Books, glorious books. Since my January recommendations post went well and people seemed to like it, I thought I’d make this a regular thing. I’m 26 books into the year, which is way ahead of my plan to read a book a week. Blame my crushing inability to sleep for giving me a lot more free time to plow through my TBR pile. I’m averaging a book a night right now. Go, me. Oh lord, I miss sleep. Anyhoo, here are some of the most notable books I read during the merry month of February. Make sure to share your own choices in the comments below.
Angel Time and Of Love and Evil by Anne Rice
Still can't sleep and still sore so I'm reading to distract myself. pic.twitter.com/a6ahbEA4Hg— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) February 21, 2021
I’ve discussed before my great love for Anne Rice, and my almost-successful plan to re-read the entire Vampire Chronicles in 2020 (I had four books left, but in fairness, I did also manage to read all 2000+ pages of the Mayfair Witches trilogy on top of that so I count it as a win.) Rice’s career as one of the undisputed giants of paranormal fiction is one that’s been mired in controversies and a few public blow-ups. In 2003, following the, to put it kindly, mixed reception to Blood Canticle, easily her worst book, she announced that she would no longer write about vampires and would dedicate her life to God. She’s since left the Church and brought my boy Lestat back, but in the interim period between Blood Canticle and Prince Lestat, things got weird. She wrote two books about Jesus, which I haven’t and probably never will read, and she tried her hand at writing about another kind of paranormal creature: angels.
Angel Time and Of Love and Evil were described by Rice as ‘metaphysical thrillers.’ It’s a solid term to categorize something that otherwise avoids such neat descriptions. The delightfully named Toby O’Dare is an efficient assassin who plays the lute, has a tragic past, and is endlessly haunted by his crimes. Into his nightmarish world of amorality enters a seraph, one of God’s messengers to inform him that, yes, there is a God, and that He wants Toby to give himself to Him for a higher cause. Said cause is time-traveling Christian detective work.
Really, neither book is particularly interested in being traditional mystery tales. These are stories of faith and the full-frontal force of reconciling yourself with a higher power after a life without it. It’s not hard to see why Rice would feel drawn to such a narrative after her own born-again experiences, and the best parts of the book delve into the euphoric sensation of finding yourself after a lifetime of isolation. Even this atheist got that appeal. But the books themselves aren’t Rice’s best work. It was always curious to me that she felt her newfound religion and writing about vampires were mutually exclusive because the Vampire Chronicles were always incredibly astute stories of morality and autonomy. Hell, a lot of Angel Time feels like Memnoch the Devil told from a benevolent Heaven’s perspective (but not as good — Memnoch the Devil is a divisive book for Vampire Chronicles fans but I’ve always admired the sheer nerve of Rice’s rewriting of the entirety of the Christian origin tale with a side-order of Paradise Lost.) Perhaps if the mystery aspects were more fully fleshed out, the books would be more successful. As it is, they’re more curiosities for Rice completionists than must-reads for the casual consumer. Still, ‘paranormal fiction but make it Christian and not preachy as f**k’ has its allure.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion
Spending my Waterstone's points. pic.twitter.com/YfnhddrUcO— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) February 16, 2021
What is there left to say about Joan Didion that hundreds of scholars, critics, and inspirational Instagram slogans have not already said? One of the queens of New Journalism has experienced a fascinating new era of popularity in the digital age, with her uniquely detailed insight into myriad issues, from politics to celebrity to the mythos of her home state of California, seeming more relevant than ever. There’s something about the precision of her prose that lingers long in the imagination. Not a word is wasted, and that’s saying something given Didion’s penchant for snakelike run-on sentences. Let Me Tell You What I Mean is her newest book but the essays contained within are not. Rather, this is a collection of some of her earliest written works, previously unpublished in other collections, as well as some written more recently (albeit twenty years ago.) It’s fascinating how much this book feels like the Didion Rosetta Stone. Her voice is right there from the beginning, clear as a bell and startlingly unchanged over the ensuing decades. Granted, this is another case where appreciating this narrative probably works better for Didion nerds such as myself. For newbies, start with The White Album.
We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper
I'm a sucker for a true crime/personal memoir blend. pic.twitter.com/rKGM7yR9ni— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) January 23, 2021
While attending Harvard University, writer Becky Cooper stumbled upon a campus crime that had become the stuff of legend: in 1969, Jane Britton, an ambitious anthropology student, was found brutally murdered in her flat. The crime remained unsolved for decades, yet everyone had adopted the same conclusion: that she had been killed by her professor following a torrid affair, and said professor just so happened to still be on staff in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Cooper’s fascination with the story leads her down some familiar true crime routes, but don’t come to We Keep the Dead Close expecting neat answers or lurid fascination with the murder itself.
Cooper does not uncover the murderer, but she does find herself overwhelmed by the decades of systemic misogyny that defined Harvard and continue to dominate academic across the world. Jane Britton died around the same time as Harvard was merging with Radcliffe, its all-female sister school, and this period in history proves to Cooper to be a melting pot of the sexist toxicity that smothered both institutions. There is something almost deliberately unsatisfying about this book. The reader, like Cooper, gets entangled in all the red herrings, potential suspects, and unnerving nature of her investigation, only to stumble into dead ends and mundane conclusions. There’s no big gotcha climax because crime seldom works that way.
