16 May 2022

My Five Favourite Books of March and April 2022

This year, I've been trying to get my for-fun reading back up to pre-pandemic levels and I've also been picking out and writing about my favourite five books every two months as a way to hold myself accountable. I read 20 books in March and April, taking my year-to-date tally to 42. Here are my five favourites from among the books I've read in the past two months.

1. Reputation by Sarah Vaughan. I've been a big fan of Vaughan's writing since I read and loved Anatomy of a Scandal back in 2018. If you enjoyed the latter, you'll probably also like Reputation: a psychological thriller with a perfect blend of politics, law and domestic drama. At its centre is Emma Webster, a teacher-turned-MP, who is rising to prominence within the Labour Party. She's worked hard in her career but when it comes to it, there is nothing that she won't do to protect her teenage daughter...or her reputation. And as the events in the novel spiral rapidly and chaotically out of control, those convictions are put to the test as she must stand trial for murder. Reputation is tense, fast-paced, well-plotted and compelling, with its provocative storylines posing many questions. The characterisation is excellent too: particularly in the depiction of Emma herself — flawed but passionate and strong. I can imagine it's only a matter of time before this novel also makes it onto the small screen.

2. The Caretakers by Amanda Bestor-Siegal. Set in a wealthy suburb of Paris, The Caretakers focuses on a group of women who live and work there, including au pairs and the families they work for. At the start of the novel, one of the au pairs is arrested in connection with the death of one of her young charges. The rest of the story tries to untangle the events leading up to this tragedy: what really happened and who, if anyone, is really responsible. Bestor-Siegal's novel is a real slow-burner, but it's worth sticking with it, not so much for the 'what the heck happened and why?' elements but for the broader themes it explores about identity (as a linguist, I was particularly fascinated by the questions of how speaking or thinking in a second language can impact one's identity), belonging, home, family and love. I enjoyed reading about how the au pairs' experiences differed in many ways, even if they faced similar challenges. I also thought that the story of GĂ©raldine — the au pairs' French teacher, who is also struggling with her own sense of identity and belonging — was an excellent addition to this engaging, melancholy tale.

3. Out of Her Depth by Lizzy Barber. I read enough thrillers and psychological suspense novels that it's perhaps not too much of a surprise when plot elements or themes recur and it happened that I read Lizzy Barber's latest novel shortly after reading another book involving Brits caught up in legal trouble while on a jolly in Italy (That Night by Gillian McAllister). In the case of Out of Her Depth, the Brit in question is Rachel, a young woman who feels she has had all too mundane an upbringing in her suburban, lower-middle-class home until she gets the opportunity to spend the summer before university working at a luxury pensione in Florence. There, she meets various privileged bright young things, including Diana (who also works at the pensione) and Sebastian, the handsome lad whose family has a house nearby. 

The portrayal of this decadent but hard-working summer, and all of Rachel's feelings of relief and delight followed by envy and suspicion, is interspersed with scenes from the present day, where she seems to lead exactly the kind of dull, lonely life she was so desperate to escape. And it is very clear that something went very badly wrong in Florence, which had implications for decades to come. Like Rachel, I studied French and Italian at Cambridge at about the same time, and I thought Barber really captured the essence of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Like in The Caretakers, the themes of belonging and identity while living away from home came through strongly. It all gets a little bit out there towards the end, but despite the unlikeability of pretty much all the characters, Out of Her Depth was a real page-turner.

4. Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho. The titular characters of Jean Chen Ho's warm, witty and keenly observed novel are Taiwanese-American young women growing up in LA. Fiona and Jane have been best friends since childhood, and they take turns to narrate a series of vignettes that document, among other things, their friendship, their sexuality, their love and heartbreak, and their identity as women and as Asian Americans, as they grow up and grow apart. Fiona and Jane feels a little disjointed at times, with its overlapping, non-linear timeline — just as if you were to catch up with a dear friend you don't see very often, you wouldn't expect a chronological update of everything that had happened since the last time you were together. But I felt this only added to the novel's intimacy and irreverence, as we drop in and out of moments and experiences throughout the lives of Fiona and Jane.

5. The Maid by Nita Prose. When a wealthy, high-profile guest is found dead in his suite at the Regency Grand Hotel, attention soon turns to Molly, the maid who was responsible for cleaning his room. Molly had always relied on her beloved grandmother to help her decode social cues and understand why people act the way they do. (Some reviews have described Molly as neurodivergent, although Molly doesn't describe herself as such, and nor do the other characters, although their responses are filtered to us through Molly's perspective.) But since Gran's death, she has been on her own and must now try to find a way to work out what really happened and who was really responsible — before it's too late. Molly is used to being "invisible in plain sight" (as Prose puts it) and with the spotlight suddenly on her, her behaviours and reactions come under increasing scrutiny. The Maid tests the limits of plausibility at times (not least in terms of the extremely short timeframe of the events depicted) but is a gripping, cleverly plotted novel with a unique protagonist whom I enjoyed getting to know.

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