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.)

You – Joanna Briscoe

youjoannabriscoeYou, by new-to-me author Joanna Briscoe, is the elliptical story of two families, the Bannans and the Dahls, whose lives first intersect in Dartmoor, England in the 1970s.

Dora and Patrick Bannan have moved into a dilapidated longhouse, Wind Tor House, with their children. The house is in rough shape and soon there are various “men with foxy beards and fluty women in dresses resembling aprons” living in various outbuildings on the property, ostensibly to help with the mortgage or help fix up the property with their labour.

Cecilia, the middle child, is an adult returning to Wind Tor when the novel opens. She and her partner, Ari, and their three daughters have moved back to her childhood home to help Cecilia’s mother recover from breast cancer and to hopefully patch up a rocky relationship. But the move sends her spinning back to when she was seventeen and “slender and omnipotent and powerless.”

That’s when Cecilia first meets James Dahl, an English teacher at the local school, a bohemian place called Haye House. Cecilia feels like a misfit there; she’s a bookish, dreamy girl and “she couldn’t even pretend to relax in a school where class attendance was voluntary and children swarmed naked across the lawns.” Mr. Dahl and his wife Elizabeth have come to teach at Haye House and their arrival changes everything.

At fifteen, Cecilia is almost immediately smitten with Mr. Dahl. He’s beautiful and the two bond over a shared love of literature. Briscoe does a beautiful job of capturing  those impossible feelings of longing  as Mr. Dahl opens first Cecelia’s mind and then her heart.

But James is not the only Dahl making an impression. Dora is also teaching at Haye House (Wind Tor is proving impossible to maintain and she has the marketable skills) and she is as drawn to Elizabeth Dahl as her daughter is to James.

Dora couldn’t tell anyone. It was imperative. Distraction had come upon her and yet she had barely noticed its arrival, its source was so outlandish. Elizabeth Dahl, that wife, mother, new housemistress at the school – above all, that woman – was nagging at her thoughts, staining them, unsettling her.

You hops back and forth in time as the Bannan women navigate their untenable circumstances. Dora is married and her attraction to another woman is, even in the bohemian 70s, unthinkable. James is more than 20 years older than Cecilia and their relationship is fraught. Both mother and daughter keep secrets from each other, but as we all know the truth will out. Cecilia’s return to Wind Tor reveals the fault lines and complicates her already complicated life in unexpected ways.

I loved this book. The poetic writing reminded me of one of my favourite British authors, Helen Dunmore.  It’s a book to savour, even though you desperately want to know how this riveting family drama is going to play out. And the ending….perfection, although it is perhaps slightly too loose-endy for some readers.

Highly recommended.

 

The Saturday Night Ghost Club – Craig Davidson

The ghosts in Craig Davidson’s novel The Saturday Night Ghost Club are not literal saturdaynightghosts. The ghosts haunting 1980s Niagara Falls (and man, did I love this novel’s setting – from the actual seedy city itself to the allusions to super specific Canadian touchstones like The Beachcombers) are personal.

Davidson is probably best known for his 2013 Giller Prize nominated novel Cataract City, but I have never read that book. I have read Davidson’s horror novel The Troop, though, which he wrote using the pseudonym Nick Cutter. That book was super icky, but also really good. This book, The Saturday Night Ghost Club, is not icky at all. It’s a coming-of-age tale reminiscent of Stephen King – which is a compliment.

Jake Baker is a loner. He lives with his parents, spends a lot of time with his mother’s brother, Uncle Calvin, and  tries to stay out of the way of the town bully, Percy Elkins. Percy isn’t Jake’s only tormentor, but he is the kid who is, perhaps because they were once friends, relentlessly cruel.

The novel takes place the summer Jake turns 12. That’s when he meets Dove and Billy Yellowbird. When Billy shows up at Uncle Calvin’s occult shop looking for a way to contact his dead grandmother, the boys form a fast friendship.

Jake recounts this summer from the vantage point of adulthood.  Now a successful brain surgeon, Jake is fully aware that “memory is a tricky thing….memories are stories – and sometimes these stories we tell allow us to carry on. Sometimes stories are the best we can hope for. They help us to get by, while deeper levels of our consciousness slap bandages on wounds that hold the power to wreck us.” Memories are, in fact, ghosts.

Uncle Calvin suggests that the he and the boys, and Lex, Calvin’s best friend who owns the video store next door, form a sort of ghost hunting club. Calvin knows all the haunted spots in town and on Saturday nights they meet at graveyards and lakes and burned out buildings, where Calvin tells the story of whatever might have happened there. Although there are certainly some creepy moments, that’s not really what The Saturday Night Ghost Ghost Club is all about.

