Luster by Raven Leilani
Edie is stumbling her way through her twenties—sharing a subpar apartment in Bushwick, clocking in and out of her admin job, making a series of inappropriate sexual choices. She is also haltingly, fitfully giving heat and air to the art that simmers inside her. And then she meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey, including an autopsist wife who has agreed to an open marriage—with rules.
As if navigating the constantly shifting landscapes of contemporary sexual manners and racial politics weren’t hard enough, Edie finds herself unemployed and invited into Eric’s home—though not by Eric. She becomes a hesitant ally to his wife and a de facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie may be the only Black woman young Akila knows.
This book got a lot of hype, but for me this was fully meh. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads. It wasn’t a dnf; I was invested enough in the characters and the story to want to see what happened. But the writing style was not for me. If I’m completely honest, it felt a little like it was trying-too-hard-to-be-literary type writing (like The Goldfinch, bleh). The sex scenes were weird and reminded me of the kind that men write when they’re trying to be cerebral. Characters felt a bit unrealistic because everything was at a distance, not super emotional or close to the characters. I probably wouldn’t recommend just on the sheer meh-ness of it.
Red Scarf Girl by Jiang Ji-Li
It’s 1966, and twelve-year-old Ji-li Jiang has everything a girl could want: brains, popularity, and a bright future in Communist China. But it’s also the year that China’s leader, Mao Ze-dong, launches the Cultural Revolution—and Ji-li’s world begins to fall apart. Over the next few years, people who were once her friends and neighbors turn on her and her family, forcing them to live in constant terror of arrest. And when Ji-li’s father is finally imprisoned, she faces the most difficult dilemma of her life.
This is a memoir, and technically, I think, a children’s book. I loved it in the weird way that we love stories about other people persevering through difficult things. This was chilling to read, and reminded me of The Hunger Games with how dystopian it felt. If this had been billed as fiction, I would have thought the symbolism and crushing propaganda was too heavy-handed. But it’s true. The Cultural Revolution tore Jiang’s family and community apart and really affected her sense of self. It was heartbreaking to read. It was also interesting to me how easily children believe bizarre things, like how wearing a certain kind of pants is a cultural crime, alongside normal things like wanting to be in the top of her class.
I read this with my sister as part of our tiny book club. As part of our discussion, we wondered how you get an entire country of people to go along with what seems to be clearly bad for them. China has a collectivist culture, where people see themselves more as part of the whole than as individuals, and we theorized that that probably contributed heavily to the people’s relative acceptance of the Cultural Revolution. But America is technically an individualist culture, and sections of our country seem to have fallen prey to the same type of blind acceptance of a leader’s lies (see: the Trump 2024 flags I see regularly in my community). I don’t feel smart enough to parse out what the differences are between Cultural Revolutionist China and post-Trump America, so I’ll leave that discussion here, but if you have any thoughts on that, I’d love to hear them in the comments.
In the Woods by Tana French
As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children. He is gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a 12-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox (his partner and closest friend) find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.
There are spoilers in this review!
I have very mixed feelings on this, and the more I think about, the more the bad is outweighing the good. First, the good: it was definitely gripping, which is what you want in a thriller. It was well-paced, a bit slow but didn’t drag, so it kept me interested. I did have the killer pegged about halfway through, but not with the twist, so that was good. But my first complaint was the giant amount of casual misogyny that popped up in this book. Cassie was written as the stereotypical “not like other girls” girl, and I’m not sure if that’s how she thought of herself because she wasn’t the narrator, but it was annoying to read. Rob didn’t value the women he slept with at all, and even though that wasn’t a huge part of the book, it bled over into how he addressed other characters, including the murdered girl’s sister, and it felt gross. This wasn’t a deal breaker only because it seems like a Tana French thing to do an okay job of not making yucky characters completely miserable to read (I didn’t like the main character in the other Tana French book I’ve read but liked that one overall).
However, after Cassie and Rob slept together, the book really went downhill. Rob was casually misogynistic, but he seemed much more mature than he acted after that. Honestly, he was so immature it seemed uncharacteristic and kind of jerked me out of the story. It didn’t make sense and made me lose any sympathy I had had for him due to his childhood experience. And my final small gripe was the use of Cassie as a “profiler” because she had an unfinished Bachelor’s in psychology. Really? Please. She was more like a first-year psych student who “profiles” everyone she meets.
Tana French might be the author I love to hate, because I’m still probably going to try the next book in this series, which is written from Cassie’s perspective. But the casual weird misogyny did really bother me, so if it’s as rampant in the next one I will probably pass on the rest.
(A final random note: Also, at this point I can’t really unsee any police narrative as pro-police propaganda. Why do we idolize police so much in the media when so much of their work is rote and they mostly don’t actually PREVENT crimes in the first place? I love thrillers, but I think I like them better when the mystery involves regular people sleuthing out what happened on their own, or stories that don’t center police. Starting to rethink my consumption of police narratives. There’s your #DefundThePolice food for thought for the day.)
[…] Red Scarf Girl by Jiang Ji-LiA memoir about growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Really chilling. […]