The Gift of New Beginnings and Hard Choices – Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

There is a reason this book is on the tip of everyone’s tongue when they talk about the 2017 books to read.  It is simply excellent.  Ng’s sophomore novel is just as good as her first – and if you haven’t read “Everything I Never Told” then you have two books for your Thanksgiving reading list. 34273236.jpg

By all societal measures, the Richardson family is perfect. The attorney husband, the reporter wife (Elena), the two sons and two daughters nestled in their beautiful, well-manicured home in the carefully planned and civic-minded community of Shaker Heights.  Mia and Pearl, the Richardson’s new tenants, are the antithesis of the Richardson family. They are constantly on the move. Mia takes part-time jobs to sustain her art and Pearl is dragged along trying to find where she fits in each new school. They do not own a couch or two beds, their home furnishing are as impermanent as Mia’s artistic creations.

Despite their differences, at first the families seem to be a good fit in many respects.  Elena (Mrs. Richardson) hires Mia to clean their house and make dinner and Pearl becomes a fixture in the Richardson children’s lives. In a turn of heartbreak, when Elena’s life-long infertile caucasian friends move to adopt a Chinese baby, Mia quickly discovers that she works with the birth mother at a Chinese restaurant. The birth mother who has now realized that leaving her baby at a fire station was the worst mistake of her life.  This begins a legal battle between the birth mother and the adoptive parents splitting the town itself with the question of what makes a good mother? As the legal battle begins to pull Elena and Mia further apart, Elena makes the decision to find out about Mia’s history and this leads her down a path that results in a bitter end for absolutely everyone.

The question of motherhood and what makes us good mothers is a thread through-out this book. Is it the willingness to give up the things we most want for our children? Is it the simple act of giving life and sharing our genetic codes and ethnic backgrounds? Is it the financial ability to give the child the best life opportunities? Is it understanding we are not yet ready to be a mother and making the ultimate sacrifice of  giving up the child or ending the pregnancy?  Is it understanding that you are first a self-determined woman and then a mother or vice versa?

Ng examines each of these possibilities, while at the same time looking at how we plan our lives and how even the best plans are often extremely flawed.  There is an actual fire in the beginning and end of this story so the title is literal in that sense.  But Ng’s writing really pushes the edges of our planned lives to the brink of those moments when we pretend that everything is okay when really there are small fires to be put out everywhere we turn.  And sometimes those fires are exactly what we need to wake us up.

“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”

 

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November 21, 2017 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

The End of the Affair and the beginning of another – “Before We were Yours” and “Column of Fire”

It is inevitable. You have a writer you love and you look forward to their new works in that nerdy breathy way we crazy readers do. And then the new book falls a bit flat and you start to reassess your reader-to-writer relationship.  Was it really love? Was I crazy? Should we have broken up sooner?

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I am afraid this is where I am with Ken Follett’s newest book “A Column of Fire.” Now don’t get me wrong, a writer who can spend 800 pages writing about the construction of a cathedral and make it dramatic and engaging is brilliant. So, Follett will always have my love for that.  But this third installment in the Kingsbridge series just didn’t hold me in the same way.  Even setting the book during the rein of Bloody Mary and Elizabeth the First didn’t keep me interested.  Which is impressive because the Tudors hold my interest in the way that many folks love the Real Housewives shows – it is a rich, bloody, back-stabbing mess.  I have thought long and hard about what this book was missing and for me I think it was character connection.  It was clear who the protagonists were but I wasn’t wildly rooting for them.  This left their destinies a bit uninteresting for me.  I guess for me Ned Willard can’t hold a candle to Jack and perhaps therein lies the rub.  If you have traveled this far with Kingsbridge this book is still worth the read but I just don’t think it holds up quite as well as the other two.

This leads me to my new love affair with Lisa Wingate the author of “Before We were Yours.” This is another historical fiction book set on the Mississippi River in the late 1930s.   It focuses on the illegal kidnapping of hundreds of children by Georgia Tann who ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage in Memphis.  Wingate has used fictional children and families to illustrate the destruction that Georgia Tann wrought on low income families and single mothers for more than 20 years. In a time when adoption records were sealed and with powerful judges, doctors, and police officers receiving kickbacks and bribes from Tann, families who lost their children to the orphanage were powerless to recover them.  While many of these children were adopted by families of better financial means this did not keep them safe from abuse, neglect and

Unknown-2.jpegin some cases death.   Perhaps some of the most famous cases of such abusive adoptions were those of movie stars June Allyson and  Joan Crawford (Mommy dearest anyone?) who both adopted children from Tann.

