Luster by Raven Leilani

Luster is a novel about a young woman trying to survive in New York City who finds herself entangled with a family after she has an affair with Eric, a white man whose wife has agreed to an open marriage. Edie is twenty-three, works half-heartedly in a publishing office, lives in a run down, infested apartment, and sleeps with the wrong men. After a virtual flirtation with Eric, a middle-aged white archivist, they meet, and go on a series of dates. He’s in an open marriage and his wife has set rules, but Edie finds herself drawn into the family’s world, not only Eric but his wife Rebecca and their adopted black daughter who has no one to help her navigate race.

This book is a gripping, sharp dive into Edie’s life, cleverly providing commentary on the modern world and the realities of being young and black and having no direction in life, but also unfolding a complicated and weird interpersonal situation with ever changing nuances and rules, as Edie ends up in the family’s home. There’s some really fantastic images and lines, like her beating a pregnant woman to a subway seat or her experiences doing gig economy deliveries, and Edie is a vividly imagined character, from whom you get glimpses of backstory but mostly stay in the present. She can be harsh, but also sweet, especially as she attempts to make Eric and Rebecca’s adopted daughter like her by playing video games and engaging with her fandom interests.

Luster is a brilliantly observed, well written novel about being young, about navigating sexual and racial politics, and about finding a place to be, even just for a while.

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Mrs Death Misses Death is a transformative, thought-provoking novel that looks at death, storytelling, and what really matters in the world. Mrs Death has spent eternity doing her job, but things have gotten a bit much, and she finds herself sharing her story with Wolf, a young writer in London who has an acquaintance with death but not Mrs Death. Through Wolf, we learn about past deaths and about what Mrs Death thinks makes life worth living.

This is a difficult book to describe, written in different styles and blending prose, poetry, and script at times. The move between short prose chapters and short poems is particularly good, bringing a sense of seeing into Mrs Death’s thoughts through poetry as well as seeing Wolf’s narration in prose. Despite being a novel, there’s also a lot you can take as have non-fiction elements, with reflections on the common depiction of Death as male and on various issues as they come up, and this makes the novel more powerful, as it becomes not only the story of a strange unreal friendship, but a look at good and bad, life and death.

If you enjoy books that blend prose and poetry and that muse on larger issues whilst focuses on two main characters, this one is for you. It is fast-paced, easy to read quickly, and unlike most other novels you’ll read.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom is a novel about a woman tracing her own history and reckoning with the realities of America and being from an immigrant family. Gifty was born in Alabama, after her parents came over from Ghana with her young brother, and grew up with the struggles that torn her family apart until it ended up just her and her mother. Now doing a PhD at Stanford trying to understand the addiction that killed her brother, her mother comes to stay with her, and she starts to look back at her life and that of her family, seeing the trauma that led them there.

This novel combines a deep look at issues affecting modern America, particularly the opioid crisis and mental health, with an interesting exploration of religion, spirituality, and science, as Gifty’s religious upbringing and scientific academic career come together. The impact of personal emotions and even trauma on scientific research really stands out, as she tries to explain her connection to the mice she’s experimenting on in attempts to understand addiction and work out if anything could’ve been done to help her brother.

The narrative is told a lot through flashbacks, with the present day leading back into Gifty’s memories to flesh out what happens to her and her family, and though some people might find this slows down the present story, it works well to get across how reticent Gifty is to share her past with people. This structure also makes some things, particularly her brother’s addiction, have a horrifying inevitability, as you know what is coming as soon as he gets injured playing basketball and is given painkillers.

Transcendent Kingdom feels more like a novel of reflection than one where the protagonist does a lot in the present day narrative, and through this it touches upon a lot of interesting and powerful topics that affect people in America and beyond. It was also refreshing to have a novel where the main character’s scientific research was going well, and the focus was more on what led them to study that area and other things happening in their life. Sharp and engrossing, the book draws you into Gifty’s life and asks a lot of questions about how complicated and entangled different aspects of life can be.

My reading trends of 2020

I usually do a ‘spite list’ or something similar, a list of the books I didn’t enjoy in 2020, but considering the year, and the fact I mostly found a lot of books just okay rather than actively bad, I’ve decided to go for something more like a list of general observations (some complaints) about books I read this year. Not really based on what came out this year, just what I happened to read.

