My first event for the Melbourne Writers Festival this year was a talk with author Kevin Kwan, the genius behind my favourite trilogy, Crazy Rich Asians, and my best beach read of 2020 so far, Sex and Vanity. In this discussion, Kwan explained to host Beverley Wang that he wanted to do something different to Crazy Rich Asians and, with Sex and Vanity, we hear Kwan’s voice, but in a totally new and different way.
Kevin Kwan’s style of writing is so deliciously wonderful and ridiculous that I could not put Sex and Vanity down. The characters, as per usual, were exaggerated and over the top whilst the settings were lush and out-of-this-world which made for the perfect (winter) seaside read. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t love this as much as Crazy Rich Asians, but it was still very enjoyable and easy to read. When I found out that Kwan would be doing a talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, I just couldn’t resist…
During this talk, Kwan explained how Sex and Vanity came about. He detailed the many times he’s visited the island of Capri, only to spend his time watching young girls go from pouty teens on holiday with their parents to falling in love for the first time, to being heartbroken when the holiday ends and they have to leave their new love behind… and this is where his protagonist, Lucie, first sprung to mind. She, and her family, were also inspired by the waspy ‘one percenters’ he met whilst studying in New York as a mature-aged student. In infiltrating these elite circles and coming to know these people, he felt he had a lot of knowledge he could use in his writing.
Finishing the book in February of this year, Kwan was hesitant to release it in these uncertain times, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining so much momentum in America and across the world. But, this book actually has a lot to say about white privilege, racism, and class and that’s why Kwan decided to release it, even with a pandemic seemingly bringing the world to a halt. The cleverness behind Sex and Vanity is that it’s no ordinary beach read, He includes funny asides and footnotes, with laugh-out-loud moments but he also manages to make comments about everyday racism and internalised racism, especially through Lucie and her love/hate relationship with her extended family and her uneasy interactions with love interest, George.
I was further amazed when Kwan explained how he writes such vivid descriptions of outfits, interiors, and foods… It’s because he has a photographic memory and ‘if [he hasn’t] eaten at [a] restaurant, [he’s] not going to write about it… It has to come from a real experience for [him]’. This explanation made sense to me since his descriptions are so intense, he had me craving giant bowls of pasta and a visit to Capri the whole way through this book.
In exciting news, Sex and Vanity has been optioned as a film. YAY! And there are two more books in the series to come. It’ll be known as the ‘Cities Trilogy’, each set in one of Kwan’s favourite cities. We’ve already had New York with Sex and Vanity, to come are London and Paris. We might have to wait a while though as Kwan says so far the next two are ‘only in [his] mind’. So, here’s hoping we get the next one soon because I don’t know about you, but I love a good Kevin Kwan novel to sink my teeth into!
When I first finished Sex and Vanity I gave it 3/5 stars. Now, having listened to Kwan’s insights into this luscious story, I’m more inclined to say it’s a 4 star book. If you’re looking for the perfect escapist read, then I can recommend any of Kwan’s novels.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Melbourne Writers Festival is happening digitally all week so, no matter where you are in the world, if you’re keen to attend one of their events then here’s the link: https://mwf.com.au/.
Whatever you think about Kwan or the Melbourne Writers Festival, let me know in the comments. Enjoy!
You definitely don’t need me to tell you what an absolute doozy of a year 2020 has been so far. What I can tell you, is that there’s no better distraction from what’s going on in the world right now than diving head first into a really good book.
So, here’s a list of my seven best reads of the year so far, excluding books I’ve already posted about such as…
If you’re keen to know more about the books above, then check out my previous blog posts (just click the title of the book you’re curious about, it’ll take you straight there). Otherwise, for some new reads, here are the best book adventures I’ve been on in the last seven months…
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This book ripped me open and tore me apart. I was actually on my honeymoon while reading this one, hence the beach photo above, so it was quite funny when my new husband found me sobbing on the couch of our beautiful Airbnb after finishing this book. It’s definitely not your happy-go-lucky sort of book but if you’re looking for a beautiful, sweeping novel then this one is definitely for you. Plus, who doesn’t love a book that gets you so emotionally involved that you end up crying your heart out on your honeymoon?
Kya Clark, our protagonist who is otherwise known as the ‘Marsh Girl’, lives in the wetlands on the coast of North Carolina and this is the first thing that makes this book so wonderful. Delia Owens’ description of setting in this story is breathtaking, I’ve never seen a marsh before but after reading this book, I feel like I have. Six months later and I can still picture it. I think these descriptions must come from the fact that Owens is in fact a wildlife scientist, before she’s an author. How cool is that?
It’s not just the setting though, Kya’s story is one of deep loneliness, punctuated by a love for two very different men. Yep, it’s a love triangle and I am here for it. I’m calling it, maybe the best love triangle I’ve read? (Yes, even better than Twilight).
Kya’s story is heart-wrenching and I could not put it down. Since I read it, I’ve been recommending it to anyone who will listen so if this is the only book you pick up because of this post, so be it!
I gave this book 5/5 crawdads (or crayfish, for all you Aussies out there)
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Home Fire was my third perfect-score book of 2020. It’s intense, gripping and really made me think. Written from five different perspectives as the story progresses, this novel makes comments about race. religion, terrorism and so much more. It is very cleverly written and left me empathising with characters that were realistic, relatable and multifaceted. It also had the most goosebump inducing ending I’ve read in a very long time. I was left feeling shocked, devastated and in awe of Shamsie’s plot structuring skills. Absolutely brilliant.