Wingate’s story is beautifully woven regardless of the harrowing historical backdrop.  She uses the strong unbreakable ties of siblings and the importance of  the need to feel rooted in who we truly are to carry the characters through decades of loss, change and then renewal.  Her ability to set the stage for the reader with her descriptions and a strong sense of place seemed to imply that the places we surround ourselves with are just as important as the people that surround us.  Our sense of place (the water we played in as children, the porch we sat on, the tree we climbed, the flowers we always smelled in the Spring) is a part of who we are just as much as family – and recovering both can be enormously healing.

While I did struggle a bit with part of the modern day story line that is interwoven with the past, Wingate’s writing was strong enough to pull it off.  And strong enough to make me wonder what else has this Wingate written and why is our relationship just starting?

I guess the long and short of it is, I am quite fickle in my author love affairs and I am always happy to be swept off my feet by a new author.   Now I am back with a newish-old love, Celeste Ng, and so far her second book is living up to all the hype.

November 10, 2017 at 2:47 pm 4 comments

Hopefully the first and only suspense novel you have read – “The Breakdown” by B.A. Paris

Let me begin at the beginning. I did not love “Behind Close Doors” which was B.A. Paris’s previous book. It was fun and that was enough to carry me through to the end. So I was not completely smitten with her writing to begin with.  But all of that said what the hell was this book “The Breakdown”?

To clarify, if you have never read a suspense book before, never seen the movie “Gaslight,” have been living in a cave or have been raised by wolves and have just learned to read, then this may very well be the book for you. And in that case, please enjoy.  However, if you actually enjoy the suspense genre, go and see a movie now and then, and engage in general society then I challenge you to not figure out the twist of this story within 10 pages.  I have laid down a fairly easy gauntlet, I promise you.

The combination of the riddle being so easily solved and how actually unlikable and whiny the main character is makes this book even more disastrous.  Our simpering, pill-popping heroine is just too much to bear and quite frankly I felt at times sympathetic to the alleged stalker who was messing with her sanity.

In sad news,Unknown-1.jpeg I read the entire book because I was hoping that my initial thought was wrong and perhaps Paris had a different plan – pssst, I was mistakenly hopeful.  As an added insult to reading injury, when the story reveals itself you then get to read a lot of pages about how the evil doer(s) plan unfolds. Just in case you, dear reader, are that stupid and can’t figure it out for yourself.

No, I did not give you a synopsis of this story because well, that seems to be wasted time. But do, watch “Gaslight” – it is a wonderful old movie and really the same story.  On the reading front, if you want to read an interesting suspense novel both Karin Slaughter’s “The Good Daughter” and Ali Land’s “Good Me, Bad Me” are certainly worth your time.

And for the time being, I am wondering if I should challenge myself to read my unread books sitting on countless shelves and surfaces around my house.  But then again, Alice Hoffman has a new book out that may be calling my name…

 

October 22, 2017 at 10:03 pm Leave a comment

Crazy Lady Brains are Always Trouble – “The Address” by Fiona Davis

I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.  It was an interesting look at the history (through fiction) of the famous New York city Dakota building – which is well known for being the place where John Lennon was shot, where famous people like 500px-Dakota_Building.JPGLauren Bacall lived and where parts of “Rosemary’s Baby” was filmed.

This book, like many as of late, cuts back and forth chapter by chapter between the presentish* (1980)  and the past.  In 1884, Sara Smythe travels from Ireland to run the staff at the newly built  Dakota.  So in the pieces of the past, Sara  finds herself struggling with class, understanding how the nouveau rich work, while also trying to manage her feelings for the married architect of the Dakota, Theodore Camden.

A century later, Bailey finds herself freshly out of rehab after too many nights living like a scene out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.  She is out of a work interior designer, homeless and unsure if her sobriety will stick.  Her last hope is her wealthy cousin Melinda, who has inherited an apartment in the Dakota from her grandfather Theodore Camden (see the connection).  Melinda is quite excited to hire Bailey to oversee the modernizing of her apartment  – though Melinda’s vision has all of the amazing decor touches that so many of us are happy were left in the 80s (think pink bathrooms sinks and decorative bamboo).   As Bailey reluctantly helps Melinda achieve her decorating vision, Bailey begins to learn more through boxes and archives about Theodore Camden and the  woman who eventually was accused of murdering him, *insert dramatic music here* Sara Smythe .
The twists and turns are somewhat predictable but not painfully so.  There is a lot here about class and what society did with women who did not follow the rules.  Davis did her homework here and incorporates in her story the cutting-edge journalism that really helped reform the New York asylums and treatment of women in the 1880s.  She makes it clear that if a woman was too smart for her own good she would be punished severely and for the right amount of money you could make her disappear.

