know about Amalasuntha, for instance, and the Visigoth angle….

      • King Arthur has been written about for over 1000 years, and he wasn’t even real! As for Justinian and Theodora, what little is known about her is so intriguing that she makes a great candidate for fiction.

  1. Thanks, Phyl! 🙂 Jill, if you want something Cape Town connected you can also take a look at another of my books, “Midnight at SPanish Gardens” – because the Spanish Gardens of the title actually existed, and they existed IN Cape Town, which is where I went to University. But if you want a LONGER read, then probably “Empress” 🙂

    Also, WHEN are you going to CT? They’re about to run out of water over there, something that I can’t wrap my head aroung, the beautiful city I lived in for thirteen years – and they’re slated to run out of water on April 12 the last I heard, which isn’t too long from now..

    • Thank you, Alma & Phyl– I am going to get a copy of both books.
      We’re going over week after next for our conference, and yes, we are shocked about this problem. It sounds like there’s a rush to complete desalinization plants but the issue of getting water to everyone in the townships seems huge. Folks who can afford it are building cisterns but what about the thousands without taps who already have to carry water?

      We have a new lab there; they process samples from our wonderful volunteers in our HIV vaccine trials. We’re worried about their water sources.

      Do you get back to CT often? It’s a beautiful place. Last time I visited the Kirstenbosch Garden. OMG. This time I’ve got a ticket to Robben Island.

      • I haven’t been for a while, but I did my University years on the UCT campus – and honestly I am quailing at what this water crisis might do to a first-class research university (you can’t do science without water) quite aside from the general disaster to the people who live there. Wave at Table Mountain for me and tell it I’ve never forgotten it. Also, have you ever taken the full Chapman’s Peak Drive experience? Worth it. And there’s a restaurant – or at least there used to be – on a hillside off that drive, with views to die for from its lawns. Also, I don’t know if you’ve ever been there and can get there, visit Nederburg – and if you’ve never had it, get a bottle of Baronne. You can thank me later 🙂

  2. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. A very moving, gripping, & plausible read – the end of the world, who survives & how, & how we create a new one, once the mess is over.

  3. The Ghormengast trilogy, Mervyn Peake. One of my all time favorite reads, his writing technique is amazingly visual, and the storyline is brilliant. The BBC did a 10 hour miniseries that brought it to life as well

    • I just did a re-read of those relatively recently – and I found boosk 1 and 2 still held me but I simply unraveled at “Titus Alone” – it became alarmingly resemblant to the phrase “a series of vignettes with odd characters in search of a plot” at times…

  4. Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It’s fantasy, but it’s well done fantasy with a world based on Asian cultures, and a young emperor (dark-skinned) who knows absolutely nothing about being an emperor, and how his servants and his assistants help him become the emperor he wants to be.

    The world-building is lovely in all the richness of the details. I think I’ve reread it ten or twelve times since I first found the book. So has my roommate.

    But then, what pulls me into a fiction book is the world it’s in. The more unusual world, the better. Which is why I will rewatch both The Last Jedi and The Left Hand of Darkness over and over.

    YMMV, of course.