Book review: Luster by Raven Leilani

I finished reading Luster on new year’s eve, then I had sit down for a couple of days to think hard on what I thought about it.

I mean I liked it, loved it in fact, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Is it literary fiction, literary erotica, commercial literary erotic fiction?

Anyway, I have hard enough job genrefying my own work, so I probably shouldn’t worry too much about pigeonholing someone else’s . . .

The story is told from the raw, stream of consciousness of Edie, an editorial coordinator for a children’s book publisher. She has no money, her dreams are worn hollow, and she can’t see a future any different from the life she has now. So Edie tries to fill the void in her life by having semi-casual sex with just about every man (and one woman) in the office (even with someone who works in the IT department if you can believe it). After she’s fired (it was always going to happen) she focusses her energies on the affair she’s having with Eric, a middle-aged man with a strangely accommodating wife, Rebecca, and an adopted daughter, Akila. How far does this affair go?

Well, far enough that she moves in with them . . . 

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Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

It’s a bit of everything this book: part dystopian sci-fi, part urban fantasy, and part social commentary. You’d think that trying to blend all this together into a single novel would turn into a hot mess.

Well, no it doesn’t.

Set in a future Africa after a global disaster, Who Fears Death is the story – the long and harrowing story – of Onyesonwu Ubaid-Ogundimu, a child born of rape who undertakes a journey to become a sorcerer so that she can avenge the rape of her mother.

That alone is a lot to unwrap, but as I mentioned, this book is very much a social commentary wrapped in a fantasy novel, so along the way we also take a good, long, graphic look at incest, child abuse, female circumcision, weaponised rape, war, mutilation and my personal bugbear this year: the caste system. This is some bold writing: Okorafor doesn’t spare anyone’s fragility and that’s a good thing because it makes the book realistic, gritty, compelling and thought-provoking, stark and unsanitized. Some of it makes for uncomfortable reading, but don’t skip it.

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Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

This one’s an odd choice for me: no sorcerers, no ghosts, no guns, no starships, and if I’m honest, there wasn’t really much that would normally hold my attention … aside from the some very fine writing.

The story is set a few years before WWII. America is rediscovering its sense of prosperity following the Great Depression, and New York is crammed full of industrious rich, and the idle children of the industrious rich.

And crash-landing into this world of privileged hedonism, is our heroine and narrator, the unlikely-named Kathey Kontent (Kontent – emphasis on the ent, as in ‘reasonably happy’). Kathey takes us through her time as a wannabe ‘it’ girl, climbing New York’s society ladder aided by a vast array of equally ambitious female friends and somewhat vacuous lovers.

The author draws a world that you can almost touch. The architecture, the cars, the noise, the people … reading this book is really odd; a lot like remembering a forties movie you’ve never seen. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, and the story is beautifully told, and it gets better as Kathey becomes a wiser to the way the world works. It helps that she’s a very likeable character: smart and ambitious, with two very simple aims: a fabulous career and a rich husband.

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