I loved this book. I loved the characters. I loved how Canadian it was. (I know, that’s probably a weird thing.) I loved that this is a story about growing up, which is exactly what Jake does that eventful summer. He goes from being a friendless kid afraid of the monsters in his closet to being someone who is deeply empathetic. It’s a journey well worth taking.

Highly recommended.

 

What Has Become of You – Jan Elizabeth Watson

I love books featuring English teachers because I am an English teacher. Vera Lundy is whathasthe protagonist of Jan Elizabeth’s compelling thriller What Has Become of You. She’s pushing forty and has just accepted a maternity leave position at a private school in Dorset, Maine. Although Vera is well educated – she earned her master’s degree at Princeton – she is also somewhat awkward, and although being at the front of a classroom doesn’t come naturally to her she has “come to appreciate certain aspects of teaching.”

Jensen Willard is in Vera’s first period class, Autobiographical Writing: Personal Connections. Before Vera has even begun to teach, she receives an email from the precocious Jensen, asking her if it’s okay if she uses her own personal copy of Catcher in the Rye. This first correspondence sets in motion a peculiar relationship between teacher and student. In her journal, Jensen reveals very personal things, and Vera is both flattered to be on the receiving end of such honest reflection, but  also, as time goes on, troubled.

What Has Become of You mines the teacher/student dynamic to great effect. I think all  teachers have had students to whom we feel a special bond. Things get tricky for Vera, though, because Jensen is not your average kid. She’s odd, doesn’t fit in with the other students, is a bit of a loner.  She reminds Vera of herself.

She herself had not enjoyed being that age. On the contrary, those had easily been the worst years of her life. They had been the years of being ostracized, of being heartbroken, of being hunted down.

Vera sees something of a kindred spirit in Jensen, but then life goes off the rails for Vera. One night, walking home through the park, she stumbles upon the body of another one of her students. The ensuing investigation, and Jensen’s subsequent disappearance, puts Vera in the cross-hairs.

What Has Become of You is a well-written  – I hesitate to say ‘thriller’ so I am just going to say mystery. Our narrators are wholly unreliable, the plot is intricate and, although it mines somewhat familiar territory, it still manages to be surprising.

I would definitely recommend it.

 

 

 

Long Way Down – Jason Reynolds

long-way-down_1_origIt’s hard to wrap my head around gun violence as it exists in the U.S. My dad had a couple hunting rifles when I was a kid, but I don’t recall ever seeing them. No one I know has a gun in their bedside drawer…just in case. When I wrote a review for This Is Where It Ends a few months back, I tracked down some  stats about school shootings in Canada versus the U.S. and the disparity between our two countries is staggering.

Award-winning author Jason Reynolds addresses the issue of gun violence in his novel Long Way Down. Written in verse, the novel follows the aftermath of a shooting in which the narrator, 15-year-old Will, struggles to come to terms with the shooting death of his older brother, Shawn.

“The Sadness/is just so hard/to explain,” Will tells us. “Imagine waking up/ and someone,/ a stranger,/ got you strapped down,/ got pliers shoved/ into your mouth,/ gripping a tooth/…and rips it out./ But the worst part,/ the absolute worst part,/ is the constant slipping/ of your tongue/ into the new empty space,/ where you know/ a tooth supposed to be/ but ain’t no more.”

Will has clearly grown up in a neighbourhood where gun violence is a way of life. When they hear a gun everyone “Did what we’ve all/ been trained to do.”  And after the shooting, there are yet more rules to follow: 1. No crying. 2. No snitching. 3. Get revenge.

That’s what Will is after and he knows where Shawn keeps his gun. He thinks he knows who shot his brother, too, and he is headed there when something astonishing happens.

“…I’m telling you,/ this story is true./ It happened to me./ Really.”

Will gets onto the elevator in his apartment building, and the elevator stops at every floor on the way down. At each stop,  Will is joined by a ghost, someone connected to him, someone whose life was also ended by a bullet. As the elevator descends, each spirit shares their story, compelling stories of lives cut short, accidental deaths, and the horrific consequences of choices made.

Just because I have no experience with guns, doesn’t mean I am not affected by gun violence. I am about as anti-gun as a person can be, but Reynolds’ novel goes far beyond that. It’s a philosophical book about the deep roots of violence, the tentacles (sorry, I am mixing my metaphors here) of which reach out into the community in ways that are probably impossible for a white middle-aged mom in Canada to understand.  All I know is that when I finished reading Long Way Down  I felt hollowed out.

Complacency is not an option. Reynolds’ novel should be required reading for everyone.

And the Trees Crept In – Dawn Kurtagich

When Silla and Nori arrive at La Baume, their mother’s ancestral home, they are tired, hungrytrees and afraid. They’ve run away from home and come to the only place they thought they might be safe. But La Baume is not safe.

