Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere opens with, you guessed it, a fire. The Richardson family, made up of Mr. and Mrs. Richardson, look on with horror along with their three kids: Moody, Trip, and Lexie. Their fourth child, and the black sheep of the family, Izzy, is nowhere to be seen, and thus is assumed to be the culprit of starting these little fires. 

As with Celeste Ng’s previous novel, Everything I Never Told You, the book opens with a climactic event before pulling you back in time and revealing all of the little moments that led up to this one catastrophe. Ng did this so brilliantly with her first book, and it’s no different with her sophomore attempt here.

Taking place in Shaker Heights, a progressive, cookie-cutter type suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, we meet the Richardson family. They are your typical run-of-the-mill, ‘perfect’ All-American family. As with most, we soon learn that things aren’t as rosy as they appear for the Richardson’s. In keeping with their upper-middle-class niche, the Richardson’s own a second property nearby in Shaker Heights. This soon becomes the home of Mia, a vagabond artist, and her daughter, Pearl. Mrs. Richardson is quick to pat herself on the back, giving Mia and Pearl a place to live and employing Mia as the family cleaner, allowing her to earn some extra money while still focusing on her artistic pursuits.

In the meantime, there’s also a custody battle brewing when Bebe, a young Chinese immigrant, abandons her young daughter out of desperation, only for Mrs. Richardson’s longtime best friend, Mrs. Mucullogh, to adopt her.

I’d hate for anyone to think that this is your typical mother-daughter story, because it’s so much more than that. There is so much to unpack in this short but powerful novel: The secrets of mothers and daughters, what it means to be a mother, class divides, and the experiences of first-generation immigrants in the seemingly utopian setting of an American suburb. Celeste Ng is able to create such nuanced, multi-dimensional characters that you will loathe yet sympathize with, and admire yet shake your head at their messy decisions.

An outstanding sophomore effort from Ng, who has proven she is at the top of her game and not just a one-hit wonder. I’ll be eagerly anticipating her next release.

Buy a copy of the book here.

Book Review: Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

“You are the only person I’d like to say goodbye to when I die because only then will this thing I call life make any sense.” – André Aciman

I have some strict rules regarding my books and reading. I never dog-ear pages, I absolutely refuse to crack a book’s spine, and for all of my reading life so far, I’ve never once been compelled to write in the margins of my books or highlight passages. That all changed when I read Call Me By Your Name.

Although this is a seemingly short novel, coming in at only 248 pages, it hits you with the intensity of a 900-page chunkster. Truly, there were paragraphs in this book that I repeated over and over because they were so beautiful. Never let it be said that short books are “easier” to write than long novels or less thought-provoking. Aciman effectively puts those myths to rest and has achieved something remarkable with his first novel.

The novel follows Elio Perlman, a 17-year-old Jewish American living at his parents’ summer home on the Italian Riviera. Each summer, his parents host a young academic to assist his father’s work and to also receive guidance on their own manuscripts. This particular summer in the 1980s, an older student named Oliver comes to stay. Oliver’s confident yet detached character is a stark contrast to Elio’s introverted and quiet demeanor. Despite this, it isn’t long before both men have a life-changing effect on each other that will stay with both of them for decades to come.

It was such a pleasure to read something that is, admittedly, a completely new perspective for me. Of course, I’ve read my fair share of summer romance novels over the years, but reading from the perspective of two young men combined with Aciman’s poetic writing gave the novel such an intense, urgent feeling that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from. Considering the novel was also written 10 years ago, I’m so glad to see it is now a major motion picture that will be hitting theatres next month and getting the national recognition it deserves. This is certainly a novel to savor over long, warm lazy afternoons (ideally in the Italian Riviera) and I hope to see it in many more people’s hands before the movie’s release date on November 24, 2017. It is by far a new favorite of mine.

Buy a copy of the book here.

Book Review: Nothing to Envy – Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

 

Before I read this book, I thought I was reasonably well-versed with North Korean knowledge. I’d read a few memoirs, articles, and seen videos over the years all about North Korea. Yet, Barbara Demick proved just how badly I needed to read this book.

