February 2018 Read & Reviews
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
I finished reading Little Fires Everywhere at the end of January and proved to be a gripping read from the first page. The story is set in Shaker Heights ~ a conventional, conservative, purpose built estate near Cleveland (US), the home of Elena Richardson and her family. Elena has been raised to strictly play by the rules, delighted to have married a Lawyer and desperate that her teenage children maintain the status quo. Elena is a reporter for a small newspaper in Shaker Heights. Elena's rock steady world is slowly but surely turned on its head when an unconventional mother, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl, moves into the area and rents an apartment from the Richardson family. Mia is an artist, a photographer, with a mysterious past. Pearl has got used to the constant moving from place to place and living hand to mouth. Rarely staying in one place, or school, long enough to make friends. Mia promises Pearl that this time it will be different.
As the reader, you just know it's not going to end well ~ indeed we know what happens on the first pages, when the Richardson's beautiful home is burned to the ground. How and why is revealed in the story.
The novel unfolds like a sleepy summer's day as the teenagers from both families entwine their lives around each other ~ the Richardson's admire the Warren's bohemian lifestyle, as Pearl discovers the easy lifestyle of her friends lives seemingly mapped out for them. Izzy Richardson is the rebel with a good heart, and misunderstood by her mother seeks and receives support from Mia.
I'm always intrigued by the secrets and lies we keep to guide our lives, to keep the peace or to keep the skeletons in the closet. Maternal jealousy arises as Mia and Elena feel like they are losing their daughters to the other. When an adoption of an abandoned Cantonese baby (debatable if left deliberately abandoned), to a friend of Elena's, it splits the community in two. Elena with her reporters nose for a story, starts to 'dig the dirt' on Mia ~ as Mia does not agree with Elena's point of view as 'she's expected to.' All sorts of truths and lies are revealed by Elena and misconstrued with devastating consequences.
From the start the reader is firmly taken by the hand to take sides, and I definitely knew who I was rooting for. It asks the reader to question the issues that surround conformity of lifestyle ~ how fragile it is, and how easily our foundations can be rocked. That each child is different and requires love and understanding to meet their needs. How lies can be presented as fact to twist the reality to your perspective. How racism can raise it's ugly head in the most ordinary of surroundings.
This was my first novel of Celeste Ng and will definitely seek out her other work. I love how she offers description of her characters and surroundings simply and beautifully put, yet conveys so much to the reader. The plot is 'spot on' in it's pacing and I particularly liked the satisfying twist at the end.
The Dry by Jane Harper
The Dry is an outstanding novel, I couldn't believe it was her debut. This is a complex 'whodunnit,' set in the Australian outback. Jane beautifully captures the desperation of small town life during a prolonged drought. So evocative of time and place, and the menace within the claustrophobic heat. A community that sticks together through thick and thin, even following a ghastly murder, especially when outsiders are involved. Not all the characters are likeable ~ they don't have to be ~ they are credible and believable in their petty mindedness of moral 'rights' and 'wrongs.' A story of secret and lies, the past blended with the present. There are enough 'red herrings' where the reader may consider who they think the murderer is, and yet they are right under your nose. You won't realise who until almost the very end.
Thoroughly recommend and look forward to reading more of Jane's work
The Last Days of California by Mary Miller
A superb first novel set on an American family road trip to California, three days before the 'End Times' are predicted.
The story is narrated through the eyes of a 15 year old girl, travelling with her older sister and their evangelical parents. To say it a coming of age story does not do the story justice ~ it is far more than that. Mary has captured the essence of teenage girls in their sibling rivalry, cynical snakiness and their need to keep secrets in their teenage. They question their view of the world and increasingly disenchanted with having to 'spread the word,' especially as time is running out. It is full of astute observations of people, although I would have liked to have known more about the father, seemingly unable to hold down a job due to his gambling habits. However as the story is told from the youngest sister's perspective we probably get a realistic hint of adult problems from a teenagers point of view (is my interpretation). By the way, this is not a 'young adult' story ~ though they would enjoy the book.
In some ways the story is slow and dry, but this only adds to the simplicity of the story for me. I was a little disappointed at the ending as I felt it finished abruptly without offering more answers, or a rounded solution. Nevertheless I was intrigued, and look forward to more of Mary's work.