“You must never, never go into Python Wood” their Aunt Cath tells them.

You need to hear this as well, Silla. A monster of sorts. He did terrible things. And then he returned to the woods. He’s still in there, waiting for young girls to go wandering so he can capture them. So he can tear them up and eat their flesh from their – “

Dawn Kurtagich’s YA novel And the Trees Crept In is a nightmarish tale of impending doom. Silla is just 14 when she and Nori, 4, arrive from London. They’ve run away from home, specifically from their father who is a violent drunk. La Baume seems magical, if a little dilapidated, at first. There was a garden, plenty of food and “It was paradise. It was almost a home.”

But Aunt Cath wasn’t joking about the woods or The Creeper Man, and soon the girls, particularly Silla, are feeling isolated. The post man stops coming, there’s news of an impending war, and then, after months of not seeing a living soul, Gowan appears.

And the Trees Crept In is a page-turning puzzle of a book. Kurtagich includes diary entries, pages ripped from books, lists, and odd typography. If you’ve read Kurtagich’s novel The Dead House you will be familiar with some of these literary bells and whistles. It makes for an immersive reading experience.

Life becomes increasingly more claustrophobic for Silla and Nori, particularly once Cath seems to suffer from some sort of breakdown and cloisters herself in the attic. There’s no food. A terrifying trip through the woods to the local village reveals boarded up businesses and houses. If not for Gowan arriving from somewhere  with apples, Silla and Nori would starve. Worse than that, though, there seems to be someone in the house with the girls, and even more horrifying, the trees seem to be closing in on them.

And the Trees Crept In is like a horrifying fairy tale. The boogey man is right outside their door, and there is no escape for the sisters. Even Gowan seems helpless. I changed my mind several times about what was happening, and I was wrong. When the narrative resolved itself, and I am happy to say that it’s a terrific ending, I felt utterly wrung out and 100% satisfied (although a little gutted, too.)

If you’re looking for a creepy, compelling, well-written read-past-your-bedtime book, I highly recommend this one.

 

 

Exit, Pursued By a Bear – E.K. Johnston

Seventeen-year-old Hermione Winters is a spitfire. Co-captain of her high school bearcheerleading team, she is looking forward to one last cheerleading camp, one last year of school and then the freedom her future offers her. She is smart, fun-loving and although she loves cheerleading and takes it seriously, she is not the stereotypical cheerleader. To be honest, there isn’t actually a mean or petty girl in E.K. Johnston’s YA novel Exit, Pursued by a Bear. 

I wonder if Johnston chose Hermione’s name as an allusion -to the character from Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. That’s where the novel’s title comes from; it’s is a famous stage direction from the same play. Never mind, as a character she is sympathetic and admirable. And her life is about to get a lot more complicated.

Every year, the cheerleaders meet at Camp Manitouwabing, which is about an hour from Parry Sound. Teams from different schools meet there for two weeks of intense training. At a dance, just before the end of the camp, someone slips something into Hermione’s drink, and when she wakes up, she’s in the hospital. She has no memory of what happened, but she spends the next year dealing with the aftermath of the event.

There are lots of YA novels out there that deal with rape, but I have to say that this is one of the better ones I have read. After the attack, Hermione’s squad closes rank, insulating her from the inevitable rumours. Only Hermione’s boyfriend, Leo, fails to step up. Not that she needs him; she’s got her bestie, Polly, a pit bull of a friend, who is always at the ready to fend of anyone who even looks sideways at Hermione.

There are lots of great people in her corner, actually. Her psychiatrist, the female police officer tasked with finding the perp, Hermione’s parents who want to protect her, but know that offering too much protection would do their daughter a great disservice at the end of the day.

The novel is brisk, but it does allow readers a glimpse into Hermione’s PTSD, and how she tries to figure out the best way to deal with what has happened to her. Will she let this one incident set the course for her life? I am happy to say that the answer is a resounding no.

One scene I particularly liked was when Hermione and Polly are interviewed by a local reporter. Their cheerleading squad is a pretty big deal, but the journalist does manage to ask a question about the attack:

“Hermione, after your attack at the end of last summer, do you have any words of advice on how other girls can be smart, and stop such awful things happening to them.”

Polly, as always, speaks the truth.

“You’re okay with asking asking a girl who was wearing a pretty dress and had nice hair, who went to the dance with her cabin mates, who drank from the same punch bowl as everyone else – you’re okay with asking that girl what mistake she made, and you wouldn’t think to ask a boy how he would avoid raping someone?”

The conversation has to change. Polly knows it. Hermione knows it. It’s time everyone did.

I really liked this book for a lot of reasons. It’s Canadian, it’s well-written, it says important things without being didactic and you will root for Hermione.