Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

littlefires“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over,” Mia tells Izzy in Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires EverywhereI read Ng’s first novel Everything I Never Told You a couple years ago and I love that book. So much. Little Fires Everywhere is also excellent. There is no doubt that I will buy and read whatever Ng writes going forward.

Shaker Heights, Ohio is America’s first planned community with rules determining what colour your house can be painted and where schools are placed so that children don’t have to cross any major streets.

The underlying philosophy being that everything could – and should – be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.

Elena Richardson believes in the defining principles of Shaker Heights and, in fact, that’s the way she runs her household and her life. Her three oldest children Lexie, Trip, Moody seem to tow the family line. Her youngest, Izzy, is more of a problem child and when the novel opens “Everyone was talking about […] how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

What would compel Izzy to commit such an act?  Meet Mia and Pearl. They’ve just moved into the Richardson’s rental property. Mia is an artist and Pearl her intelligent fifteen-year-old-daughter. When Pearl and Moody become friends, the two families’ lives intersect. In the Richardsons Pearl sees “a state of domestic perfection” and in Mia Izzy has someone who understands her and listens to her.

Little Fires Everywhere is a book about motherhood and it asks important questions about what it means to be a mother. Are you a mother because you’ve given birth? Is it a choice? Is a relationship between a mother and their child automatic or is it something that must be cultivated beyond mere biology? What happens if you give up a child? Do you have the right to change your mind?

Free-spirited Mia worries that her daughter is perhaps being unduly influenced by the Richardsons and wonders “if it was right for her daughter to fall under the spell of a family so entirely.” She and Pearl have always been vagabonds, moving from place to place in search of inspiration for Mia’s photography. Now she has promised Pearl that they will stay put.

In Mia, Izzy finds a sort of surrogate mother, someone who listens to her complaints about the state of her world and asks her what she intends to do about it. “Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury” but Mia encourages her to consider her options.

This is a book that is very female-centric. We don’t spend a lot of time with the men, but that’s okay, the women are fascinating. Their hopes and dreams, some derailed by circumstance, others by choice, are worthy of close inspection. I loved my time in Shaker Heights. Little Fires Everywhere  is filled with stymied, passionate, damaged, beautiful and complicated characters, and like Everything I Never Told You  there is something about the way Ng tells a story that just keeps you turning the pages to get to the end. Then, you want to start all over to spend more time with her magnificent characters.

Highly recommended (and not just by me. The accolades are endless.)

When I Am Through With You – Stephanie Kuehn

throughwithuCharm & Strange  was my introduction to Stephanie Kuehn’s work and I have been a fan ever since. When I Am Through With You is her latest YA offering and it’s a layered and tense thriller.

The narrator of the story, Ben Gibson, is a high school senior.  From the very beginning, readers know that something has gone horribly wrong Ben’s life.

This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not.

Rose is (was) Ben’s girlfriend. She chose him, not the other way around. She is an exotic combination of her French Peruvian heritage, a “girl with bright eyes and brown skin and very short hair.”

…Rose was my first everything. First kiss, first touch, first girl to see me naked and lustful without bursting into laughter (although she was the first to do that, too). We did more eventually. We did everything. Whatever she wanted, Rose dictated the rhyme and rhythm of our sexual awakening, and I loved that. I never had to make up my mind when I was with her.

Ben is an engaging narrator, even though the reader might consider him unreliable. Kuehn wisely keeps her cards close to her chest, unspooling Ben’s backstory carefully. Why does he suffer from debilitating migraines? Why does he feel like his life is on the road to nowhere? What happened to Rose?

Much of the action happens in the middle of the book. Ben is helping his teacher, Mr. Howe, lead a camping trip out in the wilderness. Rose and her twin Tomas, Duncan (the high school drug dealer), Clay ( a quiet , studious kid), Archie (the wild card), Avery (Ben’s childhood friend), and Shelby (volleyball goddess) are the other campers. It’s kind of like the Breakfast Club of orienteering. Out of their natural element (with the exception of the teacher, who isn’t really front and centre, but manages to be important nonetheless), alliances fray and a combination of bad luck, bad decisions and bad weather cause total chaos and panic.

