Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Cover of the book Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid featuring multiple images of the same picture of a girl talking to a security guard with a small child at their feet. Image is to accompany book review on the same page.

Much of the hype surrounding this book is based on the premise of a racially charged incident that happens late one night at a supermarket when an African-American girl called Emira is falsely accused of kidnapping the young, white child she babysits. According to the inside cover of the book, this incident ‘sets off an explosive chain of events.’

Personally, I found ‘Such a Fun Age’ less explosive and more sizzle, with the whole incident at the supermarket wrapped up by page seventeen and only loosely connected to the other events that unfold throughout the story. Emira herself is so embarrassed, she rejects the offer of another shopper’s video footage of the altercation, insisting she would rather just forget that the incident ever took place.

Emira is the most likeable character in the book. She is a 25 year old, university graduate whose current working life consists of three days a week babysitting Briar and two afternoons a week transcribing text for the Green Party at their Philadelphia office. As is typical of young people her age, she is preoccupied with going out with her friends, meeting boys and worrying over her finances and career (or lack thereof). Not to mention the impending problem that she’ll no longer be included on her parents’ health insurance once she turns 26.

The novel is written from the two alternating perspectives of Emira and her boss, Alix, a white, 33 year old mother of two (toddler Briar and baby Catherine) and a successful social influencer. Alix is insecure and narcissistic. Following the incident at the supermarket, her efforts to get to know her black babysitter better are self-serving, obsessive and cringe-worthy.

As the story unfolds, Emira starts dating a white guy named Kelley Copeland. Kelley is kind and sincere in his affection of Emira, however he noticeably surrounds himself with black people and has a history of only dating black women.

I thought the character of Emira cleverly represented holding up a mirror to white people’s interactions with black people today. By doing so, ‘Such a Fun Age’ adeptly highlights racism, privilege, class, fetishizing and the embarrassing trend of white people trying to demonstrate just how progressive and woke they are. 

This book may not have launched on the trajectory that I thought it would from the incident at the supermarket, however it is a fresh, interesting take on prejudice, class and privilege in America today. ‘Such a Fun Age’ is an entertaining read with stories within the story on topics such as friendship, love and motherhood. I particularly loved the relationship between Emira and little Briar. 

The last chapter is told through the perspective of Emira, who discovers the type of contentment one feels when we shake off the expectations of who we should be and just be ourselves. The story wraps up, not necessarily in a nice, neat bow, but perhaps just as it should.  And not without one final stinging nod to privilege and class.

Published 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group, 320 pages.

A Timeless Portrayal of Female Friendships Set in Naples, Italy

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Cover of the book My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante featuring the face of a young girl looking straight ahead into the distance. The cover image is in black and white and is to accompany the book review on the same page.

Admittedly, I’m a bit late to the party with My Brilliant Friend by Italian author Elena Ferrante; it was originally published back in 2012. Since then, it has sold over 11 million copies worldwide and been made into a successful series for HBO, scripted entirely in Italian.

The story follows two girls, Elena and Lila, as they navigate life from childhood to adolescence, growing up in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples.

Lila is fearless, tough, rebellious and unpredictable. At school, her brilliance and ferocious intelligence soon becomes apparent. By contrast, Elena is quiet, reflective, insecure and diligent. They fascinate and depend on each other, but never in equal measure. Their friendship is complex; layered with love and rivalry; a constant desire to be doing as well, or better, than the other.

‘I devoted myself to studying and to many things that were difficult, alien to me, just so I could keep pace with that terrible, dazzling girl.’

Elena, My Brilliant Friend (page 47)

Both girls have an enormous appetite for learning, knowledge and discovery. However, there is little opportunity for smart girls to escape their oppressive lives in poor, post-war Naples, and the odds are greatly stacked against them. Dangers, hardships and violence permeate their city. Family rivalries and shifting alliances are common place, as is the looming threat of the Camorra – an Italian Mafia-type organisation established in the Campania region of Italy, of which Naples is the capital. 

While Elena goes on to study at middle school (an opportunity her mother resents), Lila must withdraw from school and instead begins work at her father’s shoe shop, where she is ambitious and determined. Elena and Lila’s paths diverge, but their intense friendship cannot be replaced or replicated, and so their destinies are seemingly entwined.

My Brilliant Friend is without nostalgia and sentimentality and is a timeless portrayal of female friendships. The setting of post-war Naples makes it a gritty, complex, coming-of-age story.

My Brilliant Friend is Book One of the four book series known as the ‘Neopolitan Novels’ by Elena Ferrante. Together, the four novels capture the lives and friendship of Elena and Lila from young girls through to women in their 60s. 

If you haven’t already read My Brilliant Friend, pour yourself a Chianti, settle in and immerse yourself in this honest, heart-breaking and beautiful story of two brilliant friends.

Published 2012 by Europa Editions, 336 pages.

Over 10 million Copies Sold!

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Image of the cover of the book Where the Crawdads sing by Delia Owens featuring a girl in a canoe paddling out to sea with a pink sky in the distance. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

I admit, the swamps and marshland of North Carolina aren’t my usual go-to setting for a novel. But in Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens paints such a beautiful picture of this region and demonstrates such care and knowledge of nature beyond aesthetics, that you can’t help being swept away in the peace, light and beauty of coastal Carolina.

