Category Archives: drama

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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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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THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen

I have been looking at this book for some time and for some reason it always felt like it was going to be hard work, so I put off reading it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Lambert family are a joy to read about. From stubborn, principled Alfred and his wife,  Enid, for whom life’s highlights are weddings and Christmas, to their 3 children – angry Gary, loser Chip and striving Denise.  The joy is because of course, there’s so much more to all of them than I can possibly convey here.

Indeed everything about this book is big, epic even – from landscapes traversed by railroads to ideas and theories. Its  geographical heart is the mid West of America, taking in Lithuania and New York en route. It encompasses dodgy pharmaceutical corporations, celebrity restaurants, the internet sale of most of Vilnius, philanthropists growing vegetables with poor kids, and children setting up CCTV in their own homes. It’s a commentary on the modern economy, the digital age and the American dream. But above all it’s about the space in time when nothing much is happening. Who we are and who we have become. The disappointment, the self-obsession, the tragicomedy and the humiliation. The rot. And how it’s all pretty much inescapable.

Franzen’s greatest skill is perhaps that he has made such a dark and ultimately desperate book feel warm and light-hearted. That there’s much which feels familiar is no doubt largely responsible. What I also felt though was distance – and, I admit, superiority. My life is surely more than waiting for something to happen? More than an attempt to correct the mistakes of my parents? Of course, this is what we all believe – and perhaps delusion is one way to survive. Enid found wonder drugs, Gary alcohol. Denise throws herself into love, work, sex, whilst Chip runs away. Alfred is the only one facing the truth and it’s making him depressed.

I didn’t only put off reading THE CORRECTIONS, I delayed writing this review too, knowing I’d never be able to do it justice.  I don’t pretend to be a literary critic – this blog is intentionally small and personal. A book like this somehow deserves more though and all I can really say is that if ambitious, intelligent proper literature is your thing, please go find the joy.

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SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER by Matt Ruff

Matt Ruff’s other books have been, to put it mildly, riotous and this is no exception. The house of the title is a construct in the mind of Andy Gage, created as a means of managing his multiple personality disorder (MPD). Andy shares the house with over a hundred other souls, including his father, Aunt Sam, a boy named Jake, fighting fit Seferis and testosterone-fuelled  Adam. The mental landscape they occupy features a pumpkin patch, a pulpit where the souls go to communicate directly with Andy, a meeting room where everyone can convene, a lake with an island to which the soul Gideon has been banished, and a locked basement.

Learning how Andy satisfies the needs of all his personalities, draws on their different qualities and carefully holds together the whole is fascinating. The delicately balanced order by which he strives to live is in direct contrast to – and threatened by – the chaos that is the life of Penny Driver, otherwise known as ‘Mouse’, who also suffers from MPD and who crashes into Andy’s life thanks to his friend and boss, Julie Sivik. Julie owns and runs a not very successful tech company that’s developing virtual reality software. Both her frequent change of career and boyfriends, alongside the different tents within a warehouse structure of the workplace she has created, serve as gentle reminders that most of us consist of different selves, urges and interests – and that MPD is just that normality taken to extremes.

Andy suspects Julie’s motivations for hiring Mouse, believing she either wants to match make them or help ‘cure’ Mouse – if not both. Her agenda never become entirely clear but Andy and Mouse do develop a close relationship, as together they confront some of the causes of their disorder, the traumatic events of their pasts and go haring round the country getting into all sorts of potentially difficult situations when their different personalities take control. Mouse also gets to meet Andy’s doctor, thanks to an intervention by the evil twins Maledicta and  Malefica and her protector personality, ‘Thread’, a move which is the start of her getting her own house in order, albeit along a very different model to the one favoured by Andy.

This is a smart, fast paced novel that has multiple dimensions as well as personalities – far too many for me to capture or do justice to here.  Also featuring a 1957 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, a dilapidated real house on the verge of crashing to the ground, two broken-hearted police officers, heart-breaking emotional and physical abuse, regular notes to self, frequent mayhem, Harvest Moon diner, the gem that is Mrs Winslow, a hunt for a child murderer, a serious amount of swearing, and some seriously unexpected twists. Ruff has magnificently combined horror and humour to write a story that messes with your head and I challenge anyone not to get swept along in the strange whirlwind.

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