When I Am Through With You wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I knew to expect great writing, and I knew that the characters would be smart and prickly – something I’ve come to expect from Kuehn. This book asks you to  consider the moral choices these characters make. Ben is unrepentant, but he is also sympathetic. I felt tremendously sorry for him throughout the novel. It’s not all introspection, though. There are some truly heart-racing moments in this novel, and its propulsive plot will keep you turning the pages.

He Said/She Said – Erin Kelly

It seems as though everyone is writing thrillers these days, but as someone who loves a hesaidgood page-turner, I know that they are not all created equal. This is the third book I’ve read by British writer Erin Kelly and although The Dark Rose is still my favourite,  and I have also read The Burning Air,  He Said/She Said is a terrific read.

Kit is an eclipse chaser. I know, it’s weird, but whatever. At an eclipse festival in Cornwall, his relatively new girlfriend, Laura, stumbles upon what looks like a sexual assault. The man, handsome and charming Jamie, denies it. The woman, Beth, insists that the crime has taken place. This chance meeting inserts Beth into their lives, binding the three of them together in a way that proves to be problematic for all parties.

The novel moves seamlessly between past and present. In the past, Kit and Laura are called as witnesses to the crime. In the future, they are married and appear to be in hiding. They’ve changed their names; they don’t have social media; they live quiet lives as they await the arrival of their twins.

Although Kit and Laura are clearly in love, it is also obvious that whatever happened in the past has taken a toll on their marriage and their day-to-day lives. Kit is about to head off to the Faroe Islands for another eclipse, and it is causing a great deal of anxiety because while “It seems unlikely that Beth will be on my ship [it is] not impossible that she will be somewhere on the Faroes.”

The reader, at least in the early part of the book, is left to wonder just why Kit and Laura are avoiding Beth. (More than avoiding really. Laura seems to be experiencing some serious PTSD and Kit has his own share of nerves.)  It’s only one of the reasons to turn the pages.

I think that what separates the wheat from the chaff in thrillers like this is character development and twists that you really can’t see coming. I thought I’d figured things out on more than one occasion, but I really hadn’t. When things really started to ramp up – and they did, by about the midway point – I just couldn’t stop reading. I was wholly invested in these characters, even though I wasn’t sure whom to trust. He said/ She Said for sure, and that’s one of the great things about this book, but there are other dynamics at play here. New relationships are tricky at the best of time, but what if at the root of things are secrets you just don’t know how to share?

If you haven’t yet discovered Erin Kelly, I can highly recommend her. Her novels are smart, well-written and definitely have a few surprises up their sleeves.

Watching You – Lisa Jewell

01B345DC-2890-42FE-9E54-71D514747137The current flavour-of-the-month in book stores these days seems to be duplicitous nannies or wives, unreliable narrators of all stripes, characters and plots that simply can’t be trusted. In my experience, books like this come with varying degrees of pedigree. But then there’s Lisa Jewell.

Watching You is my third novel by this British writer. My first experience with Jewell was The Girls in the Garden and then I read I Found You. I always have another of her books waiting for me because I know I can depend on Jewell to deliver a cracking story, believable characters and a few unexpected twists.

Watching You takes place in Melville Heights, a tony neighbourhood in Bristol. The cast of characters is varied. There’s screw-up Josephine (Joey), newly married to gorgeous lug, Alfie. The two have recently returned to Melville Heights and are living with Joey’s older brother, Jack, a heart surgeon and his wife, Rebecca, who is pregnant. Then there’s Tom Fitzwilliam and his wife, Nicola, and their son, Freddie. Tom’s the new headmaster at the local school. Then there’s Jenna Tripp and her mother.

