LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

This book is impossible to dislike but neither did it ignite a burning blaze. Rather, like hot buttered toast, it’s comforting, easy to digest and not overly sweet.  Every so often it gets a bit edgy but that soon passes and the overall effect is of having spent a good amount of time alone and peacefully curled up in snug armchair.

Ng’s story is located in the planned community of Shaker Heights, where most people fall into the category of organised, happy achievers. For those who don’t, life is a bit of a strain. One such misfit is Izzy Richardson, who is in constant conflict with her sunny blessed siblings and successful parents. When the Richardson family take on new tenants for the little cottage they own across town, Izzy finds a sympathetic ear in the new arrival to town, Mia, a nomadic artist and bohemian thinker. Meanwhile, Mia’s daughter, Pearl, strikes up a close friendship with the Richardson’s youngest son, Moody, whilst harbouring a crush on the older Trip.

Into this mix is thrown a moral dilemma that divides the usually united Shaker Heights community – a young Chinese single mother abandons her baby one night and the child is handed to a wealthy doting couple, lifelong friends of the Richardsons  and who have been desperately trying for a baby for decades. But then the birth mother, who works with Mia waitressing in a takeaway, changes her mind and the case ends up in court. Running parallel to this narrative is a thread about a pregnant teenager and another about Mia’s past and how she got pregnant with Pearl. These two stories are presented as raising equally complex ethical questions but really they don’t – they are about society’s moral standards and the way those too often lead to shame and secrecy. Who should have custody of the abandoned baby is much less clear and Ng explores the many angles to the arguments with compassion and sensitivity.

It’s all a little laboured and obvious, as are the burning fire motifs and themes like control of ones destiny and regret. I didn’t care deeply for any of the characters or feel strongly about what they were going through. Nor have their experiences stuck firmly in my memory – though the abruptness of the ending has done. But this lack of strong feelings is rather soothing. So too is being slowly carried along on the gentle virtuous undulations of LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. My overall verdict: Perfectly lovely while it lasted but definitely now time to move onto something else.

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THE INVISIBLE ONES by Stef Penney

“A scared young girl, a reluctant wife. A woman who’s been made to disappear.”

That’s what’s emblazoned on the cover of THE INVISIBLE ONES to tempt you in. Oddly enough it utterly fails to capture my experience of the book, which I read on my Kindle and therefore didn’t see the sleeve until just now, searching for the image above. Like Penney’s huge bestseller, THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, this is a mystery but unlike that book it’s set just a couple of decades ago and on the Traveller and Gypsy sites of Britain. Ray Lovell is a private detective hired to find the whereabouts of a young girl, Rose Janko, who has not been seen by her parents or siblings since her wedding to Ivo. Rumour has it that she ran off not long afterwards with a gorgio, but her father isn’t convinced.

Told through two alternating narratives, that of Ray and that of JJ who is Ivo’s nephew, THE INVISIBLE ONES takes a bit of time to get going and contains far too many unnecessary plot diversions to be really successful as a thrilling mystery novel. JJ’s insight into life as a Gypsy and the social exclusion he experiences is touching but doesn’t feel that convincing, whilst his angst about the identify of his father and what his family members might be capable of was badly overdone. Likewise, Ray’s own story isn’t substantial enough to make him stand out as anything other than a vehicle for the truth to be revealed – he’s barely more than two dimensional and giving him a love interest in the Janko family fell a bit flat for me.

All that said, this isn’t a bad book. Penney can definitely write and THE INVISIBLE ONES both held my attention and evoked my sympathy. But as the slightly off kilter words on the cover suggest, this is either a book that is neither quite one thing or another – or one that is trying to be something which it’s not. To sum up: not a patch on THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES.

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HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie

This book hit me hard. It’s honest, uncomfortable, deeply moving and hurtles towards an ending that both shocked and surprised me.

Twins Aneeka and Parvaiz are at the heart of the story, which revolves around him departing London to work for an Isis media team and her starting up a relationship with the Home Secretary’s son, Eamonn, in a bid to help her brother return home when he realises what he’s got himself into. Also in the mix is their older sister Isma, who herself meets and falls for Eamonn whilst studying overseas and is inadvertently the cause of his path crossing that of Aneeka. Isma incurs her sister’s wrath when she tells the authorities of Parvaiz’s whereabouts and the two fall out, setting in motion a chain of events that sees Aneeka travel to the other side of the world to save her brother.