  • Disappointing sequels – I should’ve expected this one, as I started the year reading The Testaments when I’m not a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale. After that, however, I had sequels to books I did enjoy that were a let down, most notably Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light (which I read a lot of on a transatlantic flight and whilst jetlagged, desperately trying to get through it) and Ali Smith’s Summer (I loved Spring most of the quartet so it was a shame, though a friend reread the other three before reading Summer and said it worked better that way, ready for all the references to the others).
  • Just not that interesting – In-keeping with the general ‘meh’ vibe of a fair few books I read this year, I found that I kept finding books that just didn’t really grip me in any way: not the plot, or the characters, or the writing. There were a good few let down endings, or books that sounded good but turned out to be hard to be bothered to finish.
  • A return to horror – This is very much just what I decided to read, but from October onwards I made a concerted effort to read more horror, both some old Point Horror books and a few more recent ones from a library app. As a teenager I’d progressed from Goosebumps to Point Horror to Stephen King, but I’d fallen off reading anything in recent years  The Point Horror ones in particular were a joy of how enjoyably trash they are, and it’s been nice to get back into horror even if I’m yet to find new stuff that’s really gripped me.
  • Really needing to read some less recent books – Thanks to the year there’s been a lot of books to review this year, and it’s been great in a lot of ways (I don’t normally get much poetry or drama to review at all, and I did get some this year), but I’ve had a backlog to review for much of the year. That meant I couldn’t catch up on my other ‘to read’ books and in particular couldn’t read much that wasn’t from this year or next year, except the odd library ebook that otherwise would’ve been returned unread.
  • Not much that was actively ‘bad’ – I mean, a good thing, but I only gave two books 2 stars this year. One was a naff technology book about digital minimalism and the other was a book about a working class Oxford student befriending an old woman that combined an info dump with some slightly dodgy depictions of class that felt like weird stereotypes. Otherwise, most books were decent, if not mind blowing (the main book in the mind blowing category was Boy Parts, not very original, but as I love the cult American Psycho vibe and the trashy yet pretentious art school vibe, it was wonderful).

What will 2021 bring? A load of pandemic novels? Me buying more secondhand Point Horrors and remembering how little 11-year-old me understood American culture? We’ll just have to see.

White Ivy by Susie Yang

White Ivy is a complex novel about family, class, and getting what you want, with a flawed protagonist searching for something elusive. Ivy Lin is a Chinese immigrant to came to America aged five and lives with her parents, younger brother, and grandmother in Massachusetts. She can’t match their expectations, but she does dream of winning the heart of her blond, white classmate, Gideon, a boy with a politician family and seemingly charmed life. Her grandmother teaches her to shoplift, and she gets a taste of what she could have. Now an adult, she meets Gideon and his family again, and it seems she can build a privileged life away from her parents, now with a flourishing business, but stepping into that role might not be so easy.

Susie Yang combines a range of elements in this book, from a look at the insecurities of white New England America similar to that found in books like The Goldfinch to a love triangle with unexpected twists. Ivy is a memorable protagonist, whose thievery I expected to be a larger plot point than it is, but whose personality is complicated and her motivations often questionable. This makes her a great character, suited to the slow pace with underlying darkness, with her actions often coming out of nowhere. One of the most compelling features of the book is the Lin family, especially how the reader sees them from Ivy’s point of view, and the subplot about how they don’t know how to deal with Ivy’s brother Austin was surprisingly moving.

A book that looks at immigrant experiences and seeking success in America, White Ivy is gripping and sits well alongside many other American novels of the last twenty years or so that follow a protagonist growing up and looking for success among those richer than themselves. 

Fave non-2020 books of 2020

As ever, I’m balancing out my top books of 2020 with some books I read in 2020 but didn’t come out then. It was a random year for picking what to read and accidentally this lot is half non-fiction and half fiction (and only that if you stretch the definition of ‘fiction’ to include poetry). Not sure what that says – possibly that I’m catching up with recentish non-fiction after not tending to read much of it.

Shoutout to the Heady Mix book subscription I had as a gift for some of the year, as that introduced me to some amazing books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, and for library borrowing apps giving me the chance to borrow books without going out.