Everyone is watching everyone else in Melville Heights. Freddie spies on people from his bedroom window, keeping tabs on their comings and goings because “In the absence of  any friends or any real desire to have friends, Freddie had spent the past year or so compiling a dossier called The Melville Papers.” Down below, Mrs. Tripp is doing the same and while Freddie’s surveillance seems a bit creepy, Mrs. Tripp is clearly paranoid. And Joey watches Tom Fitzwilliam. She can’t help it.

Joey watched him walking back to his table. He wore a blue suit with a subtle check. The bottom buttons, she noticed, strained very gently against a slight softness and Joey felt a strange wave of pleasure, a sense of excitement about the unapologetic contours of his body, the suggestion of meals enjoyed and worries forgotten about over a bottle of decent wine. She found herself wanting to slide her fingers between those tensed buttons, to touch, just for a moment, the soft flesh beneath.

The story opens with a murder, a gory stabbing, and as the stories of this disparate cast of characters unravels, we watch (through a series of police interviews) the clues start to build a case. But of course, this is Lisa Jewell – so nothing is ever as it seems. They say you can never really know someone, and I think Jewell uses that premise to her advantage here. Who are these people? What are there motives? Where are their loyalties?

I had zero problem turning the pages. Ultimately, at the end of a book like this, you want to feel satisfied with the resolution. The red herrings have to be plausible at least. I like to try to figure things out along the way, and I don’t like it when the plot drives off the cliff of ridiculous. No chance of that here. Jewell masterfully manages all the players, even those with only a minor role to play.

Watching You is a great book to curl up with on these cold winter nights.

I See You – Claire Macintosh

I was a BIG fan of Claire Mackintosh’s first novel I Let You Go and so I was very 0155E57B-5748-4E40-A9CA-1BF823E44218
much looking forward to reading I See You. I think that had I discovered Mackintosh through this book, I would have likely been impressed, but ultimately it pales a little in comparison to her debut.

Zoe Walker, a divorced mother of two, lives in London with her kids and her boyfriend, Simon. She’s on the commute home one day when she sees a personal ad in the Gazette. It’s for a company called Find the One, which looks like a dating sight, and the picture in the advertisement is of her.

Zoe doesn’t pay much attention to the ad at first because, surely it’s not really her in the photo. Besides, there’s a lot of stuff going on at home. Her 22-year-old son, Justin, is just starting to get his act together, employed at a cafe owned by her next-door-neighbour and bestie, Melissa; her daughter, Katie, is growing up too fast for Zoe’s liking. Only Simon is a solid presence in her life – even though his relationship with Zoe’s kids is sometimes strained.

Mackintosh unravels the story of the mysterious advertisement through several points of view: Zoe, Kelly,  the police officer who finds a connection between Zoe’s ad and the attack of several other women, and an unnamed predator who is always watching.

I see you. But you don’t see me. You’re en grossed in your book; a paperback with a girl in a red dress. I can’t see the title but it doesn’t matter; they’re all the same. If it isn’t boy meets girl, it’s boy stalks girl. Boy kills girl.

The plot clicks along at a pretty good clip, chucking some plausible red herrings along the way, and ultimately ending up with a tidy (although somewhat implausible) conclusion. That said, I was totally invested in Zoe and her mounting suspicions about the people in her life. I will definitely read Let Me Lie.

Cracked Up to Be – Courtney Summers

crackeduptobeCourtney Summers is one of my favourite YA writers. Cracked Up to Be was her debut novel, but it’s the fourth book I have read by this talented Canadian author. I have also read her terrific zombie novel This is Not a Test, her caustic novel about high school bullies, Some Girls Are and All the Rage, a frightening look at the aftermath of sexual assault.

In Cracked Up to Be, Parker Fadley has clearly gone off the rails. The once perfect student, cheerleading captain, and homecoming queen is potentially not going to graduate, must adhere to a strict curfew and she’s come to school hung over on more than one occasion. What could have possibly happened to upend Perfect Parker’s perfect life?