Here’s a short synopsis: Isma and her twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, are British-born Pakistani Muslims who find themselves orphaned after their jihadi dad dies on the way to Guantanamo and their mum, who became unwell after the death of her husband, passes away a few years later. Parvaiz is groomed in the heart of London and ends up following in his father’s footsteps with devastating consequences for everyone involved.
I gave this beautiful book 5/5 stars
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth
I loved this book. It was weird and wonderful and oh so relatable.
Jenny is a 35 year old columnist who is going through a break up and is struggling with an all-encompassing social media addiction. She’s a caricature of so many women in their twenties and thirties and, although she was definitely an exaggeration of the so called ‘modern woman’, I found that she reflected myself back at me and I loved her, and Unsworth, for it.
It started a little slow and at first I was unsure. You can see from the photo above that I was reading this book whilst curled up in a beautiful cabin in the countryside and Adults didn’t scream ‘cosy read’ to me. Jenny is frustrating and extremely self-involved but, as the story unfolds, we come to understand why. The hilarious first chapter detailed her inability to caption a photo of a croissant. Should it be PASTRIES! #PASTRIES or WOO #PASTRIES or PASTRIES followed by a very important full stop? The list goes on! From here we find out why she’s so neurotic. Her relationships are all strained by her addiction to her phone, which even leaves a physical mark by giving her a black eye one night (we all know why – she dropped it on her face in bed of course). Her journey from social media addict to person living in the real world is an important and engrossing one in this, the digital age.
This book gets 5/5 likes on the gram
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
Three Women is unlike any book I’ve ever read. It’s a non-fiction about three women (duh!) named Maggie, Lina and Sloane, that Taddeo got to know over a period of eight years. She writes about their lives as women in America and the role desire has over the path their lives each take. It’s not a non-fiction in the traditional sense; it’s not about a single, big event or thing, it simply explores what it is to be a woman through the real, and often heartbreaking, yet simple stories of these three women. Its cleverness lies in the way Taddeo takes these stories and uses them for her own reasons; to portray how women are often seen as ‘just one thing’, especially when it comes to desire. A woman’s desire is her own and it differs in both big and small ways from woman to woman.
These three women, although expressing their desires in very different ways all seem to want the same thing: to be seen for who they truly are.
I gave this book 4.5/5 stars
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Heat and Light by Ellen Van Neerven
This collection of tales is creative writing at its finest. Van Neerven weaves traditional storytelling with modern writing and elements of the fantastic to bring together stories that are heartbreaking and hauntingly beautiful.
In ‘Heat’ we come to know the Kresinger family who are impacted by their Aboriginal heritage in both big and small, negative and positive ways. This story almost had me in tears because I felt so connected to the characters.
‘Water’ was the most intriguing and, if I had to choose, was probably my favourite of the three. Van Neerven imagines a world in which Indigenous Australians are (rightfully) given their land back, but it has devastating consequences for them when it isn’t handled correctly. Past mistakes are all too easily repeated in this strangely parallel world by those in power and the protagonist must fight to save those she loves.
Finally, ‘Light’ is the hardest to describe. Bouncing around in time, place and character, the reader is taken on a journey through inter-generational trauma and Van Neerven shines a light on how Indigenous Australians have been impacted by European settlement over time. We’re left in an unsettling place with Light and perhaps that is the point.
Van Neerven’s stories are both otherworldly and close to home. Her descriptions of setting are brilliant; she paints Australia as the beautiful, dry, harsh landscape that it is. These stories left me feeling both satisfied and absolutely desperate for more.
This book gets 4.5/5 shining lights
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue
I enjoyed this book a whole lot more than I thought I would. As the blurb suggests, it is the story of a woman in her mid-twenties who suddenly finds herself mixed up in an affair with her older, married boss… but it’s also so much more than that.
Jane’s story is so relatable in so many ways, even if you have never found yourself in this particular situation before. She’s living in London, she works in marketing and she also runs an Agony Aunt blog in her spare time. We meet Jane just as her long term relationship with her mediocre boyfriend, Max, ends and so her downward spiral begins. I’d say that most women in their mid to late twenties have been there (I know I certainly have) and that’s what makes this book so relatable. The way Jane behaves and the things that happen to her had me nodding along thinking ‘girl, been there’ and that’s what I loved about it.
Interestingly, her affair with her boss explores the power dynamics between men and women in the workplace, which gave the story an important extra layer; it was very powerful. A really great debut novel from O’Donoghue. I can’t wait for more!
I gave this book 4.5/5 stars
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
This is the harrowing yet hopeful story of Ana, a 15 year old girl from the Dominican Republic, who has to marry a man twice her age in order for her, and eventually her whole family, to immigrate to New York City. She finds herself alone in a foreign city with an unpredictable, abusive husband who is in love with somebody else.
Navigating New York City and her new marriage, Ana is forced to grow up very quickly and must harden herself to the world around her, especially when she finds out that she is pregnant. When Juan, Ana’s husband, must return home to the Dominican Republic for a few months, Ana begins spending more and more time with Cesar, Juan’s carefree, loving younger brother. With Juan gone, Ana discovers freedom and love, something she finds very difficult to give up when Juan returns. Through heartbreak and hardship, Ana finally comes out the other side of this story with a family to love and people who care for her.
Cruz writes the story from the perspective of Ana and she does so in such a way that makes you feel as if you know Ana. It’s beautifully done and teaches a lot about the immigrant experience.
I gave this book 4/5 stars
Rating: 4 out of 5.
So, there you have it! Some of my favourite reads of the year so far. I hope you found it informative and, more importantly, entertaining!
If you’re inspired to pick up one of these books, please do let me know in the comments below. Likewise, if you loved some of these as much as I did, let’s chat!