  • Pet by Akwaeke Emezi – Unforgettable YA about fighting all-too-real monsters when adults are in denial.
  • Flèche by Mary Jean Chan – Poetry about identity, history, and self.
  • Girl at War by Sara Nović – One from Heady Mix book subscription, that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. The horror of war, as a woman returns to Croatia after years in America, to face what happened to her and her family during the civil war.
  • Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch – A book about internet language that is particularly enjoyable if you grew up using different internet sites with different linguistic conventions and are interested in thinking about that.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – Another from Heady Mix, this was a breathtaking multi-generational look at Korean life in Japan and I was gripped in spite of the length and the fact I don’t normally enjoy multi-generational novels.
  • Superior by Angela Saini – Thorough and interesting debunking of race science.
  • Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher – Hard to know what to say about this classic on the inconstancies and glitches in capitalism.
  • Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch – A powerful look at race and identity in modern Britain.

My favourite books of 2020

I guess here’s where I’m meant to write that it’s been a strange year and all. Anyway, passing over that, here’s my usual list of my favourite books that came out this year. I’ve been quite picky with what I’ve included (and split into fiction, poetry and drama, and non-fiction) as I’ve read a lot of ‘good’ books this year, but I really wanted to highlight the best ones.

Books not published in 2020 are going to come separately, so my top books I’ve read this year are basically split into ‘stuff I’ve reviewed’ (this post) and ‘other things’ (the non-2020 publication lot). Links are to full reviews if you’re interested.

Fiction

  • The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers – Biting look at what happens when two brothers with a big age gap both come out.
  • Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed – YA mystery through the streets of Paris as teenage Khayyam tries to solve an art history puzzle (with bonus Byron as my real selling point).
  • Homes and Experiences by Liam Williams – Email epistolary novel satirising gentrification and millennial culture and guilt, with a bittersweet narrative.
  • Wonderland by Juno Dawson – The final of her three books in a loose trilogy (following Clean and Meat Market), this one is Alice in Wonderland retold as a fall into an elite world of ‘old money’ teenage parties. Dark, thrilling, and hard hitting, it’s my favourite of the three.
  • Loveless by Alice Oseman – Working out asexuality whilst adjusting to weird university life and realising there’s not ‘one’ experience for everyone – just the sort of book I’m glad teenagers now have.
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeki Emezi – An entrancing novel about whether parents really know their child.
  • Boy Parts by Eliza Clark – Perhaps very predictable of me to love this, an artsy Northern female take on the aesthetic antihero, but it was thrilling, very dark, and brilliant.

Poetry and Drama

  • Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt – Lyric poems combining nature and modern, like moving from a walk to a Berlin club and back again, and beautifully describing tiny moments.
  • My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long – Short, storytelling poetry with vivid images and messages.
  • Underground, Monroe, & The Mamalogues by Lisa B. Thompson – Three very different plays looking at the black middle class and elements of race, gender, and respectability.
  • Poor by Caleb Femi – Witty and cutting poetry and photography about growing up on a Peckham estate and the reality of geography and gentrification with class and race.
  • The Girl and the Goddess by Nikita Gill – A novel in verse about a girl growing up in India, discovering herself, and interacting with gods and goddesses, whilst considering the power of storytelling.

Non Fiction

  • The Reality Game by Samuel Woolley – Good primer on online disinformation and technology.
  • Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein – How to think about data science from an intersectional perspective.
  • So Hormonal from Monstrous Regiment – Collection of essays about how hormones impact people’s lives, full of a vast range of eye-opening experiences.
  • White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad – A look at how white feminism affects women of colour and how important intersectionality is (technically this first came out in 2019, but I read an edition out in 2020 so I’m saying it counts here).

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Detransition, Baby is a witty, cutting, and clever novel about relationships and motherhood, as three characters try to navigate if they’re having a baby. Detransitioned Ames thought he was infertile, until he got his boss, Katrina, pregnant. Not sure about the role he’d take in parenting, he contacts his ex, Reese, with a proposition—to raise the baby with them. Since their breakup a few years ago, Reese has been lonely and sleeping with married men, feeling a like a trans elder with no one to mother, so this could be her chance for what she’s dreamed of: a child.

