Solo Lisa Reads: December 2020

Covers of December 2020 recommended reads including Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella, The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons, Eighty Days to Elsewhere by KC Dyer, Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell'Antonia, Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao, and Dear Justyce by Nic Stone

We're now in the lull between Christmas and New Year's where we have no idea what time it is, let alone what day it is. So what better time is there than now to get lost in a book? Reading was one of the few bright spots in a bizarre and difficult 2020 (there were many moments where I was intensely thankful for my Kobo reader and OverDrive access via the Vancouver Public Library), so it seems fitting that I close out the year with one more book review round-up and 9 new recommendations. Fingers crossed that 2021 is kinder to us all.

1. Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella

In the age of online dating apps and algorithms that can pre-screen romantic prospects based on the tiniest things, is it better to know everything at the start or nothing at all? That's the question posed by Sophie Kinsella's latest rom-com. Aspiring novelist Ava is on a writer's retreat in Italy where she's not allowed to share any details from her personal life, including her name. She goes by "Aria," and while there, she meets and clicks with handsome "Dutch" (whose real name is Matt). Aria and Dutch fall madly in love over a whirlwind couple of weeks, but when they both return to London and their real lives as Ava and Matt, they discover much to their dismay that they don't have very much in common...and that's when the real laughs of the book begin.

2. The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons

This book's premise reminded me of an Albus Dumbledore quote from Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone: "To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure." Eudora has lived what she views as a very full life, and at 85, she'd rather take control of her death instead of suffering the indignities of old age. While putting her affairs in order and planning for her end at a Swiss clinic, she befriends the 10-year-old girl next door, Rose Trewidney. Rose's friendship opens a whole new world for Eudora and helps her realize that perhaps she has some living left to do after all. This is a cozy, heartfelt novel about a touching inter-generational relationship, second chances, and the power of kindness.

3. Eighty Days to Elsewhere by KC Dyer

The premise of this book is deliriously fun, especially if you're a travel-loving book nerd. Romy has never left her hometown of New York City and spends her days working at her uncles' used bookstore. But when the landlord raises the rent to an impossible sum, Romy finds herself leaving her sheltered life behind to compete for a dream job with an even dreamier salary, money which she hopes will save the bookstore from closing. The job? With ExLibris Expeditions, a bespoke travel company that arranges luxury experiences for rich clients inspired by their favourite books. The interview? A round-the-world trip to create an itinerary inspired by Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. The catch? There's a handsome rival competing for the same job. One of the things I miss most about my pre-pandemic life is travelling (I've basically stayed in Vancouver all year aside from a long weekend in Tofino), and reading about Romy making her way from one exotic locale to the next really scratched that itch.

4. Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein

If COVID-19 hadn't happened, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would've gone on as planned; that's the alternate universe that Orenstein's novel about the world of competitive gymnastics occupies. Avery was once a star gymnast and national team hopeful, but a disastrous accident at her Olympic trials put an end to her career. Now in her 20s, unemployed, and floundering after a humiliating break-up, Avery has returned to her hometown to start fresh, working at her old gym and teaming up with a former crush to coach a promising young gymnast. Orenstein herself did competitive gymnastics for many years, which shows in her attention to detail and all the shop-talk, but at the same time she makes this niche world accessible for the uninitiated.

5. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

At 16, beautiful identical twin sisters Stella and Desiree Vignes run away from their small southern hometown to start new lives in New Orleans. As a light-skinned Black woman, Stella decides to pass as white and runs away, cutting off all ties with her sister and family. Desiree, who still identifies as Black and rebels against the colourism of her hometown's townsfolk, marries a dark-skinned Black man and gives birth to a daughter; the marriage goes south and she and her daughter go home to live with her mother. These decisions have a ripple effect for years to come, over multiple generations, in a story that goes from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s. This is a beautifully told and unforgettable novel about the face we show the world and the facets we choose to hide, about the ugly decisions that somehow also feel inevitable when the system wears you down. It deserves all the accolades.

6. The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

Combine a hunting lodge in the Scottish highlands, a group of posh London friends with seething resentments, and a fateful New Year's Eve trip gone awry. What do you get? A murder mystery reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. I don't know what's more fun: the setting (again, the wanderlust in me wishes I were in Scotland right now), or how Foley's skillful storytelling will have you guessing the identities of both the murderer and the victim until the very end.

7. The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell'Antonia

Evidently I've been watching too many Anthony Bourdain and David Chang shows on streaming, because the first things that drew me to this novel were the fried chicken and the small-town Kansas setting. In Merinac, Kansas, Chicken Mimi's and Chicken Frannie's—purportedly started by feuding sisters over a hundred years ago—have been rivals for as long as the townsfolk can remember. But when Food Wars, a reality TV restaurant competition show, comes to town to film both chicken shacks, the stakes go way up, especially with a $100,000 prize up for grabs and a new generation of feuding sisters helming the competition on both sides. This latest Reese's Book Club pick is as feel-good as it gets.

8. Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao

Gloria Chao's latest novel is based on a recent phenomenon in Asia: Young women renting fake boyfriends to take home on Lunar Near Year, in the hopes that it'll get meddlesome relatives off their backs and silence the "When are you going to find a boyfriend/get married?" inquiries. Except in this case, the setting is California (where there's a sizable Asian-American population) and the renting is done through an app, Rent For Your 'Rents. Chloe Wang rents Drew Chan to impress her traditional Taiwanese parents over Thanksgiving weekend, passing him off as a University of Chicago pre-med student with wealthy surgeon parents. The truth is, Drew is a college dropout and aspiring artist who's currently estranged from his family because of his life choices, and he's doing Rent For Your 'Rents to make ends meet. What will happen when Chloe and Drew start falling for each other for real and the truth comes out? You'll have to read and see.

9. Dear Justyce by Nic Stone

You don't have to read Dear Martin to enjoy Stone's follow-up novel, which deftly explores how systemic pressures cause a promising young Black man to become incarcerated for a murder charge. In flashbacks and letters written to former classmate Justyce McAllister, Vernell LaQuan Banks (or "Quan") reflects on the circumstances that led him to where he is today: an unstable home life, a lack of support in school, poverty, a yearning for family and acceptance that leads him to crime. The book really picks up when Quan and Justyce (now pre-law at Yale) connect and there's a chance Quan can go free. Quan's narrative voice is so vibrant it leaps off the page. There are so many aspects of Quan's story that will tug at your heartstrings, but what's most heartbreaking is the one thing Stone took fictional liberties with: The amazing support system Quan has when he's incarcerated is a far cry from what's available in reality.

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