Essentially a story about whether family matters more than anything else, it comes alive through rich characterisation and a slow but inexorable building of tension. Each  family member is torn in different directions by the pull that religion, sacrifice, ambition and loyalty exert and the overall effect is a searingly candid portrait of a slice of modern Britain. Shamsie really gets under the skin of her protagonists and I appreciated how Parvaiz is neither demonised or let off the hook. Eamonn’s father is a particular triumph – a man who has risen in politics by turning his back on what he defines as the Islam of the past and demanding the very highest standards of himself and his family, who he knows will always be the focus of suspicion, never really part of the establishment.  All their stories beg the question how much does the past shape our presents, and all celebrate the enduring power of love.

Long listed for the Booker prize, pretty much every review will tell you this is a rewrite of the Greek myth of Antigone. If you don’t know how that goes, don’t look it up before you read HOME FIRE – it will spoil things for you and, believe me,  you don’t want to spoil a book this good.

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THE MANDIBLES by Lionel Shriver

It’s 2029. There’s a Latino in the White House and Putin is still ruling Russia. The dollar is about to become worth less than the paper it’s printed on. Families like the Mandibles, who have accumulated wealth from one generation to the next, and along with it a sense of security and entitlement, now find themselves facing a new financial and social reality. One which requires them to battle simply to survive in an America that’s become even more competitive, brutal and violent than they could imagine.

Shriver’s writing is, as usual, blistering and unflinching. Her comedy is dark and the satire just brilliant – take one Mandible mother, trying to be modern, fresh and quirky, who gifts her sons the names Goog (for Google) and Bing.  The premise is that the future  everyone expected is one big practical joke and the nightmare future she has created  to replace it is both credible and terrifying. Hiding gold is treason. Homeless shelters overflow. Supermarket shelves are regularly empty and inflation out of control. From details like a return to printed bank statements (“So history could reverse” observes one character) and the daily rituals of first saving water then having to scour the streets for old fabric to turn into reusable toilet paper, this is large scale social breakdown told through the every day small things.

The younger generation and the drop outs adapt most easily but by 2047 a new kind of economy has emerged to replace the old one – one in which it’s clear they are going to have to shoulder most of the burden of supporting their parents and grandparents. Their resentment at having to work three jobs, paying 77% tax to meet the costs of elderly social care, and filling the gaps previously plugged by immigrant workers is palpable. The concept of free time laughable.  Leaving not an option when your chipped. No wonder the Utopian myth that is Nevada, the state that chose to leave the US almost as soon as the shit started hitting the fan, persists.

Some of Shriver’s previous books have failed to live up to the high of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN but this is her back up there.  She hasn’t shied away from doing the economics thoroughly and she’s got every little thing right – from the throw away lines about the Chelsea Clinton administration to the way slang has evolved. From the way that food evolves from being a style and life choice for the “watercress and wasabi” set to something that prompts former hedge fund managers to mug their neighbours at knife point – superior quality designer kitchen knives, of course. From the practical uselessness of the jobs most of the Mandibles do to the astute characterisation of every family member – from eccentric, canny Enola, for whom no amount of economic chaos can detract from the importance of doing her daily jumping jacks at the ripe old age of 80 and beyond, to thoughtful teenager Willing who quickly grasps that his beloved dog needs to be given away before the family can no longer feed him and just as quickly learns to steal, lie and wield a gun.

I loved this dark dystopian novel. And it’s definitely made me think twice about what’s valuable now compared to when everything does go belly up. Basically, stock pile loo roll, grow your own food and don’t bother with a pension.

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OLD MAN’S WAR series by John Scalzi

There are 6 books in this series and OLD MAN’S WAR (the original) is easily the best. I liked ZOE’S TALE a lot too.  They are set in a future where numerous other planets in this and other universes are being colonised, both by humans and by other intelligent species. People from earth who have reached old age have the option of going into space to be part of the military forces trying to ensure the most habitable planets are taken by humans, with those who volunteer being promised a chance to getting old but also relinquishing the right ever to return home. Rumours abound about how they will be equipped to fight and the chances are survival. However, none of what they hear really prepares John Perry and the six other recruits that are the focus of this first book for the reality of life in the Colonial Defence Forces, the new genetically engineered and enhanced bodies they are given or the brutality of the space wars into which they are thrown headfirst.

OLD MAN’S WAR has a good balance between sci fi and big battles and the human elements of the story, such as the relationship between the six who dub themselves the Old Farts. The later books didn’t always get this balance right for me and whilst I appreciated learning about the different species competing with the human race, some of that was a bit laboured at times. I read all the books in quick succession too, and a couple in the wrong order too, which was a bit confusing! As with all good science fiction, Scalzi’s novels raises some interesting questions throughout, including about what seems to be the greedy, arrogant default  nature of the human race, what constitutes self, the value of consciousness, and the role of memories. I felt a little lost when I came to the end of the series but then saw a trailer for a new Netlflix series called Lost in Space, which I suspect will help. Netflix have apparently also bought up the rights to OLD MAN’S WAR and are planning a film so there’s that to look forward to as well….