As a young girl, Kya is abandoned by everyone in her family. Alone in the family shack on the marshlands of North Carolina with only the seagulls for company, Kya must learn to survive on her own.

But Kya is resourceful and resilient and has talents she doesn’t know exist. Throughout the story, she forms connections with a handful of people from the town. Some of these people become firm friends and an anchor for Kya as she navigates life alone in her marshland home. Others arrive, only to leave her hurt and adrift, with renewed feelings of distrust and abandonment.

As well as weaving a careful story of Kya’s journey through her teen and young adult years, there is also the unraveling story of the town’s star quarterback, Chase Andrews, who has been found dead in the marsh. Soon, Kya, the ‘Marsh Girl’, is the prime suspect and facing a future in prison, far away from the safety and comfort of her beloved marsh.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the debut novel by Delia Owens, a 70 year old, retired wildlife biologist. Prior to penning her first novel, a New York Times article describes Owens as ‘a reclusive, 70-year-old scientist, whose previous published works chronicled the decades she spent in the deserts and valleys of Botswana and Zambia’. 

Perhaps understandably then, the publisher originally only published 28,000 copies of the book. Two years later, Where the Crawdads Sing has sold 8 million copies worldwide. It has topped the New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2019 and 2020 for a combined 100 non-consecutive weeks. 

I love that this same New York Times article quotes Owens as saying “I have never connected with people the way I have with my readers…….I wasn’t expecting that.” Seems as though there might more than a little of the author reflected in spirited, nature-loving, loner, Kya. 

Published 2019 by Hachette Australia, 384 pages.

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Cover of the book Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman featuring the outline of an upside down head. The head is filled with the ocean and there is a lone scuba diver descending down into the deep. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

Caden Bosch is a high achieving, 15 year old, high school student. He lives at home with his mother, father and younger sister. He has friends he meets with after school on Fridays to design computer games.

Caden Bosch is on a ship headed for Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth in the southern part of the Marianas Trench. On board, his fellow crew mates largely keep to themselves, aware of the constant scrutiny of the ever-present captain and his scheming, treacherous parrot.

Challenger Deep is a moving and compelling journey of a teenager grappling with his mental health through increased paranoia, anxiety and depression. This story is so cleverly written by Neal Shusterman. Constantly moving between two worlds – Caden’s increasingly detached version of reality, and life onboard the pirate ship. The startling connections between the two worlds becomes apparent as the story unfolds and it serves to convey what it would be like to sail the dark, unpredictable waters of mental illness. As Caden’s disconnection from reality becomes more apparent, he is aware of the quiet concern from his family and friends. He reflects on the concern felt from his mother:

‘I feel her wave of worry like a patio heater – faint and ineffective, but constant.’

Caden Bosch, Challenger Deep (page 48)

The short, snappy chapters of one to three pages keep the reader’s thoughts jumping from one world to another, creating somewhat disoriented reading, perhaps to give the reader deeper insight into Caden’s increasingly scattered mind. As well as weaving a careful story of the two intertwining worlds, the reader also gets insights into Caden’s general observations on life. For a deeply serious subject, there is plenty of humour throughout the book and a few outrageous characters to provide light relief. 

I enjoyed an author chat with Neal Shusterman, courtesy of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ bookstore at West End, Brisbane. This is a deeply personal story for Shusterman, his own son having journeyed to the deep. In fact, the drawings and poetry scattered throughout Challenger Deep are his son’s own; all ‘drawn in the depths’, as Shusterman reflects in his Author’s Note. With Challenger Deep, Shusterman hopes to give reassurance and comfort to those struggling with mental illness and their families, and greater empathy and understanding of mental health for us all.

Published 2020 by Walker Books Australia, 320 pages.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Image is the cover of the book Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Image features a girl swimming face down in the water. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

After reading Ng’s second book, Little Fires Everywhere, and being gripped by the Netflix series of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon, I was keen to discover more from this New York Times bestselling author. 

The title of Ng’s first book, Everything I Never Told You, grabbed my attention and had me intrigued right from the start. My curiosity only grew upon reading the first line of the very first chapter:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

Who is Lydia? 

Why is she dead? 

Who doesn’t know?

So many questions! And all of these questions fuel a constant sense of wariness and dread which hang in the mind of the reader as the story of the Lee family unfolds over the decades to the current day when their eldest daughter’s body is discovered in the local lake. 

Set in small town Ohio in the late 70s, Lydia is the favourite child of blonde-haired, American born Marilyn, and her Chinese-American husband, James. Their other children are the older and much loved brother to Lydia, Nathan, and the youngest and often forgotten child, Hannah. 

As in her second book, Little Fires Everywhere, Ng explores the complex and delicate relationships that exist in families, with an undercurrent of race relations and an exploration of minority groups. Everything I Never Told You gives readers an insight into how we as parents, whether deliberately or unknowingly, pass on our own personal fears and shortfalls to our children, and the inevitable fallout and damage that can result, despite our best intentions.

Everything I Never Told You is not a new release. It was first published in 2014, winning’s Best Book of 2014. At 292 pages, it’s a great weekend or holiday read. If you’re feeling particularly busy and time poor, it is equally one that can be picked up and put down intermittently, and will capture your attention at each sitting. Either way, Everything I Never Told You is an intriguing read. Understanding this family from the different perspectives of each character will inevitably prompt the reader to confront their own familial expectations and family dynamics. 

Published 2014 by Hachette Australia, 320 pages.

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