Davis also touches on how America really was meant to be a place where you weren’t born into society but, instead, you actually could climb the societal ladder – but then it became a place that was turning itself inside out to create the very nobility it had wanted to leave behind.   She touches on some tender parts of who we are as a country and where this seems to have led us.

This is not a deep book, but it is interesting with enough historical pieces to make it thoughtful and enough compelling story to make it fun.   It also makes me eternally grateful that asylums for sassy women are a thing of the past because sometimes I do use my lady brain too much.

 

*As an aside, I know presentish is not a word but shouldn’t it be?

September 28, 2017 at 8:33 pm Leave a comment

Lots of time to read this weekend? I have ideas…

These types of weekends are usually time for me to catch up with friends but also, being the bookish introvert that I am, I need lots of time to curl up and read.  If you find yourself with some time for the latter here are some reads I have really enjoyed lately. They might be good ones to add to that pile on that table right next to you (you know the pile).

  1. “The Little French Bistro” by Nina George – this book is just lovely, not amazing, not a pulitzer, but really a tribute to many middle-aged women, that either by choice or by circumstance, have to reinvent their lives.  After forty years of marriage, Marianne gets up from a dinner in Paris with her self-absorbed husband and walks out.  She finds herself, after a few misadventures, in Brittany. There is the quirky cast of characters, the beautiful setting and great food.  This is a quick read that leaves you wanting to go to Brittany but I settled and had a glass of wine while I read it instead.
  2. “The Girls” by Emma Cline – For quite some time I have been weirdly fascinated by the Mason Clan and cults in general.  I don’t mean that I am fascinated with the bloodshed part but more about that thing in a person that has to be broken for them to end up in a cult. It has to be the right mix of brokenness, masterminding, and timing – and it oddly happens so frequently.  Cline in “The Girls” tries her hand at a fictional telling of something similar to what happened with Mason and his followers.  It was truly well done, though disturbing.  And I may have accidentally read it in a day and a half.
  3. Red Queen” by Victoria Aveyard-  I landed on this book because my friend suggested I read the “Red Queen” and I got the wrong book.  That said my accidental science fiction young adult reading was pretty fun.  This is really a new twist on the whole the main character is a strong young woman who thinks she is ordinary but she isn’t thing that we all have become very familiar with.  It is simple, quick and fun.  My one warning is it leads you into reading the next book which is absolutely awful. So just be prepared to either not really know what happens to the characters or know you will have to go on to read a really terrible book. You have been warned.
  4. If you are looking for a good suspense book I have a few I have liked recently – “The Perfect Stranger” by Megan Miranda, “The Child” by Fiona Barton, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” by Karen Dione.  The last one being my favorite, Dione’s first book is really well crafted.

On my reading list this weekend,  I need to finish “The Sinner” by Petra Hammesfahr (which is pretty bizarre so far) so I can somehow excuse buying Karin Slaughter’s new book. I guess I really should read the other 50 books I have on my “to read” stack already but what’s the fun in that?

Happy Labor Day weekend my fellow readers!images-1.jpeg

September 1, 2017 at 3:44 pm 1 comment

A little July 4th reading round-up

Maybe like me you are lucky enough to have  four days off for the July 4th holiday.   Which in my case has meant a party with lots of wonderful friends and family, some elder flower-lemonade with gin (highly recommend), and porch reading time.  Though admittedly, for this delicate flower it is a bit warm today so I am slumming in the air-conditioned house.
If you find yourself with a little reading time here is a list of some good reads that pair well with parades, fireworks and needing some alone time after all of that noise:

  1. “Since We Fell” by Dennis Lehane – This book has been on every “highly anticipated book” list I have seen so I bit and bought it.  It is a really fun suspense novel.  There is some predictability here but that really didn’t ruin the read for me.  Like many of his other books, I would not be surprised if this is already in line for a movie.  It is something that will hold your attention even while parade folks are throwing tootsie rolls at you.
  2. ” Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House” by Alyssa Mastromonaco – Alyssa was the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations in the Obama White House.  This book is also truly a blast.  Alyssa is funny and witty. Her stories about trying to find tampons in the White House, wearing jeans to meet the Queen, and a rather unfortunate IBS incident before meeting the Pope all made my life seem pretty organized and low in unfortunate moments (which is weird because I have plenty). What I also enjoyed was some of the insight into what goes into the day-to-day operations of being POTUS.  I listened to this on Audible and Alyssa reads the book so I think that made the experience even better.
  3. “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger – Junger is an award winning journalist who spends time in this book looking at PTSD and how our lack of community is making our sense of reentry from crisis (be it war-torn areas or serving in the military) impossible to do in a psychological healthy way.  No, this is not a summer romp, but in a time where it just feels like our country is becoming more and more polarized I think our loss of community is really an important issue to start talking about.
  4. “Today Will be Different” by Maria Semple – This book made me laugh, a lot. The books starts with Eleanor proclaiming to herself that today she will do all the things she should – work-out, shower and get dressed, initiate sex with her husband, not swear, she will really get it together.  But then life, as it often does, seems to make even those simple things very, very complicated.    This is a light, fast read and honestly, has so many goofy, relatable moments.
  5. “Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins – Like “Girl on the Train,” Hawkins plays with our notion of truth and perception.  Women keep drowning in a river that runs through a small English town.  The question is why this keeps happening.  The story is told from several different prospectives which keeps it moving forward, though keeps the water just muddy enough (see what I did there) that you can’t really figure out where the story is going.  I find Hawkins to be a good story teller though her writing does belabor a bit.  Ultimately, the story makes it worthwhile.

 

Alright reading friends.  I wish you fun holiday times and lots of quiet reading moments as well.   I have the tough decision of what to read next from the book pile. I know, my life is so hard…and yes, there is a Philippa Gregory in the pile – don’t judge. 19720273_10154618164001367_284443779_o.jpg

July 3, 2017 at 6:15 pm Leave a comment

Let’s all go to Tuscany, shall we? – “My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

I cannot say enough about how much I loved this book.  It is just…well, lovely.  As always Smith has such a style that  makes me walk away feeling lighter and happier.  His writing is not shallow but it has a quality that allows him to address some fairly tough things with self-effacing humor and perspective which, if we are honest, is something we could all use a lot more of in our lives.

We meet Paul Stewart, a writer of famous lifestyle-foodie books, at the point of his life where he finds himself alone after a four year relationship has ended. It seems his girlfriend, Becky, enjoyed her work-outs with her personal trainer a bit too much and has left him for work-outs of an even more personal kind.  Paul with the help of his editor, Gloria, decides that the best way to move-on is to head to the small Tuscan town of Montalcino and finish his latest book about food in Tuscany.

After landing in Pisa, with a few mishaps (including a brief stay in prison), Paul finds himself in need of a rental car with none available.  Luckily, he finally finds a vehicle.  So, of course, Paul heads to Montalcino in his rented bulldozer.  Yes, even he admits it is ridiculous. Unknown-1.jpeg

Paul then spends  his time in Montalcino writing and meeting the quirky locals – the local wine-maker who is depressed about land borders, the local school principal who is spending his summer reading the paper at the local cafe and judging the youth who walk by, the hotel proprietor who knows everything about everyone.

This story is not brilliant in and of itself but it is the experience of reading at its best.  Everything Paul sees and eats and experiences you long to be a part of.  I am bound and determined to get to Montalcino and eat their mushrooms, drink their wine and stare out on the countryside while I write my world-renowned books. Okay so the last part about writing not reasonable but the rest can happen.   You also love all of the characters because they are just the kind of people you want to meet on vacation so you have stories to tell later.  I was sad when I had met all of the characters and was coming to the last few pages.

I read somewhere that Smith’s books are palate cleansers because they are light and easy reads.  This is an underestimation of what Smith does.  His books feel like palate cleansers because he writes deftly and doesn’t need a lot of heavy plotting and escapades to make his stories beautiful.  Whether he is writing about Botswana or Scotland or Italy, he clearly understand people and culture in way that brings the reader along.  He has a humor in a lot of his writing that matches P.G. Wodehouse wit for wit but never in a way that feels too snarky.

I also read a review of Smith in the Times that said that he writes books as easily as baking a cake because he writes so many.  The best part of this for readers is that means getting through all of his books will take some time.  And it is always time well spent.

Now all of that said, where shall we stay in Tuscany?

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June 11, 2017 at 6:45 pm Leave a comment

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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