Figuring that out is what pushes this novel along and whether or not you’ll feel satisfied with the explanation for Parker’s fall from grace will be up to you. This is high school – so everything has a heightened sense of drama, but ultimately, that’s not what is so awesome about Summers’ book.

What’s awesome is Parker herself, a fully realized character that is both 100% unlikeable and 100% sympathetic…if that’s even possible.

The problem with alienating, self-destructive behavior is people get it into their heads it’s a cry for help. I wasn’t. It was just a really poorly executed plan to get everyone off my back. So now I’m halfway between where I started (not alone) and where I want to end up (alone) and I just have to roll with it if I want to graduate or else I’ll never be alone.

The thing about Perfect Parker is that she doesn’t sound like she was an altogether stellar human being even before whatever happened happened. Perhaps it’s true of all perfectionists: it’s their way or the highway. But post-event Parker is particularly prickly. Becky, the girl who has taken over as head cheerleader and hooked up with Parker’s ex-boyfriend, Chris, takes the blunt end of most of Parker’s vitriol.

“Screw him, Becky. I don’t care.”

“Parker – ”

“Becky, really. I don’t want to hear it. You’re dull.”

She rolls her eyes. “For five seconds you almost seemed human.”

The truth is that Parker is very much human. She is someone who feels as though she has done an awful thing and must be punished. If the universe can’t punish her sufficiently, she’ll punish herself. And if that means pushing away everyone who cares for her (Chris is about as good a friend as Parker has and he remains steadfastly in her corner even when she is utterly horrible to him.), well, that’s what she’s going to do.

The thing I have always admired about Summers’ writing is that it always feels unflinchingly honest. Her characters speak their minds. They are awful and vulnerable in equal measure. The more time we spend with Parker, the more we  start to see the cracks in her veneer. And by the novel’s conclusion, readers will be hopeful that those cracks will let a little healing light in.

Highly recommended.

The Burning Air – Erin Kelly

burning airI was a big fan of Erin Kelly’s novel The Dark Rose and so I was very much looking forward to reading The Burning Air. Kelly is a terrific writer, which is what saved The Burning Air for me because while the writing was great and I certainly had no trouble turning the pages, I just thought it was a lot of fuss for nothing.

The MacBrides have it all. Dad, Rowan, is the headmaster at a prestigious school; mom, Lydia, is a magistrate, and then there are three adult children: Sophie, Tara, and Felix. The novel opens with a deathbed confession. Lydia writes:

Of course it was love for my children, love for my son, that caused me to act as I did. It was a lapse of judgment. If I could have foreseen the rippling aftershocks that followed I would have acted differently, but by the time I realized the extent of the consequences, it was too late.

When Sophie, Tara and Felix and their families arrive to spend a weekend with their father at the family’s special getaway, Far Barn in Devon, it’s clear that the death of their mother has caused some collateral damage. But there were cracks in the family’s perfect façade anyway. And they aren’t the only ones with secrets.

Darcy also has a connection to the MacBride family. I am carefully going to avoid saying too much about Darcy, other than to say that they are filled with vitriol for the MacBride family. Their lives intersect when Darcy interviews for a place at Rowan’s school and fails to make the grade, so to speak. What happens next sets the course for all their lives.

The novel flips back and forth between present day and back when Darcy and Sophie, Tara and Felix were children, mostly concentrating on Sophie’s 3rd person and Darcy’s first person narrative.

There is a lot of stuff happening in The Burning Air, complicated resentments and personal trauma. Darcy’s revenge plot seems over-the-top considering its impetus, but the thing about Kelly is that she can manage to make just about anything believable. I believed in Darcy’s hatred towards the MacBrides, but I felt that underneath all that pent up anger was little more than hot air and when the denouement finally arrived, it felt rather like a fallen soufflé.

That said – The Burning Air is way better than a lot of books in the genre and I will definitely be checking out the third Erin Kelly book on my TBR shelf: The Poison Tree.