I discovered so much about North Korea through this book. The sad thing is, I don’t think we’ll ever know every single detail that occurs in such a secretive country. I say it every time I’ve finished a book, article or video about North Korea, but it’s hard to believe that a country like this exists in today’s day and age. It is truly a real-life Orwellian nightmare.

I didn’t know that, in North Korea, most people don’t die from starvation alone. They die because they are so desperate to eat that they add grass, twigs, and goodness knows what else into their soups and noodles simply to fill their empty stomachs. They die because even a simple virus like the common cold can kill them because their bodies are so weak and susceptible to even the most common of diseases.

Young mothers who are newly married and on the brink of starting their lives, through sheer desperation to feed their hungry children, are forced into prostitution. Female students battling with the most common call of nature, their menstrual cycle, are not even afforded the luxury of sanitary products.

These are just a few of the horrifying details that I discovered about ordinary lives in North Korea, and I’m grateful that writers like Barbara Demick are around to expose them.

A great, important read that everyone should pick up.

Buy the book here.

Book Review: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a book to curl up with, preferably on a hot summer day, and savor Joanna Cannon’s cozy yet complicated world she has built in this novel.

The book is set in small-town England during the record-breaking summer of 1976. This hot and sweaty summer serves as a catalyst for the events which unfold on one particular street, simply named The Avenue. One of their residents, Mrs. Creasy, has gone missing, and it’s up to young Grace and Tilly to uncover the mysteries of this seemingly idyllic street.

As with most perfect exteriors, things aren’t as ideal as they appear from the outside. Some characters are hiding secrets, some are outsiders, and some are just trying to move on from their questionable pasts.

I have several conflicting thoughts towards this novel, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. It certainly kept me hooked (there were times when I would easily get through 100 pages without stopping), and some of the lines had me physically laughing out loud with their blunt sarcasm and backhanded insults.

But as much as I loved the quaint setting and feeling like I was back home in England, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed once I reached the ending. There’s plenty of nuances and character mysteries to uncover in this book, but that seemed to be where the problem was for me. I’ve said before that I love it when authors leave you to find out things for yourself rather than spoon-feeding you, but after finishing this novel I had to re-read some chapters to even make sense of some of the mysteries. Mrs. Creasy’s eventual fate also seemed like a lazy ending from Cannon. the book certainly leaves you with a lot to think about. It’s a worthy reminder that not everything is at it appears on the outside, and not to prejudge, as everyone is fighting their own battle that others know nothing about. Despite this, the book certainly leaves you with a lot to think about. It’s a worthy reminder that not everything is as it appears on the outside, and not to prejudge people, as everyone is fighting their own battle that others know nothing about.

3.5/5 stars.

If you’ve read this novel, let me know your comments below!

Buy the book here.

Book Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

I listened to an interview with Rose Tremain recently (you can find it here) in which she described wanting The Gustav Sonata to appear like a Swiss watch: something simple and beautiful on the outside, with a lot of very complex intricacies going on in the inside. Really, that’s exactly what this novel was. It took me by surprise in the best way possible, and it’s a novel I’ll be recommending to lots of people for the rest of the year.

This book follows Gustav Perle, a young boy growing up in post-WW2 Switzerland. When a new student named Anton Zwiebel joins his school, Gustav takes him under his wing and forges a close, lifelong friendship with him. As Gustav grows up with an absent father and a cold, distant mother, his friendship with Gustav remains the only constant in his life. In the middle of the book, we go back in time and learn more about his parents’ lives and how they came to be in the shape they are now. I wasn’t expecting this shift in timeline but it’s something I absolutely loved and gave the novel a lot more depth.

Even though this book is receiving so much hype and award recognition recently, it still defied my expectations. I’ll admit that before starting this novel, I assumed it would be a novel revolving around the Holocaust. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with those novels, I can’t help feeling they’ve been overdone. Rose Tremain managed to take this moment in history and make it completely unique.

I’d say it’s best to go into this novel without knowing too much other than the two main characters. There’s a host of other characters which make this novel, but part of their charm is discovering how they all come into Gustav and Anton’s life. They are characters which have stuck with me long after I turned the final page. Luckily for me, Rose Tremain seems to have a lengthy backlist of novels which I’m eager to explore. I’ll be following up with The Road Home in the next few months.

If you’ve read The Gustav Sonata, do let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Buy the book here.