If you love all things Star Trek, Star Wars or Red Mars, you’ll devour these books just as I did.

OLD MAN’S WAR, THE GHOST BRIGADES, THE LAST COLONY, ZOE’S TALE, THE HUMAN DIVISION, THE END OF ALL THINGS

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ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews

I’d been warned this book was upsetting and it definitely was. How could it not be when Elf is intent on killing herself and her sister, Yoli, is intent on stopping her? What I wasn’t prepared for was how funny it is in places, how bitter sweet and how it would totally change my perspective on suicide.

Elf is a successful pianist with a loving husband called Nick and her sister adores her. But Elf just doesn’t want to live. A fast approaching world tour precipitates her latest suicide attempt which sees Yoli rush to her side, along with their mother and Nick. The envelop Elf in their love and care but, as the story unfolds, Yoli is forced to confront the idea that what Elf needs more than anything is to be allowed to die. She researches the possibility of taking her to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, wrestles with whether to tell the rest of the family and makes promises to Elf that she’s still not sure she can keep. Yoli is also making plans to bring her sister home, let her sit and just be and Elf knows this, so is making plans of her own.

It was clear from the outset this book was not going to end happily and yet when it did end as expected I was happy for Elf. What Toews has done is convey just how hard life is if you truly want to die. How the feelings of those anchoring you to life can matter hugely but still not be enough to keep you alive. And how sometimes nothing, not even love, is enough. That’s not something I am prepared to hear very often. Last year, someone I knew – not well but who was loved by a dear friend of mine – killed herself. Reading ALL MY PUNY SORROWS has helped me better understand why she did and to even admire her for her bravery.

Toews own sister killed herself and much of the book is close to her own experiences, including of growing up as a Mennonite. She’s depicted a childhood that’s fizzing with laughter, rich with community and full of love. As an adult, Elf appears to have it all whilst by contrast Yoli’s life is messy and unfulfilled. This messiness provides much of the book’s lightness, as do her tales of a sister who is strong willed, passionate and never does things by halves – as I said, the outcome is inevitable. And yet Toews taps into what most of us would experience in Yoli’s shoes – a blind faith that things are going to turn out differently, against all the evidence and all the odds. It’s this which is both a source of joy in the novel and of sadness. It also means the book doesn’t read as the story of Elf’s death but rather as the story of her life. Far better than the A COMPLICATED KINDNESS, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS spoke to me in all sorts of ways and I hope it might speak to you too.

 

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WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Mary-Lynn Bracht

Switching between Korea in 1942, in the throes of  and South Korea in 2011, this is the story of two sisters, separated one fateful day on a beach.

Hana is the eldest, a haneyo – female sea diver – who surfaces from the ocean one afternoon to see a Japanese soldier heading along the sand in the direction of her younger sister Emi. Without a thought, the teenager swims to shore to intervene and so begins her capture and life as a “comfort woman”. Taken far away from her family, she is repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers, one of whom, Morimoto, decides he wants her as his wife. Hana forms strong bonds with the other girls and women that surround her but it’s memories of home and the thought of escaping and being reunited with her family, that get her through and day each night. When a chance of freedom presents itself, she grabs it with both hands, despite the huge risks, only to fall into the hands of yet more men whose motives and morals she does not understand.

As a 60 year old, Emi is still coming to terms with the guilt of being left behind and still searching for the sister she lost. She has two children of her own and slowly the story of their father emerges, highlighting another aspect of the war between Korea and Japan. Emi goes each year to Seoul to join a march that remembers the “comfort women”. The visit brings back many painful memories of hurt, which though less physical than that endured by her sister, are nonetheless keenly felt. In fact one of the most powerful aspects of this book is how Bracht captures the grief and loss each of her characters feels.

I found Hana’s story most compelling – and most harrowing – but Emi’s is perhaps the sadder. Both evoke anger and deep sadness, as well as illustrating how the past affects the present. Emi’s relationships with her own children, for example, are shaped in many complicated ways by her feelings about her sister disappearance and the aftermath, including how her own parents responded.

I already knew a little about the war between Japan and Korea and the treatment of the comfort women, which seems in many ways to be the story of legions of women in wars not of their making. But WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM brought it all too life for me, often painfully. This is a book that made me openly weep on a number of occasions so be warned. But it’s also so much more than a story of women as victims. It’s also about women as survivors, the way we connect with others, find hope in the darkest of situations and forge new presents that bring in the light. A beautiful and moving book that I would thoroughly recommend.

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