One of the greatest things about this book for me was the writing, particularly the tone and detail. It can be blunt and brutal in deconstructing characters’ ideas and lives, but also has a real emotional side (there’s even some meta-commentary on this as characters make jokes at a funeral). This is literary fiction about negotiating relationships given a new breath of life, but also self-aware about the people who aspire towards the directions it takes the narrative, such as how middle class cis women might love the idea of something more unconventional without being able to deal with some of the realities of it (giving much more detail might be giving small spoilers, so I’ll refrain). The ebbs and flows of the three main characters’ relationships are fascinating to be drawn into, especially the connection with Katrina and Reese, and how Ames finds it difficult to navigate his own sense of getting someone pregnant amidst the murky waters of gender and trauma.

From even just the title, it’s clear it’s a book that is taking a bold approach to the age old stories of relationships and motherhood, and Peters does a great job of creating the right, wry tone to pull it off. There is something joyful, even through the issues and self-destruction you see in the characters, in the reading experience, and it might be at least in part just the sense of getting the kind of complicated break up literary novel but with biting trans comedy thrown in. It is refreshing and I hope for more contemporary literary fiction that can bring quite such a combination of spot-on references and commentary, cutting jokes, and emotional reckoning.

Memorial by Bryan Washington

Memorial is a novel about a relationship breakdown, family, and the path that life takes. Benson, a Black daycare teacher, and Mike, a Japanese-American chef, have been together for a few years, but things between them haven’t been going so well. When Mike’s mother comes over from Japan to visit their Houston apartment just as Mike flies out to Japan to visit his estranged father who is dying, their relationship becomes even more strained, with Benson suddenly living with Mike’s mother. Their relationship with each other and with their families starts to change, and it seems that maybe love isn’t everything.

This is a complex novel that delves into different emotions and looks at a relationship where the characters still love each other, but also don’t seem to be getting along. The narrative balances this with their respective relationships with their families, and the different ways they interact with people in their lives, to give a detailed picture of the two protagonists. A notable element of the novel is the fact that Benson is HIV positive but it isn’t a big deal; rather, it has strained his connection with his family, but doesn’t restrict his life. All of the characters are flawed and often selfish and self-absorbed, and this works well with the structure of telling the story from the POV of Benson, then Mike, then Benson again to show their complex emotions and lack of sympathy a lot of the time.

Memorial is a bittersweet look at a relationship that isn’t working out, and at slowly rebuilding familial relationships. It gives the protagonists space to potentially move on and change, or to not really change, and was emotional and powerful (though not one if you want a book where everything works out unambiguously).

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

As Maria Dahvana Headley states in the introduction to this book, there have been a lot of translations of Beowulf, the Old English epic poem about a warrior fighting monsters. This is a new translation, focusing on updating the verse rather than preserving its antiquity and giving some of the female figures—particularly Grendel’s mother—a somewhat better treatment. Perhaps most notably, this version of Beowulf focuses a lot on the modern parallel of oral storytelling and frames the poem like some guy is telling you it in a bar (the poem’s opening word, ‘hwæt’, becomes ‘bro!’).

I’ve studied Beowulf both in translation at secondary school and in the original during my undergrad English degree, so the story and general feel of the poem are very familiar, but this translation brings something else to the poem. Possibly it’s the clash of old and new—modern slang like ‘Hashtag: blessed’ and archaisms like ‘wyrm’—and the use of swearing and colloquial phrases to get across the meaning of certain lines and phrases which feels quite different to the Beowulf people might be used to. Occasionally the use of ‘bro’ throughout gets a bit grating, but it’s interesting to see which parts could be translated into something much more modern and which stay sounding older.

There’s probably some clever things to be said about some of the translation choices and the way this translation is framed, though it’s too long since I’ve actually read another version of it for me to think of anything. I liked the fact that the repetitive nature of the storytelling in Beowulf is foregrounded by giving it the feel of some guy telling you a boring story, only the story is about fighting Grendel and his mother and a dragon.

As someone who loved Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, it was enjoyable to get another modern translation that focuses on updating the language and making the concepts reverberate through time, rather than something that is a reimagining or retelling. This is a readable Beowulf in verse and one that really makes you think about why these warrior men spend so much time sitting around telling heroic stories to one another. I’m not sure what it would be like as an introduction to Beowulf but it’s fun if you already know it and can imagine rolling your eyes as some guy tries to tell you the story.