First Comes Like by Alisha Rai
💛FIRST COMES LIKE is now available!💛 https://t.co/UT7J6SNHzt— Alisha Rai (@AlishaRai) February 16, 2021
A story about finding love in all the wrong inboxes…
IndieBound: https://t.co/7dnR1r2B6y pic.twitter.com/b8yrkUnsEQ
Alisha Rai writes some of the hottest romances in the business right now. A Gentleman in the Streets is the kind of scorching story that makes you feel embarrassed to be reading it while there are other people in the house. Her Modern Love series, wherein our heroines find their love lives complicated in some form by the perils of the always-online age, isn’t quite as sex-centered as some of her other work but it’s pitched perfectly for the current contemporary market. The last book in the trilogy, First Comes Like, is maybe the most light-hearted of the series, although Rai, as always, knows how to balance that froth with layers of thematic heft. Jia Ahmed is a YouTuber and influencer who, by the standards of the internet, is practically a senior citizen. She’s great at her job but her numbers are stagnating and her competition tougher than ever. Still, she won’t let that get her down because she has a new beau, and it’s none other tha Dev Dixit, actor and third-generation Bollywood royalty. He’s moved to the States to do an American series and he’s been flirting up a storm with Jia in her DMs. Well, someone has, because when she goes to meet him for the first time, he has no idea who she is. Someone’s been using his profiles to catfish her, and now the paparazzi are on their tails and think they’re the next hot celebrity couple. What is one to do under such delightfully tropey circumstances? Fake relationship time!
Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert
For lovers of fizzy contemporary romances with sharp chemistry and deftly layered characters, the work of Talia Hibbert has proven to be something of a godsend. She’s a consistent joy to read, and the conclusion to her Brown sisters trilogy is no different. Indeed, Act Your Age, Even Brown may be the pick of the bunch. Eve is the flightiest of the Brown girls, the one who’s constantly having big ideas then abandoning them when they prove to be too overwhelming. After she quits her latest career choice, her parents decide that enough is enough and cut her off. Eve flounces away and finds herself suddenly interviewing to be the chef of an adorable bed and breakfast run by Jacob, a handsome control freak who has no qualms telling Eve that she’s all wrong for the job. Then she hits him with her car, so of course, she has to move into the B&B, look after him, and take over the running of the place. It’s a must-read for fans of opposites-attract stories, great back-and-forth dialogue, and a sparky heroine finding her island of peace in a world that’s consistently derided her. Sadly, there aren’t Bridgerton levels of Brown sisters, so we won’t be getting any more stories from this family. For now, anyway.
Act Your Age, Eve Brown will be released on March 9.
I Used to Be Charming by Eve Babitz
I bought some exercises so obviously, as a gift to myself for being so good, I bought a book too. pic.twitter.com/GQ7tTdkLrW— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) January 30, 2021
In the acknowledgments of her first book, Eve Babitz once thanked Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, ‘for having to be who I’m not.’ The two women certainly have a unique relationship of contrasts. Where Didion was the icy Californian who viewed her home state with a cynical reporter’s eye, Eve Babitz was the vivacious party girl who dove head-first into every hip happening and relished each encounter. She was friends with everyone, attended the coolest events of the day, and had sex with all the hottest guys (‘The thing about Harrison was Harrison could f**k. Nine people a day. It’s a talent, loving nine different people in one day. Warren [Beatty] could only do six.’) She also unabashedly loved Hollywood, pushing back hard against the nihilistic write-ups and nationwide cynicism the elite literati held towards the city of dreams. Her work is the most delightful love letter to decadence and excess, a high-brow examination of the low-brow.
I Used to Be Charming has the sub-header of ‘The Rest of Eve Babitz,’ with the book offering a surprisingly dense compilation of all the reviews, articles, interviews, and random writing gigs Babitz published over the decades in-between her books. She reports from the set of The Godfather Part 2, interviews James Woods, gets candid about her relationship with Jim Morrison, and celebrates life as a woman with fabulous boobs. The title essay sees Babitz tackle the event that almost killed her. After ash from her cigar set her skirt alight, Babitz was left with burns over the majority of her body and spent months in recovery. I feared that the care-free spark of Babitz’s prose would be absent here, but even at her bleakest, she’s lost none of her wit or perception. Babitz’s work is so intensely moreish that I could read it for days on end and still want more. Christ, it sucks that she’s a Trump supporter.
Inside Out by Demi Moore
There’s been a fascinating uptick in recent years of well-received memoirs of female celebrities who were, at one point or another in their careers, considered socially acceptable pop culture punching bags. Jessica Simpson’s autobiography helped to kickstart a new conversation about how she was defined for years. Mariah Carey’s book was celebrated for offering a new context to an oft-derided diva’s career, especially in terms of race, gender, and mental illness. Then there’s Inside Out by Demi Moore. With Ariel Levy as her ghost-writer, Moore is more than equipped to provide a refreshing and often emotionally painful alternative narrative to the one that’s defined her for decades. Written off by many in Hollywood as an overpaid and mediocre actress whose only good qualities were skin deep, Moore pulls no punches in tackling how such labels impacted her.
The juicier aspects of Moore’s life, most notably her marriage to Ashton Kutcher, were already mined for clickbait upon the book’s release, but the most affecting moments come when Moore discusses her childhood and the toxic co-dependent relationship of her parents. This isn’t a blow-by-blow account of Moore’s career either, although she does dwell on key moments such as G.I. Jane and Indecent Proposal (I have some serious questions about Adrian Lyne’s direction techniques after reading this.) Mostly, Inside Out is about filling in the gaps, a chance for an endlessly mocked public figure to wrangle back control of her own narrative.
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