My Month in Books: December 2020

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy by Kevin Kwan

Well, this trilogy does exactly what it says on the tin; the main characters are all crazy, rich and Asian. Very little unites the plot other than these three words. If, like me, you’ve come to this after watching the film, be warned: the plot is significantly more batshit than the film got into and there’s approximately a hundred further side characters you’ll need to pay attention to. It does all come together to make a rather fabulous and ridiculous soap opera and this is a perfectly fine read if you’re looking for something fluffy and not too challenging. Branding these ‘satire’ is a bridge too far for me – Kwan is far too in awe of the wealth and privilege of his own characters to attempt to properly satirise any but the most ridiculous of them. I must admit that all of the outrageous ‘wealth porn’ did get somewhat tired after three books!

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

Natalie Haynes’ Pandora’s Jar is an in-depth examination of ten female figures from ancient myth, looking at the culturally dominant depictions of these women that have persisted throughout the centuries, highlighting the other stories that have faded into the background and questioning what drove the popularity of certain versions more than others (spoiler alert: misogyny plays a big role). Although there is no ‘true’ version of any myth, we often take certain versions to be more true than others simply because they are more established and it’s refreshing to see Haynes treat lesser known versions of popular myths with the rigour and seriousness they deserve. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Medea, but that was inevitable. The sections on Eurydice, the Amazons and Penelope were also brilliant.  What Haynes is truly excellent at is looking at how these ancient myths have influenced modern popular culture and how the cycle of erasing and emphasising certain versions of history creates a self-perpetuating cycle in which female figures are erased and continue to be erased because ‘that’s the way it has always been’. Her cultural references range from Beyoncé to Wonder Woman to Hadestown and beyond. This is a great book for those who don’t know much about the classics or mythology but even if, like me, you’ve done a lot of reading around this topic already there’s still plenty in this collection that will surprise you. If you read and enjoyed Haynes’ earlier novel about the women of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships, then reading this is a must.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Raven Leilani’s debut novel ‘Luster’ is a hell of a ride. It centres around Edie, a twenty three year old black woman working in publishing with a myriad of self-destructive tendencies and unresolved trauma, who starts dating a married white man who is twice her age. As her relationship with him progresses, she becomes deeply entangled in his family life and develops complicated relationships with his autopsist wife, Rebecca, and his adopted, black, pre-teen daughter, Akila. This book has an incredibly dark sense of humour, often making me wince and laugh out loud simultaneously. Edie as a narrator is utterly captivating, she brings her world to life  so vividly but also speaks with such clinical detachment about what is going on around her. This contrast can often make the experience of reading this uncomfortable, even more so when you couple it with the fact that Edie is constantly making terrible and self-destructive choices that left me cringing out of my skin. But ultimately I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for something challenging but captivating.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge felt to me more like a series of short stories than a novel. Each chapter is a different vignette of life from a small community in Maine and, more often than not, features the eponymous Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a cantankerous and volatile retired school teacher who has a complex relationship with both her husband and her son. In spite of the love she has for both of them, she has difficulty expressing herself and often flies into inexplicable bouts of rage or descends into a black mood with little warning. Even in chapters which do not feature her prominently, her indomitable presence is the undercurrent that ties the novel together. While this book was beautifully written and the stories were poignant and emotionally rich, I just couldn’t get into it. I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind for a book that demands so much emotionally from the reader. I’ll probably come back to this in a few years, when I’m in a better space to process it fully.

Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore

I needed something nice, fluffy and uncomplicated and Bringing Down the Duke gave it to me. It centres around Annabelle, an impoverished vicar’s daughter who wins a scholarship to study classics at Oxford and becomes caught up in the activities of the local chapter of suffragists. Along the way she captures the attention the Duke of Montgomery who is advising the Tory party on how to thwart the suffragists and win their next election so that he might recover his ancestral family castle. Romance naturally ensues. This was a lovely, unchallenging read to take me through the Christmas holidays and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for something similar.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Have you ever had the experience of reading one page of a novel and knowing that you’ve got something special on your hands? That’s how I felt when I started reading The Shadow of the Wind. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s brilliant modern gothic novel is all that is best about the genre, bursting with doomed love affairs, haunted mansions and mysterious murders. It opens in 1945 Barcelona with a young Daniel Sempere being taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father, where he is entrusted with a novel by the mysterious Julián Carax. Daniel is enchanted by the brilliant book and is tasked with ensuring that it is never forgotten. But a ghostly figure has been hunting for copies of Carax’s work and has been burning them, determined to erase Carax from history, and Daniel and his friends are caught up in a race to uncover the enigma of Carax’s life and the legacy he left behind. This book is utterly spellbinding and ultimately a love letter to the act of reading. It was a perfect read to take me through Christmas and I’d recommend it to everyone.

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